How do you recognise product quality online?

Buy cheap, buy twice – I keep on doing this to myself, and really need to learn πŸ™‚ The trouble is that it’s hard to avoid – modern consumerism deliberately tries to strip out any markers of quality, leaving us chasing cheap, as Ellen Ruppel Shell highlighted a while ago.

Three years ago I bought some RGB light strings from a fine Chinese emporium on ebay, which I used for parties outside. When new if I connected power to all RGB strands it would all light up white, but six lots of unrolling and restowing and it’s done for.

Update 16 Aug 2015 – in rigging the Harvest party I found what the problem is – cable tying these to the poles of the marquee means the bending radius is too sharp when the tape hangs down halfway through rigging. This cracks the solder joints ot the LEDs or ballast resistors. So it was my damn fault – when you get these stick them to something rigid and leave ’em like that. They could warn you of that in the data sheet by indicating a min bending radius, perhaps…

Whereas the equally Chinese white LED tape I bought five years ago is still going strong. This stuff is made out of three LEDs at a time – the workmanship was so shoddy that half the sections had gone – I bought two 5m lengths and both have become faulty with ratty connections and missing segments.

should really all be a nice even white colour
should really all be a nice even white colour

Perhaps using it outside was bad – although we think of dew as a morning phenomenon, in fact dew descends soon after the sun goes down, particularly in the summer. This surprised me when I observed it, but it is a consequence of the dew point, which falls with temperature. Derigging the equipment at summer parties after 1 a.m. the gear is often damp. Maybe this got into the supposedly waterproof tape and corroded the connections, though it was sold as waterproof πŸ™‚

Buy cheap, buy twice – it’s an online thing

Ebay is a marvellous cornucopia of components and bits and pieces – whenever you want some part it’s always cheapest from there. Recently on a design I was making I wanted some TL494 power control ICs – I can pay 50p for these from CPC in 10-up prices or I can pay 13p a throw if I buy 10 from China on ebay for Β£1.29 – delivery free[ref]the price matters here because someone is thinking of using this in a product; for a single unit 37p is neither here nor there.[/ref]. If I rock up to Mr Texas Instruments and say I want to buy 1000 they will a) laugh me out the door – 500k is probably the minimum order, and b) cite me a budgetary unit price of 21US cents, probably F.O.B. Texas Instruments.

A pukka Texas TL494, from when they used to make them in the low-cost manufacturing place du jour before the fall of the Berlin Wall and Tianamen Aquare
A pukka Texas TL494, made by Texas in 1988 from when Portugal was the low-cost manufacturing place du jour before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Whereas the spotty youth in Shenzhen could manage to slightly beat the manufacturer’s price and stick ’em in a Jiffy bag to send over here. The canny buyer will, of course, ask himself some serious questions about the provenance of these parts, let’s just say that the Texas Instruments stamp on the cheaper parts may be a little bit fuzzy and this is probably not an ISO9001 traceable supply chain. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

Shenzhen electronics store
Shenzhen electronics store

The way most sellers of onesy-twosy Ebay goods work from China is you put your order in, and over in China an enterprising young fellow will go down to one of the fabled electronics shops of Shenzen and buy the part and stick it in the post to you. Looks like it pays to be a local here to avoid getting ripped off, but ’twas ever thus. At Huaqiangbei you can nip up to the next floor and check out Women’s World or Carnival Clothing City if you are, ahem, “bargain hunters and brand name copy lovers“. Which explains why so many Chinese ebay sellers of electronics parts are equally at home selling me some LED strips [ref]For the record I didn’t buy the defective LED strips from this seller[/ref] or a girl’s dress. This puzzled the inquisitive Ermine snout, and now I know why.

Price is not a clear signal of quality in many markets, and it’s hard to gauge quality online

Once upon a time people used to go into a store to buy things, and when you handle the goods the experienced buyer can often gauge quality – by the weight, the smooth running of moving parts, the quality of workmanship. We’ve lost many of these quality cues when we buy online, leaving us with the basest metric of all, price. Although price can be correlated with quality it doesn’t depend on it – marketing is a lot more sophisticated now, indeed websites can show different prices to different consumers for the same thing, depending on their history. One of the main advantages we got with the Internet is that it allows us to compare by price, so that’s what we do, driving everything down to the lowest common denominator.. Which is great with many things – but it drives us right down to the bottom end for a lot of products. Which is not always where we want to be.

I don’t know where to go to buy a better RGB LED strip. I could go to these guys, and pay Β£8 a go. But let’s face it, they probably get their strips from China and mark ’em up – the product image looks exactly the same as my faulty item. For all I know there is one massive company in China turning these out. What I will probably end up doing is getting big 3W LEDs and screwing them to a aluminium rail – at least if I get failures it will be my own rotten workmanship and I will be able to fix it [ref]I can’t use the obvious route of commercial lighting kit as that’s all 240VAC and I want to run 12V[/ref].

In the grand scheme of things this isn’t a big deal, but the quality conundrum is observable in many things now – if you want something a little better than the bottom end quality you have no way of finding a reliable supplier even if you are prepared to pay more money. I can pay more, for sure, but as UTMT said, price is what you pay and value is what you get.

for some things going back in time is an answer

Although Chinese quality failed me with the LEDs, for Β£20 it’s not a big deal – a bigger pain would be if this failed me while using it. Anything you take on the road you test beforehand precisely so you can identify duff gear. However, in other areas where I’m spending more I really don’t want to end up buying cheap and buying twice. For another project I want a decent biological microscope. The consensus seems to be that all microscopes are made in China these days and the erstwhile big names don’t bother to manufacture their own parts. Basically what happens is that they get the Chinese to make tens of thousands of units at a low cost, and then use quality control to screen out a few decent ones to sell at a premium and let the OEM manufacturers sell the rest at low cost.[ref]I’m still struggling to get my head round the enormity of what this means for landfill, for many precepts of engineering and for the human race in general, I’m still hoping it isn’t really true[/ref]

You’ll often find non-branded microscopes that readily look like high end expensive microscopes sold by Zeiss, Olympus etc. It’s probably because they are the same microscope in parts, but their assembly, the quality control, and the stream by which they are produced in the Chinese factory and flow out to end point of sell is completely different and often (on non-big-name microscopes) managed ineffectively.

Microscopy-uk[ref]probably worth bearing in mind the site is sponsored by Brunel[/ref], similar story described here

I don’t have anything against Brunel who do a similar sort of quality grading lowerΒ  down the market, but this strikes me as a seriously rum way to try and make scientific optical equipment. I’ve come across people grousing about the same sort of sample variation in expensive camera lenses and spotting scopes. To be honest, I wonder what the bloody hell has happened to Western industry – we used to take the time to make precision gear right first and then spend the time lining it up properly, rather than take the infinite monkeys theorem writ large [ref]for the sake of any politically correct pedants I am not saying the Chinese are monkeys – the way things are going if the UK becomes the low-cost production site of the world exactly the same will apply with Brits churning out shedloads or stuff. It is the use of low labour costs approach to things and then picking out the least out of spec variants for the high-end makers and selling the misaligned stuff off cheap that is the issue[/ref] This does not sound like progress to me.

It seems to be the absolute antithesis of what Deming taught us about producing widgets. I’m not the greatest fan of how stupid MBA faddery abused the principles of quality management in the 1990s but when you apply it to producing things that are supposed to be identical it’s in its own milieu. As this fellow indicates

The great advances in microscope mechanical design seem to have been made during the 1950s and 1960s. As computers became more and more powerful, optical designs improved dramatically as well. Optical designs and quality have continued to improve on up until the present day. Sadly, the same cannot be said of mechanical design. Plastic and low quality metal components have gradually replaced quality machined parts.

The trouble is an optical system is more than the sum of its parts – these have to be aligned right, and the mechanical integrity and alignment of the system is as much a part of the result as well-designed individual lenses.

So I went back in time to when we didn’t produce optical equipment down to a price by the infinite monkeys theorem – because research microscopes aren’t aimed for the proletariat, and I have the feeling there was more money in university research that there is now so they paid for decent mechanical engineering that is so dear now. Ebay was my friend to find a 1980s era Leitz Ortholux-II, which was made in enough quantities that Ebay is also full of spares and accessories.

Is China the new Japan?

never mind the quality, feel the width

dodgy geezers all round

Perhaps we are going through the teething times –Β  after all, before the 1970s a lot of stuff made in Japan was junk and had a rotten reputation for quality but they eventually raised their game. Perhaps the Chinese will lift themselves up, but with so much distribution being online it is hard to see how improved quality will win out. Somebody may well make decent RGB LED strips but I’m damned if I know how to find them!



7 thoughts on “How do you recognise product quality online?”

  1. It’s the lack of sustainability of all this mass manufacturing that worries me, I don’t want discards lying around my house. I heard a statistic last week that more plastic has been made in the first decade of this century than in all of the previous century. The pressures this puts on a finite and hugely densely populated planet are just not being acknowledged by a wider audience


  2. When buying small ticket items online I prefer Amazon to ebay. The feedback system (while i’m sure open to some abuse) gives you a good way to gauge the quality of items prior to buying. I’ve seen a few items recently where it’s clear from the recent feedback that manufacturing standards have dropped and enabled me to potentially dodge a bullet of a purchase.

    Interestingly my outdoor ‘party lights’ failed recently. I was busy ranting about dodgy eBay suppliers and Chinese manufacturers to Mrs UTMT when she made a coughing sound, held up the cable which had clearly been chewed through by a very English mouse!


  3. My wife volunteers in a thrift shop and we’ve found that in many situations it’s best to go used. Recently I broke a Chinese earthenware pitcher I used to fill up the coffee maker. My wife replaced it at a lower price with a vintage Sadler jug made in Staffordshire. Try to buy that new today. 😦
    I’m sure the Carl Zeiss microscope my boss and I used in the 70s was sold cheap to someone who appreciated its quality.
    As far as electronics components go, I can only comment on computer parts. I buy from Newegg or Canada Computers and stick with brands I know like Gigabyte or Toshiba. Although I know Intel is probably better than AMD, for the money AMD gives good value and meets my needs – especially if you don’t want to put a discrete video card in your build.
    My Nikon D5500 DSLR was made in Thailand and its lenses are Chinese but Nikon appears to have done a decent job on the optical quality.


  4. Thanks for another good article, Ermine. I’ve been following them from more or less since you started writing them. Like you, I quit work early to try and enjoy the rest of my life rather than find myself increasingly at odds with the modern workplace. I’m much more at home in, and probably get more sense out of, a greenhouse these days πŸ™‚

    I too subscribe to the “older is probably better” theory, and practised it again last year when I bought a low mileage UK spec 1994 Toyota MR2 for less than many people spend on a foreign holiday. It still runs very well indeed and has virtually no rust on it, is well undersealed and is without a doubt in better condition than the very much younger car it replaced, despite my best efforts with that one. Amazingly, it’s much cheaper to insure too !

    What appeals is that it’s not a complicated car: manual sunroof, no air conditioning. ABS is about as complex as things get with it. All the fancy stuff they stick on cars these days cost a fortune to replace when they go wrong and IMHO add nothing in today’s everyday driving (forget about track days – that *may* be different, all you lot on PistonHeads :-). Very little appears to have needed replacing, so much of it is 1994 vintage Japanese build quality and still wearing well because of the low mileage.

    I am amazed at the number of people who buy (sometimes expensive) vehicles online, committing to buy them without even going and seeing the thing for real beforehand ! With the MR2, it was obvious from the test drive, the way the doors closed with a solid clunk, the thickness of panels, nice neat panel gaps, respectable paintwork for age, etc that this was going to be a solid buy in all respects and I have not been disappointed.

    Thanks for the story about the mouse, UTMT – one of my parents’ previous cats had an unfortunate habit of biting through cables. A “check for chewed aerial cable” had to be added to the TV faults checklist after the picture went decidedly weird one day πŸ™‚


  5. @Katy – and much of the plastic is still there in the wrong places 😦

    @UTMT – Thanks for that insight! I hadn’t appreciated this difference – the ebay feedback system has gone to largely an acknowledgement of receipt rather than quality control, whereas with Amazon that people can go back and grizzle some time after the purchase but it’s still linked to the purchase is much better for qualifying reliability. hehe – damn Chinese quality not being mouse-proof, I like it πŸ˜‰

    @Ray – I received the microscope since writing this. The build quality and smoothness of running as well as actually being able to see what’s on the slide is remarkable, and to be honest far better that would be reasonable for the price. I guess one of the pluses of the Internet is that it does enable you to throw your net far wider than before for secondhand goods

    @Mike – nicely done! I used to hanker after one of those, I am happy that got my need for speed out of the way in the 1990s – 2000s when petrol was cheaper πŸ˜‰ Cars are a strange thing really – into the 1990s I’d do some things myself, but now you open it up and there’s no chance, apart form consumables. But they have become far more reliable, compared to 20 years ago.

    Bummer that UTMT’s obvious mouse solution seems to come with its own penchant for cable-chewing!


    1. @Ermine – I did actually buy a brand new one back in 1995 (in that beautiful caribbean blue Toyota only did for a year – why did they change it ?!). It was the only new car I’ve ever had (yes, I learned that lesson reasonably quickly πŸ™‚ and kept it until 2010 when I stupidly decided it was time to try something different(*).

      Still, twenty years on, I don’t do anything like the mileage now so this one’s a “keeper” since it’s in good original UK dealer supplied spec – there’s nothing aftermarket on it as far as I can see after extensive scrutiny.

      I firmly believe one of the reasons people swap and change things (mobile phones, cars, you name it) is because they over-use them and rapidly get bored with them, feeling it’s “time for a change”. If you drive your car only once a week or so it still feels relatively “special” (to you anyway πŸ™‚

      Before I go, reading @Katy’s comment above just reminded me about Professor Albert Bartlett’s ( lecture entitled “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.” That’s definitely something of an eye-opener if anyone’s got any doubts about the dramatic effects of compounding seemingly small rates of growth over a shorter period than you’d believe possible ! It never feels like it when you’re just starting out with your share portfolio, but …

      (*) Blaise Pascal’s observation about the inability to sit quietly in a room seems just as applicable today as ever it was … πŸ˜‰


  6. One thing that does drive me crazy is the quality of those battery powered igniters that start gas grill burners. I’m now on my third unit in 9 years.
    The first one lasted about 4 years then I used a manual lighting technique for a while. When I rebuilt the grill last year I got a second igniter. This one failed after one season.
    Now i am on to unit #3 and who knows how long it will work. All of these were branded replacements from the grill manufacturer, so I’m at a loss as to how to get better quality. Maybe buy a better grill next time, I guess.


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