Three stars is not bad news in my rating system. This article will tell you why that is.
You'll find both complete reviews and mini reviews in various places on this site. Just so I'm clear about what I mean, I'm going to explain my current rating system. I only rate things that I have actually used, and typically I've used them extensively in real life shooting.
Let's start with the mini reviews you'll see in the data pages about products.
In a mini review you'll find one of four possibilities at the end: no rating at all, Not Recommended, Recommended, and Highly Recommended. If there's no rating, it just doesn't quite fall into any of the other categories well enough. Put another way, I'm agnostic on the item in question. There may be other options that I consider better, or I just find that it falls in that gap between something I'd suggest you'd avoid and something I'd suggest you buy. And yes, there is a gap between those things.
The other ratings should be self explanatory. If I give it a Not Recommended, it's because I don't think you should buy it. It either doesn't work as the manufacturer describes, doesn't do something useful, is over priced for what it does, or there are clearly better options available. That doesn't mean the item won't work for you, but be very cautious before you opt to pay good money for it.
The difference between Recommended and Highly Recommended tends to boil down to this: the former is something that might be useful to you, the latter is something that is likely to be useful to you. I don't give out a lot of Highly Recommended ratings. The product has to clearly excel in some way for me to give it that level of endorsement.
I use these same ratings as an "overall" verdict in full reviews, too, and they mean the same thing there. However I also provide five star ratings for three things: features, performance, and value.
Features has to do with the expected versus actual features of the product. We all expect a camera to take pictures, for example, but that's a basic function. A camera that has lots of ability to dictate how you take pictures would have more features than one that just had a shutter release, for example.
Performance speaks to how well the product does its job. Again, any camera can take photos. But if those photos are exceptional even when printed big, you'd expect a higher rating than if those photos were merely adequate for Web purposes.
Value has to do with the first two things considered with price. A product with few features and low performance would get a low Value rating obviously, but a product with many features and good performance might get a low Value rating, too, if it's price were high. Put simply: I expect more features and performance as the price goes up. So should you.
Okay, so what does one star, two stars, three stars, etc., really mean?
The product has far fewer features or way worse performance than you'd expect. A product with one star in one or more categories probably also has a Not Recommended rating.
The product has fewer features or less performance than you'd expect. A product with two stars in Value means that it is below the category average in value.
The product has about the expected level of features or performance. A product with three stars in Value is an "average" buy--not really less than you'd expect for the price, not really more.
Once we get to this level we gave a product that has a very deep feature set or significantly better than average (expected) performance. A product with four stars in the Value rating is starting to be a bargain for what it does.
Five stars means that the product has an incredible feature set with virtually nothing missing, or that its performance is truly exceptional (amongst the very best). A product with five stars in the Value rating is a bargain. Typically products that have two or more five-star marks end up in the Highly Recommended category, but it's not a given.
Just so I'm clear: three stars is not bad news in my rating system. It just means that the product is pretty much what you'd expect for the category. I use three-star products all the time, and it doesn't worry me one bit. But I rarely use a one or two star product in the features and especially in the performance categories, as it means that even the average product in the category should do a better job.
In simplest terms: few stars bad, three stars okay, more stars good.
Frequently asked questions:
- Why don't you use half stars? The typical person can only make a true distinction between things at about seven levels. Half stars create 10 levels. While I think I'm atypical, it's very difficult to do a more finely grained system right.
- Why don't you have more categories that you rate? Same thing: more information actually causes more indecision as the brain tries to ferret out what it means that Product A had high ratings in five categories and low ones in three, while Product B had high ratings in four categories but low ones in only two. You don't really need ratings for more than features, performance, and value.
- Do you really try out all this stuff? Yes, I do. Typically I combine in-office lab testing (lenses, cameras) with extensive field shooting. That means sometimes when I get something in to use I don't review it for awhile because I haven't had time to use it in the field as it was intended for any length of time. Sometimes I'm so interested in a product that I literally sleep with it for the first week I have it and get a lot of shooting done with it quickly, thus a faster review.
- Why haven't you reviewed X? Three reasons, typically: (1) I didn't acquire it; or (2) I wasn't interested in it; or (3) I haven't completed my testing of it.
- You must get everything given to you from the manufacturers, right? Wrong. Almost all the gear I review has been purchased by me through normal sources. When I'm done with it, I tend to sell it if it's not something I would use in my normal work. Why do I purchase it? Because I try to avoid potential conflicts of interest and I don't want manufacturers giving me something that's been cherry-picked to perform well. In the few cases where something has been loaned or given to me to review, I disclose the source in the review.
- You profit from your reviews in some way, right? Maybe. You'll note the Support this Site mentions throughout this site. If you were to click on one of those and then order something, yes, I'd get a small commission from that. The full details are on the Support this Site page. But there are no hidden relationships on this site if that's what you're alluding to. I don't shill for anyone. No one could afford me, anyway.
- Why should I trust your reviews? Way back in 1980 I wrote the first set of review guidelines (over 50 pages) for a national high tech publication. I've been reviewing gear for over 30 years since, and in several cases, managing others that do so. Along the way that included publications such as MacUser, Macworld, Personal Computing, Infoworld, T3, digitalFoto, Outdoor Photographer, Backpacker, and more. But trust actually comes through experience. I'd actually say you shouldn't trust my reviews until you can compare some of them against your own experiences with the same product.
- Aren't you a Nikon fan boy? No, I'm not. Those that accuse me of that typically haven't actually read what I've written about Nikon equipment over the years. I've been amongst Nikon's harshest critics, and if you mention my name to someone at NikonUSA you're as likely to get a diatribe as anything else (I know this one first-hand, as I tried it on one poor Nikon employee who didn't know who I was at a trade show once ;~). Note to NikonUSA: you really shouldn't bad mouth journalists in public, it makes you look petty.