Online Reviews Can Be Deceptive

It’s hard to find quality applications for your computer, especially when one of your priorities is price. I remember when there were about two or three options available to fill a particular need and the differences were wide enough that you could make your decision based on features alone (or by flipping a coin when the differences were negligible). Now, when you go to CNET and search for “antivirus” you get 752 software choices. How many of those are useful, I have no idea, but at least to the bottom of page 4 was filled with options that had not only been reviewed by CNET editors but had also gotten good reviews from CNET editors. Gone are the days when you had to choose between Norton and McAfee, and God help you if you didn’t like either one.

Now we have choices.

Ketchup Choices on store shelf
photo by Pixel Drip

When online reviews are INDISPENSABLE

Let’s face it, the choices can be overwhelming as hell a lot of the time, especially for someone like me who has mild OCD and a technology fetish. I find myself researching at least a handful of options (that’s ten for those of you who aren’t sure how many fingers you have in a handful), making comparison charts and lists of pros and cons, and spending hours deliberating on what to choose for something as simple as antivirus software. Most of the time I turn to online reviews to see which products are worth my time, what people have liked and disliked about them, and how widely used they are (after all, how useful is it to say a product receives 5 stars when it only has two reviews of “I like it” and 100 downloads?). I can’t afford to buy and try every single product available, so it helps to hear from people who have.

Online reviews are awesome, and I recommend using them before making major purchases. Most of the people who review stuff take the time to write more than “It’s good” and often have useful insights to offer. I’ve personally avoided several crappy products and found alternative, cheaper products by checking Amazon’s customer reviews before buying.

However, online reviews can only take you so far, and I ran into the perfect example today.

When online reviews are worthless

My son’s computer has had this weird thing where whenever it plays a movie off the connected external hard drive, the colors are messed up. I did some troubleshooting today and narrowed it down to an outdated display driver. However, finding the updated driver seemed to be impossible; hell, even Intel didn’t have it available on their site. While searching, I stumbled on a program called DriverMax, which is supposed to detect out-of-date device drivers and update them (the free version does 2 per day, the pro/paid version is unlimited). I tried it out, and it worked wonderfully. It also found several additional drivers which needed to be updated, meaning I would either need to pay for the pro version or do two per day for over a week to take care of them all.

So I searched for reviews on DriverMax. I wanted to know if it was worth paying for and if there were any better free alternatives. I found this review of DriverMax on PC World’s website, and they gave it 2 stars, which I found surprising considering my success with it. They said there was a better free product called SlimDrivers (which they gave 4 stars in this review and this review too) that would do everything DriverMax did, only better and without the 2 drivers per day limitation. Sweet! (Also, looking at CNET, SlimDrivers had better average customer reviews than DriverMax)

I installed both programs on my own computer to compare them, then had both scan my computer. The results were surprising. DriverMax found 10 out-of-date drivers, while SlimDrivers found only 6, and all but one of those six offered updates were older versions than the ones offered by DriverMax. I don’t know how you see it, but that comes across as a horrific failure to me. Aesthetics and ease of use aside, when one product provides more updates and almost all of those updates are more current than the other, that makes it a better product. Period.

The bottom line

So why did I tell you this story? Simple – it doesn’t matter how reliable the source of your product information is; sometimes, they’re going to get it wrong. Online reviews are never going to replace doing your own research and trial-and-error. Other people have different needs and priorities than you do, and they’re reviewing on their own preferences, NOT yours. A lot of the time, they’ll be a wonderfully useful tool for making more informed decisions. Other times, like in this case, they’ll be virtually worthless. Buyer beware.

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Pam is a preschool teacher and writer with a background in psychology and child development. She's available for freelance work, private consulting, or just a nice chat. Connect with her on Google+, Twitter, Facebook, or via email at p.komarnicki AT social-discomfort DOT com.

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