Product Reviews Under Duress, or Buff Books are Fun!

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Earlier this week, someone asked, on a Usenet forum,

So what's the verdict on SRAM?

The inquisitor was asking about a relatively new drivetrain for road racing bicycles, a field with only three vendors at the high end, including SRAM. The product itself is not universally interesting, but it started me musing about the habits of specialist magazines (web and print) whose content includes a lot of product reviews, and who derive a lot of advertising revenue from the vendors of those products. Insiders refer to them as "buff books." I've written these sorts of reviews.

Therefore, as a public service, I present the following. it was originally posted in, but has been edited and annotated. The review is specific to cycling, but the review of the review is broadly applicable:

Cyclingnews posted a review of SRAM Force, the penultimate group, which they gave a "4" on their rating scale, which goes from 4 to 5.

This may not tell you much about SRAM Force, but it does give us an excuse to explain the subtle art of reading a buff-book tech review and extracting actual data. Follow along as I parse selected quotes.

While there are still a few key differences, Force is now so close to Red [SRAM's high-end group] in look, feel and performance that there's almost no reason to move up any higher in the company's range.

You should buy Rival [the SRAM group one grade lower than Force].

...the 2010 Force levers still offer very natural-feeling ergonomics with independently reach-adjustable brake levers and shift paddles, and longer lever blades for easier braking from the drops.

Braking from the drops has been upgraded from terrible to less terrible.

As with all SRAM road shifters, spring tensions are reassuringly firm and there's very good tactile feedback but lever feel is still a bit tinny compared to Shimano or Campagnolo, though hardly offensive and easy to get used to.

Spring tension is excessive. The lever feels like knock-off junk.

Rear shift performance has been refined slightly over the original Force group, mostly on account of the updated PG-1070 cassette (the PC-1070 chain is unchanged and updates to the rear derailleur are essentially cosmetic). The new PowerGlide shaping reinserts the omitted teeth of the original OpenGlide design but with no perceivable hit in shifting speed or smoothness.

The novel feature they were so proud of was utter crap in practice. They've abandoned it, thank goodness.

What has improved, however, is the sound quality: even with the same chain design as before, the PG-1070 cassette is noticeably quieter-running and feels a bit silkier under load, thus eliminating a major – and valid – complaint of SRAM critics.

We didn't mention the atrocious noise in previous reviews. We can't afford to burn potential sponsors with such abandon. Now that they've fixed that show-stopper, we can tell you about it.

Front shifts on our standard-drive test unit were very good overall but lacking in refinement compared to Campag. Unfortunately for SRAM, that performance gap grows even wider when compared to Shimano and their new fantastically rigid outer rings, which yield the best front shifting in the business hands-down.

Front shifting is worst in class.

Both lever feel and overall power have improved over the already-very-good levels thanks to the stiffer and more heavily triangulated upper arm, and both panic stops and decelerations in high-speed descents are handled with competence and confidence. But again, recent advances in Shimano's braking systems put SRAM in catch-up mode.

Weight remains virtually unchanged from the previous generation but the new arms do finally gain proper centring and spring tension adjustments.

Braking is not good. On the other hand, the old version was both worse and non-adjustable.

Arguments between the virtues and vices of the three major component groups aside, this latest Force iteration raises interesting questions for the fate of SRAM's flagship Red package as it offers a superb weight-to-price ratio and excellent overall performance with just a handful of minor areas of improvement.

As bad as Force is, Red is just as bad and far more expensive. So it's got that going for it.

In the meantime, Force buyers will be well served knowing they're getting nearly all of the function and performance of the top dog at a much lower price. But if you're willing to deal with another 100g or so, SRAM's value king Rival group is almost an exact replica of Force in terms of function and around £400 [~C$640] cheaper.

Force's marketing function is to be a moron tax. If you're contemplating buying a SRAM group, get Rival: it's just as crappy, but costs less.

(I did some street-price comparisons, and it looks like Ultegra (Shimano's penultimate group: it works well, but may be heavier than Force) is cheaper than Force, and 105 (Shimano's next group down) is WAY cheaper than Rival. That may reflect the UK market; it may be less expensive around here. The most important practical difference between the Shimano, Campagnolo, and SRAM systems are ergonomic: each uses a different brake lever shape and shifting action, and the preference is a matter of taste. Shimano also sells an ultra-high-end electronic shifting system, a product that is both very expensive and very different from anything else for sale).