Are appliances worse now than 10-20 years ago?
May 3, 2020 7:09 AM   Subscribe

It seems like even the most highly recommended major household appliances available today aren't as good as something you could get in the early 2000s. Is this actually true and, if so, is there any way around it?

After replacing our 15-year-old dishwasher and looking at ratings for a variety of major appliances, it's starting to seem like appliances aren't as good as they were in the early 2000s. Not just in the ways you might expect (poor reliability, flimsy plastic components), but worse in the sense of actually offering fewer features and the features they do have not working as well as the ones on older appliances did. Dishwashers that take twice as long and don't dry the dishes well. Vacuums that don't really vacuum. Washing machines that are constantly moldy. Refrigerators that don't have ice machines.

I guess my question is threefold: 1) Am I imagining this? 2) If not, why is it happening (I've heard explanations involving energy regulations, which is too "Obama took my light bulbs" for me to want to believe it but I suppose it could be true)? and 3) How do I find ratings/reviews that are aware of this phenomenon and can help me navigate the new world of crappy appliances? (The Wirecutter, on whose recommendation I bought my current dishwasher, seems to be written for no-kid households that eat out a lot.)
posted by Ralston McTodd to Home & Garden (36 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I think part of it is the prevalence of review culture. In 2000 you didn't review your appliances, you probably also didn't buy them online.

I might add that new things are more complex and less repairable which I think also hastens their demise. I've got a 1940s icebox refrigerator which has 1 moving part and uses less electricity than my new fancy 10000 features fridge. I'm not about to put in the kitchen but the comparison is not lost on me.
posted by chasles at 7:27 AM on May 3 [5 favorites]

You're not imagining things like the reduction in reliability, but some of the things you're seeing are different tradeoffs or new products where the products and our habits haven't meshed up well yet.

Dishwashers take twice as long to do a load because they use dramatically less water than they used to. Many don't dry as well because they don't have a heated drying cycle, because that burns shitloads of power. You can still get machines with one.

Front-load washing machines get moldy if you just close them up immediately because their seals and whatnot aren't designed to be closed up immediately. If you leave the door open for a while it should be fine. Which is inconvenient, but the tradeoff is using way less water (again) and having your clothes last longer.

We have a 20-odd year old fridge and we don't have a water hookup for it, so I occasionally look online for shits and giggles. I can tell you that the hardest part is trying to find a not-bargain-basement fridge like a cheapass apartment company would get that doesn't come with an ice machine we can't use without spending additional $hundreds on getting a water line installed.

There's even a tradeoff for the reduction in reliability -- they're cheap as hell. I just pulled up a Sears catalog from 1985 and the basic dishwasher -- the one they advertise as "Our Budget Dishwasher" as opposed to "Our Good Dishwashers," so they are literally-literally telling you it isn't good -- was $270, or $660 in today's money. A basic top-freezer fridge with no ice maker was $540, or $1300 in today's money.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 7:35 AM on May 3 [38 favorites]

The longer wash times on dish and clothes washers are often related to decreases in relative power and water use, at least on some higher end stuff.

Also fwiw, many of us were asking the same question 20 years ago about the stuff you say was better, and my parents started complaining about it in the 80s. There’s a reason “they don’t make them like they used to” is a pat cliche: there’s a lot of truth to it. See also throw-away society.
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:54 AM on May 3 [1 favorite]

Front loading washing machines are not great. Having to leave them open = pet hazard. The mold problem is REAL and potentially very unhealthy - again, designing something to require a door be left open is problematic; you and every visitor (and/or potential renter/user) are just going to naturally tend to close the door. Even if you do leave the door open, there are other parts (I'm looking at you, detergent drawer) that never really get clean or dry.

The water usage is not my favorite, but the water involved in manufacturing destroyed/moldy items/clothes/rubber gaskets, and in trying fruitlessly to clean the thing (and to manufacture cleaners, their plastic bottles, etc.) factors in too. Argh. I have to say I'm team top loader.
posted by amtho at 7:59 AM on May 3 [7 favorites]

I leave our front loader open and even remove the detergent drawer. Every single time. It's still not great.

Not to threadsit, but my question isn't about reliability, even though that's probably worse too, but just basic functionality. I just can't imagine that consumers of male-identified products would put up with "well, it doesn't actually saw through stuff/cut grass very well but it's so quiet and energy-efficient!"

I feel like the Wirecutter let me down by not mentioning the heated drying cycle, so I'm looking for new sources of reviews that take things like that into account.
posted by Ralston McTodd at 8:11 AM on May 3

Have you seen a battery-powered lawn mower? That’s exactly what they do: cut grass less well than a gasoline mower, but with more efficiency, much quieter and less environmental impact. They are very popular.
In a sense, the answer to your question is easy if perhaps unsatisfying: because that’s what market forces have pushed towards.
posted by SaltySalticid at 8:17 AM on May 3 [5 favorites]

My take: yes and no. I feel that brands are striving to differentiate more than ever before (and often live in sort of price-banded strata) and so the whole realm of low-end dishwashers, for example, will have less variety than it did before. Whereas high end dishwashers now talk to the internet, do absolutely everything, and you can probably only barely buy them online. I feel like there are basically more variables in every range of appliances and so if you want something specific that cuts across the strata, it's hard to find.

I do think it's true that Wirecutter is primarily geared towards internet people and a lot of luxury brands really don't show up as much in the review sites, so you'll see 2000 reviews of all the types of appliances that Sears would have carrier, but it's actually a really small subset of what is out there.

And yes, front-load washers are dumb and get gross. But they use very little water. It all depends on what features you are looking for.
posted by jessamyn at 8:53 AM on May 3 [1 favorite]

1. People like to complain about things.
2. Nobody wants to pay for anything.
3. It takes awhile to figure out how to make a new thing well.

1 is sort of a general thing: people complain about stuff, when a lot of people complain about something, other people complain about that, and so on. Anybody who's ever had a bad experience with a consumer product can mark it down for everyone, forever. There are also assumptions that castings or plastic parts are Just Not As Good As the old heavy parts, which may or may not be true.

2 applies to consumers, retailers, and manufacturers. People are price-conscious; the stores know this and order things based on price-points; manufacturers have price pressure but just as much want to make more money even independent of this, so they pressure their engineers and suppliers to take money out of the product. Sometimes this can be done and preserve quality, and sometimes they save money by making the product worse.

3: If you've made the same thing for a long time, the guys who developed it way back when had decades to iron out all the problems and get it right, but then they've retired, or they have Strong Opinions about How To Do It. Then, say, George W. Bush signs a law saying that you have to have higher-efficiency light bulbs, and here's the timeline; or the European Union outlaws some leaded alloys and hexavalent chromium, and here's the timeline. Now, the guys who work for the company have to redesign their product to meet the regulation by the specific time, and they may not have access to the decades of experience that made the product in the first place, or that experience may not be applicable to what they have to do now. They also won't get quality/reliability information back from the field in time to fix the product; they may have to make functional compromises to meet the new standards. You know how they say not to buy the first model year of a new car? It's the same thing. It will take them a little while to figure out how to make it right.

The first low-flow toilets weren't any good. Nowadays, they're probably better than the old high-flow ones were, but all everyone remembers is the first bad ones. Modern front-loaders are better than the first few ones. New LED's are better than new CFL's, which in turn are better than the original CFL's. They can work on a product and make it better, but it takes time to do so.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 9:00 AM on May 3 [11 favorites]

Yes, they are made to be thrown away, not repaired and used for years. Disposable Society. Just like so many "essential" low income workers are now.
posted by mermayd at 9:02 AM on May 3 [4 favorites]

Your question prompted me to read the Wirecutter reviews of dishwashers as I'm eagerly anticipating the day when we can replace our Bosch. On the new top rated Bosch (yeah, I'm not going to be buying that) the author specifically mentions The most common complaint about Bosch dishwashers (and condenser-dry dishwashers in general) is that they aren’t very good at drying plastics. Plastic cools off too fast for the moisture to get a chance to evaporate on its own at the end of a cycle. They also mention long cycle times, racks which don't fit American sized bowls well, the infuriating crud filter, etc. They minimize all these problems because the reviewer considers them essentially non-issues. I don't.
I guess the takeaway from this is to not just say "ah, Wirecutter top pick, order it, done!" but to recognize that each reviewer has their own methodology which prioritizes certain things above others, and if you're a person who is particular, do a deeper dive in to what it takes to make you satisfied with an appliance.
posted by Larry David Syndrome at 9:04 AM on May 3 [6 favorites]

Front loading washing machines are not great

I think this might be a cultural thing. I grew up with front loaders in Europe. They were a safety thing: kids were drowning in twin tubs and adults were getting hurt by rotating machinery. A front-loader has to have a safety interlock on the door, while the mid-60s twin-tub I just remember ran just fine with no lid on. We replaced our ancient power-hungry and water-hog Maytags with an LG condenser washer-dryer and it is the best. Sure, it was more than twice the cost of even a really nice separate set, but it's much more economical to run, doesn't get that stanky tub-slurry smell and — get this — does a full and perfect wash and dry without unloading everything!

Individual appliances are much cheaper, but you're expected to have more of them than you used to. Some new appliances are shit: the Wirecutter and Consumer Reports "best kettle" from Cuisinart is a pile of poo with an awkward shape and unreliable controls. It's almost as if WC and CR don't actually know what a kettle's for, it's that bad.
posted by scruss at 9:21 AM on May 3 [8 favorites]

I can't contribute a useful opinion about this but now I am consumed with curiosity about chasles's vintage icebox and kind of want one.
posted by all the light we cannot see at 9:23 AM on May 3 [4 favorites]

We went to a locally owned appliance store that we've shopped at a number of times of the years. We said we were in the market for a clothes dryer. The one we have is pretty noisy. (To explain, we had just downsized to a condo from a freestanding house with a utility basement. Before the move, once we started the dryer, we walked upstairs and didn't hear it. Now the laundry is in a closet in our apartment.) The salesman said a new dryer would probably be louder because the metal the manufacturers are using is thinner.
posted by tmdonahue at 9:23 AM on May 3

I think the general point that these modern appliances are much, much cheaper than they used to be, combined with the general energy / water efficiency improvements are probably the dominant factor.

Want a product that lasts as long as one your parents bought in 1985? Well, you might want to start by paying (inflation adjusted) 1985 prices for your dishwasher (or whatever). Lots of people out there are comparing a $250 modern appliance with something that cost their parents $1000.

Some of this is simply cultural stuff percolating across the Atlantic. I can’t remember the last time I saw a fridge with an ice-maker in the UK, although you can buy the things if you want them, people tend not to. I’m sure you can still buy a fridge with an ice-maker in the US too, but getting rid of the finicky, expensive to fix ice-maker makes them cheaper.

The EU cut the power limits for hoovers sometime in the last decade, presumably making them somewhat less effective.
posted by pharm at 9:45 AM on May 3 [4 favorites]

yeah it might just be that "cheap appliances" didn't used to exist really - appliances were expensive, and then they were repaired instead of replaced.

We've been trying to go that route - we don't buy appliances from big box stores which sometimes partner with brands to make a lower cost and lower quality version of their appliances. We put really nice appliances in our old house about a year before we decided to sell it (stupid) but they were... really nice. But our dishwasher was $1100 and it was the floor model and was missing the kickplate. I think it was over $2000 full price. So it better be good? But also, it was. We bought this house with the lower end version of the same brand of dishwasher, and it's terrible in comparison - it's hard to clean, small parts are starting to rust a little where their epoxy dip has chipped, plastic parts have slightly warped, and I even feel that the stainless steel is somehow a lower quality that marks up more and doesn't look as evenly finished!
posted by euphoria066 at 10:11 AM on May 3 [2 favorites]

A couple of years ago I decided to replace our dishwasher when it was broke, because it was more than 20 years old and it would cost a fortune to repair it, regardless of what the problem was. It turned out that mice had bitten through a tube, and there was nothing wrong with the dishwasher itself, which probably now has a happy life with a new family, so that was bitter. But I like my new machine and expect it to live for twenty years at least. I don't have any sense that it isn't at least as good as the older one.
When it was installed, I told the repairman I had discovered that in my other dishwasher (I have two homes) the "auto" function used less energy and water than the "eco" function. He explained that the EU had decided that the eco function was the common denominator for all to be measured by and there are rules for how that works. So it may be that the parameters have changed during the last twenty years, and you can't really compare. That said, there are huge differences between brands. To me, it's worth it to have high end appliances. I don't move a lot and I have a large family so I put a lot of use in them. A dishwasher that lives for 20+ years doing two economical runs or more a day can cost almost whatever if it never needs repairs. But it depends on your economy and living conditions. At my former workplace, we had the cheapest appliances because the budget was designed in a way that didn't reward long life. It didn't matter if something broke down after three years, we'd just get a new cheap appliance. If you live in a rental home and don't plan on bringing your dishwasher along with you when you move, it may make good sense to buy a cheaper machine even though it can't last.
As a European, I've only ever known front-loading washing machines. The ones I have now are both more than 20 years old, and run with no problems at all, though on one the window is weirdly cracked. That doesn't answer your question though.
When I was married, my in-laws gave us a little enamel sign from the 50's: Nur Miele, Miele sagte Tante, die alle Waschmachine kante (Sorry if the spelling is wrong, I've divorced from the in-laws, the washer and the sign). They were both worried that we splurged on a Miele washer, and a bit proud that we invested in quality.

My first refrigerator I inherited from my grandparents, who had kept it because it meant a lot to them. In Europe in the 1950's, refrigerators were rare and a big one with a built in freezer was a monument. They really loved it and it had cost them a fortune. But to be honest, it used a lot of energy and required constant care. It took days to make an ice cream. Still, I didn't just take it to the dumpster when the dormitory I lived in enforced new energy use rules, it lived its last days at an apartment shared by some young guys I knew who mainly kept beer in it and honored it appropriately, always remembering to tell my grandparents how much they loved it when they saw them.

IMO the worst are the smaller appliances, where it is getting hard to find those simple hard working things, like a good kettle or citrus press. I feel the companies are scared of their own product and trying to sell us a ton of embellishments instead of better quality. I sometimes feel stupid to have kept my old miniblender after I got an immersion blender with a ton of extras including a chopper bowl for half the price, but that little old thing is just so efficient and easy to use and clean.
posted by mumimor at 10:25 AM on May 3 [2 favorites]

I repair my parents' appliances which were made within the last ten years. They're swoopy and ergonomic and pretty and have lots of buttons and readouts and screens. The old washing machine had a single metal dial and one button. The new one has an LCD, about sixteen small buttons a big lighted dial, etc. These are embedded in an injection molded facade which is cheaply made and breaks regularly. The features are controlled by a computer which has experienced some kind of board fault and needs to be reset constantly. Each of these parts costs hundreds of dollars to replace and didn't exist in the old machine which still worked after 30 or 40 years. And no, the new one doesn't work any better, though it maybe be more efficient in a narrowly defined sense.

Most of the "improvements" are cosmetic or illusory but the drawbacks are real and expensive over time. Im not convinced that's an accident.
posted by klanawa at 10:53 AM on May 3 [8 favorites]

I just realized - while unloading my modernish dishwasher - that while it’s true that this dishwasher doesn’t get plastic things dry right away, it also never warps them. I think that’s a good trade off even before the energy savings. I’ve never heard people mention it, though, even though my several families have their various household rituals left over from plastic-ruining heated dry cycles.
posted by clew at 11:32 AM on May 3 [9 favorites]

IMO, the most valuable review site when comparing specifics on appliances is, which is owned by Gannett. I never see anyone linking to them or talking about them, but they get into the deep specifics on particular models in ways that you really don't see either Consumer Reports or the Wirecutter drill down to. They are also savvy to the differences between new and old dishwashers and other appliances in ways other sites don't seem to be.

That said, I've had the curious experience these past few years of living in three different places with three different brands of mid-range dishwashers manufactured between 2010-2015 that were already installed when I got there.

One was quiet, took absolutely forever, and did a remarkably good job with the dishes.
One was noisy, took absolutely forever, and did a good job with the dishes.
One was only moderately noisy, is super-fast, and does just a good-enough job with the dishes.

It's not that they're all bad, it's just that all three have had radically different performance profiles that emphasize some things over others.

Similarly, I can compare directly three different eras of washers:

90s-era top-loader: Fast, loud, rough on clothes, very clean.
Aughts-era front-loader: Unspeakably slow, loud, gentle, just adequately clean (just terrible!)
Front-loading LG we purchased in 2017: Fastest of the three, quiet, gentle enough, very clean.

In this case, the newish LG washer is unquestionably the best I've used in my middle-aged lifetime.

What really seems to be happening is that the various manufacturers have responded to the new energy requirements with different operating methodologies that all result in the core functionality of the product working, but in which certain qualities vary in vastly different ways between the manufacturers. Sometimes, like with the LG washer (and also an LG refrigerator) we got, the experience is markedly improved over legacy appliances while still meeting the tightened efficiency requirements. With other manufacturers and/or products, certain qualities (speed, cleanliness, loudness) end up being improved at the expense of making the other qualities worse to get a product that meets the requirements out the door. Caveat emptor, and good luck.
posted by eschatfische at 11:46 AM on May 3 [12 favorites]

Thanks, I'll definitely check out, it sounds pretty much like what I'm looking for.

Maybe most people are actually happy with these changes, and therefore it's market forces at work, but to me it's like someone saying, well, of course you can't expect a 2020 Toyota Camry to go as fast as the 2003 model and it no longer has frills like power steering or a radio, but it's so quiet and ergonomical!

(We actually have -- and like -- an electric lawnmower. It is the Nissan Leaf of lawnmowers, but it's not for everyone and I think the range of lawnmower choices available reflects that.)
posted by Ralston McTodd at 11:59 AM on May 3 [1 favorite]

I think it’s more a false “things were so much better in the good ol’ days”, usually said by people who didn’t have to live through said “good” ol’ days.

Mostly it’s just that people who grew up with rudimentary appliances use those archaic examples as a comparison to what the current state of the art can do, and also can’t do when it comes to energy usage.

Yes your grandpa’s fridge kept stuff real cold, but that’s all it could do, besides used 50x the energy, deplete the ozone layer, kill children who use it to play hide and seek, etc etc.
posted by sideshow at 12:03 PM on May 3 [9 favorites]

My refrigerator has a very expensive water filter for the ice maker; I am supposed to replace the filter annually. It exists only to sell filters; the water does not require filtration. The drawers in refrigerators are relatively fragile and hella expensive to replace. Selling parts is hella profitable.

I have to leave the front load washer open; annoying, but manageable. When it gets manky, I bleach the towels. I wish it had a lint filter.

The stainless steel front on the dishwasher is rusty in spots. The holder for detergent powder broke, so I have to use the pods.

I have a hella expensive hearing aid that is out of warranty and dead. It would cost $500 to get it assessed.

Toasters are disposable. I do not need a lighted dial. I need it to have heating wires that last for several years.

But. Cars are much more reliable and safer than they used to be. Not as repairable, in many cases, but the cars I had when I was younger were a lot crappier.
posted by theora55 at 12:04 PM on May 3 [1 favorite]

Our Bosch washing machine broke and the two things that needed repair were both plastic tabs that had broken off, in different parts of the machine. One tab breaks and the handle gets wobbly, another breaks and the lock falls off. Now the machine is broken.

Luckily these two faults happen so often that there are multiple YouTube videos on repairing those two things on Bosch washing machines, and the 2 parts are available on Amazon cheaply.
I would guess that a 1950s equivalent of this machine would have no plastic parts to break, and so would never fail in either way. However, some elements of modern washers are more reliable. Brushless motors last longer, and synthetic rubber seals do too.
posted by w0mbat at 12:33 PM on May 3 [1 favorite]

My modern Miele canister vacuum cleaner (the most basic model) is so much quieter (esp. on the "quiet" setting) than any vacuum cleaner I or my family have ever owned in my life it's startling. Suction is quite good, too. It has a self-sealing bag that's infinitely better than the old things I used to wrestle with as a kid, and you can put in a HEPA filter, which is probably overkill for many uses but is comforting when you're fighting clothes moths.
posted by praemunire at 12:57 PM on May 3

Last year, I replaced the washer/dryer that I bought in 2006 because the circuit board on the washer was acting up and it would cost more to fix than the thing was worth (and they were stacking, and I couldn't find a new washer that I could stack the old dry on, so [shrugs]). So the fancy-electronics problem has been around for a while. The new one has almost double the capacity of the old one, which I really appreciate.

I bought a new dishwasher about 5 years ago to replace the one that came with my house, which was 100% mechanical. The new one is better in every way I care about: it is vastly quieter, it has more capacity, it gets things cleaner, it uses less water. It's obviously better built. The fact that cycles takes longer is balanced by the fact that I no longer need to leave my house to avoid the din.

I bought a new fridge a few years ago, also to replace the one that came with my house: the compressor on the old one was rattling in an alarming way every time it cycled off, and it seems like it was just a matter of time before it flat-out broke. I was told when I bought the new one that modern fridges run the compressor pretty much nonstop, so they tend to burn out faster. In some ways, the disposition of interior space in the new one seems less efficient.

In short, seems like a mixed bag.
posted by adamrice at 2:38 PM on May 3 [1 favorite]

There's even a tradeoff for the reduction in reliability -- they're cheap as hell.

To add to this:
- since 2000, general consumer prices have risen by 49.6%;
- but over the same period, prices of household appliances have fallen by 2.3%.

So not only has the price of appliances fallen massively in real terms, it's even fallen slightly in cash (dollar) terms. You're getting much more bang for your buck.

Another way of looking at it is that, in 2000, buying household appliances accounted for £11 in every £1000 of consumer spending. In 2020, it's down to £8 in £1000. Partly, we've used the price falls to buy more appliances, and partly we've freed up cash to spend on other (more fun..?) things.

Source: Office for National Statistics, CPI. I used UK data as it was to hand.
posted by matthewr at 2:40 PM on May 3 [7 favorites]

I have an Electrolux Model AF canister vacuum cleaner from ca. 1958 that is made out of metal throughout and still works as well as the day it was made (although it has been serviced several times). Now I keep it around out of nostalgia because my Dyson Cinetic upright outperforms by a huge amount, never loses suction and doesn't have bags that need to be replaced. On the other hand, the Dyson is mostly made of plastic and the previous Dyson I had needed to be replaced after around 8 years.
posted by slkinsey at 3:13 PM on May 3 [2 favorites]

One thing that hasn't been mentioned is that it's not purely market forces at play - in the US there are government regulations that specify how much electricity and water an appliance can use. Are you really going to go buy an appliance without a good Energystar rating?

There's a decade-old article from the WSJ (so note the bias) "How Washington Ruined Your Washing Machine" so it's not like you're the first person to complain about it.

But as others have mentioned, everything is a tradeoff so using less water and electricity typically means longer cycle times. For me this is a good tradeoff and I'm honestly a little surprised that anyone really needs dishes washed in 30 min on a regular basis, but whatever I guess. It's generally cheaper for the government to mandate reduced electricity consumption rather than build new electrical generation plants plus it results in fewer greenhouse emissions as most plants built for peak usage are gas-powered. Water is a limited resource in many parts of the US so again governments have an incentive to try to control water consumption.

As far as longevity goes my experience is that modern machines are amazing compact designs that keep the number of moving parts to a minimum which means that the few remaining parts comprise the bulk of the machine's cost. We had a dishwasher give up recently and replacing the main motor would have cost as much as a whole new dishwasher. Which makes some sense - the shell of the dishwasher is pretty cheap, hoses are cheap, it's designed to only use one motor so when that goes, well, there's nothing left really. I think appliance designers of the 1950s would marvel at how compact and efficient modern machines are.
posted by GuyZero at 3:38 PM on May 3 [4 favorites]

You might be interested in commercial equipment.

For example, a Hobart under counter dishwasher will do a load in under two minutes, 16 hours a day, 8 days a week. It will recycle the previous load's rinse water to wash the next. Some models even heat the water hot enough to sterilize your dishes (or close enough for DoHMH).

It will also cost 5k+, need half an hour to turn on, and vent so much steam you'll need an exhaust hood over it. But if you're okay with that, go for it. It wouldn't be the stupidest thing I've seen done with money.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 7:29 PM on May 3 [7 favorites]

To give a less extreme example of the strategy meaty shoe puppet mentioned, I'm the satisfied owner of a commercial washing machine of the type you might find in a laundromat or apartment complex. It has no frills and cost $1000 refurbished, but it's rugged as hell and if it ever does need a repair, there's a small army of service technicians for these things. And it does its job well. Laundromats aren't going to buy a make that runs slowly or has mold issues. (Though I'm sure this comment will tempt at least one person to reply about an awful laundromat they have known.)
posted by aws17576 at 7:52 PM on May 3 [3 favorites]

I would just remind you that there is some very significant selection bias at play when we remember how much better things like appliances were in the "good old days".

We remember the refrigerator or freezer or vacuum cleaner or washing machine that kept on running like a champ for 25 or 35 years or whatever.

But we kind of forget the 99.99% (or whatever--certainly the vast majority, whatever the exact number) of appliances that died after a year or two or even 5 or 10, that were replaced early because they never worked that well or the first repair that came up cost more than a replacement, etc.

So just keep that in mind--you're likely comparing the very best of appliances from 20-30 years ago with the full spectrum you see in the average store today--a few of which will stand the test of time and will be remembered fondly by your grandchildren or whatever, and most of which won't.
posted by flug at 10:35 PM on May 3 [2 favorites]

One of the problems with all the review sites (wirecutter, reviewed etc) is that they have a huge bias towards products that are sold on Amazon. there may be other great alternatives out there, but if Amazon don't stock it then it won't get a recommendation.
When the reviewers are being paid a commission via referral fees that is always going to skew the results.
posted by Lanark at 2:09 AM on May 4 [3 favorites]

Bought a vacuum based on's detailed descriptions, thanks, eschatfische!
posted by Ralston McTodd at 4:06 AM on May 4

Also don't forget about survivor bias in viewing the past with rosy glasses. Then as now, it seems that device longevity is kind of bimodal, even within a single product line and model number: there's enough variation within even automated manufacturing that some parts are just substandard and break early, and others can keep on working with nary a fault forever. If you plotted how long devices live, there's probably a big hump of devices that break in an expected window, and a later, smaller hump of ones that work just fine for decades on end. That latter hump is the one you can see decades later. But your parents' fridge which has worked flawlessly since the 70s sits atop a landfill full of busted fridges from the same era.
posted by jackbishop at 4:34 AM on May 4 [2 favorites]

I think another thing that is going on with a lot of manufactured goods these days is that we can use computers to figure design tolerances much more narrowly. A stapler can be made with exactly as much plastic as necessary to keep it from falling apart instead of needing to be overengineered with a big brick of plastic. So everything feels (and is) flimsier, but ideally that means it's as sturdy as necessary but no sturdier.

Used to be if a manufacturer wanted to be sure most of their appliances would keep working for 10 years they had to design them to last 20. Now they can make them much more cheaply and be reasonably sure most of them will still last ten years or whatever lifespan they are shooting for.
posted by straight at 3:00 PM on May 4 [1 favorite]

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