User reviews can offer valuable insight into a product's real value after the sale. But many review sites also contain write-ups by fanboys, axe-grinders, and even a few shills. How do you know which reviews to trust?

Once upon a time, the only reviews of a product you'd encounter were from specialty publications such as PC Advisor, written by professionals who were paid to put devices through their paces and report the results.

But behold the transformative power of the internet. These days, online reviews have evolved to take advantage of the medium's strengths, and they've expanded to fill the extra space.

Retailers such as Amazon love user reviews, and have made them an integral part of the sales cycle.

"Do your research right here, on this page, before you buy!" they seem to say, passing off user reviews as a complete replacement for professional reviews.

Bloggers, fans, and enthusiasts by the millions now share their feelings about all sorts of tech products - on their own sites or as free content for other sites.

However, marketers, faced with the reality that traditional marketing has lost much of its power, create replicants that walk and talk like authentic reviews, but ultimately just repeat feature lists and phrases crafted to appeal to specific demographics.

There are also many more sources of good advice that a consumer can look to prior to making a purchase.

The challenge is to figure out how to filter out the junk and find the feedback that tells you what you need to know.

Here are three strategies to get the most out of user reviews. Taken together, they can help you ensure that you'll make a wise decision on your next purchase.

Figure out your real needs

First, be honest with yourself. If you plan to buy a digital camera, be clear in advance about whether you plan to be a professional photographer or are simply looking for an easy-to-pocket model that you can use to capture snapshots of birthday parties and recitals?

Being realistic about your needs will help you impose an appropriate budget on yourself, and it will enable you to home in on the right review types - casual anecdotes from past customers, mass-market overviews from newspapers and general-audience websites, in-depth and standardised evaluations from professionals, or hard-core geekery from specialty forums.

You needn't - and shouldn't - limit yourself to one review source (more about that in a moment), but knowing where to start will help you avoid wasting time and will prevent you from being overwhelmed or seduced by jargon.

Another crucial step is to make your own feature list. Doing so will help you organise your priorities so that you can quickly evaluate models before plunging into the reviews.

A quick online search for 'intro to HDTV', for example, should help you gather enough information from experts to assemble (in less than 15 minutes) a short list of must-haves, would-like-to-haves, and deal-breakers.

Create this list before you start browsing user reviews. If you look at the reviews first, they may subtly influence you to add things to your 'must-have' feature list that don't belong there.

If you want some feedback before you start shopping, run the list by regulars on a forum that specialises in the category - but be sure to explain just what kind of consumer you are so you'll receive relevant advice.

NEXT PAGE: Balance your reviews diet

  1. How to use them and how not to
  2. Balance your reviews diet
  3. Lack of standardisation
  4. Avoid the shills
  5. How to spot a shill
  6. Reviews aren't everything