Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Reliability vs build quality

The concepts of reliability and build quality are often confused, both in terms and in impressions. A reliable item may look fragile, and a well-put-together one may have fatal flaws.

Japanese cars are known to be hugely reliable. A Honda or Toyota will simply not go wrong, ever. At the same time they tend to be rather flimsy, especially for a person engaging in an experiment to study The Thousand Dollar Car Theory. Then you have the newer Audis, which are known primarily for excellent interior materials and feeling very solid; but they can hardly compete with a Civic in endurance.

What's more important?

The first proper mp3 player I had was a Creative Nomad Zen USB2.0. It had excellent audio quality, and was completely encased in anodized aluminium (as opposed to white plastic) over a magnezium frame. This made it more or less impervious to damage. I owned it for slightly more than a year, from July 2003 to November 2004. In that time it had been dropped many times, occasionally down flights of stairs, often while working (which is a particularly bad thing for hard-drive-based players). Through it all, it was completely reliable, bravely playing music until the day it was buried in a hunk of bent metal that was my Mazda 323 after a head-on crash. Unfortunately a few months after I got it, the display backlight failed. It didn't burn out - it was a LED, and besides, it came back intermittently afterwards - rather it was a bad piece of soldering somewhere. Later, some of the buttons began to pack up. Not completely you understand, they just worked in unexpected ways, or sometimes not at all. I couldn't have it fixed under warranty, because I bought it during my stay in California and thus it was not covered by a European warranty. Quite annoying really.

From early spring of 2005, I've been using an Archos Gmini 400. Now, Archos is a French company, and as much as I would like to express European solidarity here, the French are not known for building reliable things. The Gmini is also metal, although it naturally doesn't have anything approaching the Zen's body armor. So far it's suffered a couple bad falls, never operational. I can't say it's been easy on the poor bugger. It's scuffed at the edges, the back of the shell is bent and the CompactFlash slot hinge is more loose than I'd like it to be. And yet, every button still works as intended. The Gmini was not designed to be reliable, but the build quality is very impressive.

So what's better to have? Let me put it this way. I never regretted buying either gadget - but in aggregate the Gmini has given me a lot less grief. All with a more vulnerable design (the huge color screen doesn't help), more functionality and the same price.

All consumer electronics are made by the same Chinese OEMs these days. Reliability is a matter of design. Build quality is a matter of stimulating manufacturers to produce excellent results. In my opinion, the latter is a more difficult job; and experience shows that it does pay off more.

1 comment:

Dennis Forbes said...

Here in North America the domestics tend to lead in initial quality surveys - The things that go wrong on delivery. The assembly quality of North American cars actually tends to be very good - empirically the best.

Of course that isn't real reliability. When it comes to actual reliability - the sort engineered into the design - of course they falter, and several years in the Dodge Caravan is far more likely to have had several issues than a Honda Odyssey, as an example.

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