Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Is Cheap Really Cheap?

Throughout history, there have been premium products from manufacturers who care about only one thing - the best quality they can produce.  And their prices, traditionally, reflect that.  (Everyone says about such a product, "it is the Cadillac of...")  For example, when I was young, I bought a pair of Fila shoes, and thought they were very expensive.  However, they lasted in excellent condition for 10 years, at a cost of about $12 per year, while the "cheap" shoes at $25 per pair lasted about a year, so about twice the cost.

But somehow, in this day and age of instant, global commerce, we have somehow seemed to adopt an idealistic attitude that, manufacturers can sell direct and cut middlemen, and therefore we can get great products for cheap.  That global competition sharpens the product quality, keeps prices low - and lets the consumer win.  However, that seems to have been taken to the extreme, way beyond reality.  I grew up with my parents repeating, "If it's too good to be true - it probably is."

Monoprice is one example, and the one I am highlighting.  I have read several blog posts touting the amazing quality and prices of Monoprice.  I ordered a couple of lightning-adapter USB cords when we started our transition of devices from the old to the new Apple adapters.  And initially, they seemed to be fine - with the exception of one cord that broke immediately, and Monoprice replaced it promptly.  To be fair, I have found exactly the same results with cheap products ordered from Amazon and eBay, but I am picking on Monoprice because a lot of tech-savvy people seem to think it is God's gift to consumers, and I want to dispel that myth.

I have since ordered 6 cords, and without fail, each and every one of them eventually (within the first year) broke, and stopped working.  Monoprice replaced 4 of them, no questions asked - but those again broke.  Now this particular product type, it is quite common I have found, for non-Apple-branded lightning cables to fray and break, even with careful use.  Additionally, I added Sugru to both the fraying, and new, cables - but that prevented neither from failing completely, and quickly.  What broke, was the cord where it entered the collar that encases the lightning connector - the cord wrap frayed and split, and the wires were exposed (bare and fraying), and eventually stopped working altogether.  Sugru failed to prevent or repair the fray, and failed to prevent the failure of operation.

In addition, I ordered 10 LED light bulbs in our project to replace the bulbs in our house with energy efficient ones that would last.  I had 1 DOA, that they replaced promptly, and then all 10 failed in the first year (most within the first 6 months).  LED bulbs, by the way, are supposed to last about 20 years.  I asked for my money back, and they refused, offering to replace the bulbs.  However, replacing them with faulty ones is not acceptable to me (at 100% failure rate within 12 months, I don't trust the product quality).  What's the point if I keep replacing them, and eventually they will stop replacing them for free?

I have bought other things - mobile ear buds, USB car charging adapters, and more.  Without fail, each and every product I bought from them was inexpensive, felt cheap and chintzy, and broke or failed.  To date, after 2 years, I have two remaining USB car chargers that works (out of several) - and that is the only Monoprice product I still use.  These 2 USB car chargers, by the way, are the only remaining Monoprice products that I have still in use, still working.

Now, let's examine the cost.  Did that save me money?
  • USB cords - these were about $8 for a 6-foot cord, as opposed to $29 for the Apple 2m cord.  However, our Apple cords have, without fail, lasted us 3 years - and are still in excellent shape.  And, I added Sugru to them to strengthen the ends and ensure continued durability.  If you have to re-purchase every 6 months (about the length of time they lasted), that's $16 a year, or after 2 years, $32, or $48 for 3 years.  That costs even more than the Apple cord.
  • Earbuds - same thing.  Boy, talk about chintzy - it is quite clear that Apple (expensive though they may seem) are all about quality.  The plastic earpieces don't sound hollow, and deliver excellent sound quality.  Microphones pick up sound with amazing clarity.  But, they have lasted.  I actually still have earbuds from my old iPhone 3G and 4S, that still work.  Monoprice?  After a year, I can't find one of the 6 or so I bought (as replacements for the lost kids' ones).  They all were uncomfortable, or broke, or stopped working - and were promptly thrown in the garbage.  What a waste.
  • Light bulbs - they were about $7 per bulb.  Inexpensive for LED bulbs, but not exorbitantly so.  Feit bulbs on sale at Costco are actually less, with no shipping costs.  And, they have a better temperature tolerance (for outdoor fixtures).  And, the ones I bought 4 years ago, still have not needed replacement, in a house where incandescent and CFL bulbs both get replaced on an annual basis.
In fact, in not a single instance have I found Monoprice products to be of anything even approaching mediocre quality.  So beware - cheap is not cheap (as we have found across the board).  Expensive is not always cheap either - unless the product is of excellent quality and workmanship.  When we moved into our house, we replaced the cheap contractor electric stove with a Dacor dual-fuel stove, that cost quite a bit of money.  We then continued to pour money into it (about $400 per repair after the warranty expired), until after about 11 years, the control panel completely disintegrated.  So in that case, we spent a lot of money on a well-rated product, but the quality was not there.

Is an Apple computer cheap?  As I've said before, the amount of money you put out for an Apple computer is reasonable, and not inexpensive - but the value you get is measurably much higher than that of a non-Apple computer.  Same for their mobile devices.

To be fair to Monoprice, they are making lots of money selling "cheap" goods, and their customer service is excellent.  However, the quality of their products is so bad, that no amount of customer service (e.g. sugar) can cover up the stink of the quality (e.g. shit).  And, I would be wary of any other claim to be cheap - because cheap is not usually cheap, it is usually much more expensive.

Usually, if it's too cheap to be believed - if it's too good to be true - it probably isn't.

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