I like the idea of ‘expert review’ websites like The Wirecutter where people put a lot of work into recommending the best item in a given category. Unfortunately a lot of these sites actually make bad recommendations, in my opinion, and often neglect consumer surplus — how much more a product is worth to you than you paid for it. I enjoy finding products that give me a lot of consumer surplus and recommending them to others, and I think I have a pretty good track record of finding products that are just clearly better than alternatives, even if not necessarily the most expensive or from the top brands. This is a list of those products that I’ll try to update as I come up with new ones. If you have any suggestions, please contact me on Twitter — there’s a list of things that I’m particularly interested in at the end of the post.
NB: I’m using Amazon referral links where appropriate, out of curiosity and greed.
Xiaomi Redmi Note 4 (Global Edition) — £130–170
I rave about this phone to everyone who’ll listen. I’ve owned most of the Nexuses, a OnePlus 3T and OnePlus One, and a few other phones, and this is clearly the best for my needs I’ve ever had.
The reason is that the battery is extraordinary and the price is very low at around £130–170 (depending on whether you go for 3GB or 4GB RAM). Thanks to the phone’s energy-efficient processor (a Snapdragon 625) and large battery I can typically finish a day of heavy usage (ie, using it constantly when I’m not at my desk at work) with 30% or so of battery left over. It’s sufficiently fast for a normal person’s use and has a nice, accurate fingerprint scanner on the back. There are two downsides: it uses a weird Android skin (which I found annoying) and its camera is very bad in low and indoor light. Both of these problems can be solved by unlocking the phone and installing a custom ROM — not only can you pretty easily install stock Android, there’s also a modded camera app that drastically improves the quality of photos.
It has to be imported from China, so it takes a little while to come, and make sure you’re buying the Global Edition or it will not work with all UK 4G bands. I bought mine from HonorBuy without problems but I think The Solution Shop is probably a better bet.
Update: You might want to consider the Xiaomi Mi A1, which runs stock Android out of the box, but the battery is worse and it costs more. If you can’t be bothered to unlock the Note 4 and install stock Android the A1 might be better though.
Update 2: Xiaomi have announced a phone that seems like the spiritual successor to the RN4, the Redmi Note 5 Pro. This isn’t out yet at the time of writing, and so far it doesn’t have support for LTE bands that we use in the West, but if it comes out supporting those it will overtake the RN5 as my recommended phone buy. I should also admit that I’ve recently bought a much more expensive phone, the Google Pixel 2 XL. It’s a bit worse in terms of battery life but runs more quickly, has a far better camera and has good software support — but it costs a whopping £750. I’m happy with the purchase so far, but would only recommend it to people who are on their phones for 5+ hours a day and are willing to pay a substantial premium for a slightly improved experience. The RN4 and RN5+ are still much better value.
I forewarn you that I’m severely deaf in one ear so my earbud recommendations may be insufficient for ‘audiophiles’, but I listen to music constantly and have tried at least twenty different kinds of earbud, and find these by far the best. The sound is decent, but the real selling points for me are the price (under £7), the comfort, and the fact that once they’re in your ears they stay there. Earbuds are semi-disposable, if you lose them as often as I do, so it’s very important that they’re cheap enough that you can buy a new pair without much annoyance when you lose them. What put me off The Wirecutter for good was their recommendation of a pair of Monoprice headphones that, however good they sounded, were extremely uncomfortable and constantly fell out of my ears. These don’t do that for me — but I should note that my friend finds them very uncomfortable, though he likes the sound, so buyer beware.
It’s a little uninspiring to recommend the Amazon best selling product in its category, I know, but this really is an amazing piece of kit. The sound is loud and handles bass well, the speaker feels very sturdy, but best of all the battery seems impossible to run down. I bought one in April this year after losing my old one, listen to it every day in the shower and many evenings in the kitchen, and I still haven’t had to recharge it yet. £30 well spent!
Update: There’s now a slightly more expensive version of this that supposedly has better bass. I can’t vouch for it being worth the extra £10.
This glues onto the back of your mobile phone or phone case and pops out to act as a little handle for when you’re using your phone one-handed. It sounds stupid and most people hate the little bump the popsocket makes when it’s not in use… until they try one for themselves. I don’t ever worry about dropping my phone while using it with one hand anymore, and it’s all thanks to this. What a smart little invention.
Not much to say about this other than it’s a comfortable, portable bluetooth mouse for £6. It’s the equal of Logitech mice that sell for forty pounds or so, and generally just works when you plug it in without needing extra software. The side buttons (which you might use to go forward or backwards on a web browser, for example) don’t work on macOS, unfortunately, unless there’s some software out there that I’m not aware of.
Sistema Microwave Rice Steamer — £7.50
Making rice in a saucepan on the hob absolutely sucks, in my experience. You either do it the ‘correct’ way of not stirring it for ages and risk burning the bottom, or you use easy cook rice that’s kind of gross. This rice steamer works perfectly. Just throw 250g of dried rice (any kind seems to work, I like jasmine mostly — you can buy 5kg sacks very cheaply in any oriental supermarket) and about a pint of water and let it microwave for twelve minutes, then stand for another five. It comes out light and fluffy and you can actually leave it standing for a long time (at least half an hour) and it retains the heat, so it eliminates one major cooking headache. And since microwaves are very energy efficient, it’ll save you electricity too! Get the 2.6 litre version, the 4 litre version is too big for most microwaves.
Update: This has been by far the most popular recommendation in this post.
Wooden lemon reamer — £3
If you don’t own one of these you have probably wasted hundreds, maybe thousands, of calories on squeezing lemons and limes over the course of your life. They are £3 each, you only ever need to buy one once in your life, and they get all the juice out easily. Especially good if you like the taste of cocktails but don’t like wasting money on them by going to cocktail bars — with one of these, you can make one of my famous Cuba Libres with ease!
A cast iron skillet — £12
This might be obvious to everyone already, but cast iron skillets are incredibly cheap and incredibly versatile. You can buy an ‘unseasoned’ one for £12. Seasoning isn’t difficult but requires some time — a cold winter Saturday, say—spent at home building up the coating by rubbing a thin layer of oil over it, baking it to polymerise the oil, letting it cool, and repeating a few times. The result is an almost indestructable pan that you can use for frying, roasting (I can fit a small chicken onto mine), etc, for the most part without any sticking. It’s not as good as a very expensive tri-ply pan, but I find myself using this for almost everything — except eggs, which do need a proper teflon non-stick pan in my experience.
Victorinox chef’s knife—£27 or Wusthof chef’s knife—£63
The Victorinox is unbeatable at the lower end of the price range, keeps its edge for a long time, and is sturdy enough for anything except cutting through bone. Unless you cook so much that you want to shell out for a knife twice the price, it’s pretty much the only kitchen knife you need. The handle is plasticky and cheap feeling, though.
Although I use and like my Victorinox, I cook so much and firmly believe that you only need one knife for 95% of what you do in the kitchen that I treated myself to something more expensive. My Wusthof chef’s knife is a joy to use and has a weight and strength that the Victorinox doesn’t, allowing it to cut through joints and some bones. It is double the price though, and I would only recommend it to someone who cooks frequently. It is wonderful though.
Previous versions of this recommended a whetstone for sharpening, which is a huge pain in the ass to use. On the recommendation of Twitter’s David Paxton, I bought the Lansky Deluxe Knife Sharpening System, which has been extremely easy and effective. David says he can get razor sharpness on his knives with it — I’m not there yet, but I think it’s an outstanding bit of kit. It’s also nice to be able to offer to sharpen friends’ knives for them too, as the kit comes in a handy portable little box.
Any instant-read food thermometer will do here, but this is one of those things that you don’t realise you need in the kitchen until you have one. It’s good for checking the temperature of roasted meat and oil if you’re deep frying at home without a proper deep fat frier. For the little baking I do, it’s useful to check if a sourdough is ready too.
Every Grain of Rice, by Fuchsia Dunlop (£20), The Food Lab, by J. Kenji López-Alt (£32), and Salt Fat Acid Heat, by Samin Nosrat (£30).
These are my desert island recipe books. Every Grain of Rice is recipes from around China (there’s very little of the sort of Cantonese food you’d get from a Chinese takeaway) and makes it astonishingly easy to make delicious and very exotic meals without going nuts buying lots of obscure ingredients that you’ll never use again. In fact, other than a wok, there are only about six basic things you need to buy to make half or more of the recipes in the book, all of which can be bought at a standard oriental supermarket. I particularly like the book’s emphasis on vegetable-heavy dishes, which makes the dishes generally inexpensive to make.
The Food Lab is based on the blog of the same name at SeriousEats, and I consider its recipes to be definitive. It’s “American food” in the broad sense, which includes stuff like lasagna and lots of salads as well as stuff like buffalo wings and hamburgers. No other recipe online approaches this book’s mac and cheese recipe, which is super easy and amazingly delicious, and almost every other recipe from the book I’ve tried has been a big success too.
Salt Fat Acid Heat is less a book of recipes (although it does include some) than an attempt to deconstruct cooking into its fundamentals to give you a more intuitive understanding of what makes a dish taste and feel the way it does, and how to improvise as you cook. I adore the recipes, which often take the form of basic templates that can be modified in simple ways to get a different cuisine’s flavour profile, and it’s been my most used recipe book of the past six months or so.
Nespresso machine — £60
I use mine multiple times a day and, with Aldi or Lidl coffee pods, it’s not too expensive to actually maintain — about 17p per cup of coffee. My alternative would be the Aeropress, but it’s slower and more work, and in the morning, when I just want a cup of coffee as soon as possible, every second counts. I’m sure if you’re a coffee person you are aghast at me recommending a Nespresso (and will no doubt tell me so) but usually I just want a cup of half-decent coffee without much effort or cost and this does the job nicely.
Primark sunglasses — £1.50-£2
Unless for some reason you want to waste money on a pair of designer shades and spend your life worrying about them, sunglasses are disposable. You put them down in the park or you accidentally sit on them on the bus, whatever. The point is that you don’t want to waste any more than is absolutely necessary for a pair of sunny-g’s, especially since they all look the same anyway. Primark is a winner here — you can get a pair for £1.50 and they usually have wayfarer-style pairs that will have your friends thinking you’ve spent a good ten or fifteen pounds more than you actually have.
Uniqlo Airism underwear (£9.90) OR Ex Officio travel underwear
This item is a work in progress. Ex Officio travel underwear is, in my view, the best underwear you can get for the price whether you’re travelling or not. Yes, they dry amazingly quickly if you do need to wash them in a hotel sink, but more importantly they are very good at keeping you dry in hot, sticky weather and they seem to last forever. The pairs I bought back in 2012 or so are still going strong.
But there’s a catch. For some reason these are now very difficult to buy in the UK at a price that I think is tolerable for a pair of underpants. As a result, I’ve mostly switched to the second-best, which is easily available — Uniqlo’s Airism line. They basically do the same as Ex Officio, are slightly more comfortable but they’re thinner and a bit less good in hot weather. I suggest getting one size larger than you normally do.
I’ve found a Chinese supplier who purporting to sell Ex Officios, delivered, for $16 each. I suspect these are fake, but I’ve ordered a pair and I’ll be able to say for sure when they arrive in a couple of weeks. Watch this space!
I use this for two reasons: it lasts forever, and it doesn’t create a hardened build-up on my clothes like roll-ons do. I was very sceptical about using a crystal deodorant, but I am confident that it works at least as well as any normal deodorant and a number of people who know me personally (and so are probably decent judges of how well it works) have started using it themselves, also successfully as far as I can tell. I am still using a stick I bought in January 2015 at the time of writing in October 2017!
J-pillow travel pillow — £16
I really hate flying overnight because I can never sleep. The J-pillow doesn’t really change that, but it’s the closest I can come to sleeping while sitting upright, and it’s astonishingly comfortable compared either to the crappy pillows they give you on those flights or the U-shaped pillows that most people use. The “J” is an extra arm that goes under your neck, so you can lean your head naturally to the side and forward with some support. The pillow is firm enough to support the weight of a large male head.
I feel a bit iffy about recommending melatonin for general use, because in my own experience you end up needing it to get to sleep if you use it every night. Maybe homeostasis means your body produces less of it naturally if you take it like this. I also don’t find it very helpful for falling asleep. But it is extremely useful to me for one specific reason: it keeps me asleep when I need it to. If I’ve been out drinking, I occasionally wake up very early (5am or so) and can’t get back to sleep, and it’s horrible. Taking one melatonin, even in very small amounts (I break 3mg pills in half usually), does the job. I buy in pharmacists in the US so can’t recommend a UK stockist. Here is Gwern’s review of the research into the effects of melatonin.
I’m a huge snob about not using polyester in anything that touches my skin, but I ordered this without realising it was made of polyester and decided to give it a try anyway. I’ve been pleasantly surprised and now use it just as happily as I do my cotton bedsheets. Weirdly, though, the duvet and pillow cover set made of the same material has been really crappy — the duvet cover doesn’t have enough friction against the duvet itself, so the duvet gets messed up around in the cover, and the pillows are just not that nice to rest your head on. Avoid the duvet cover set but get the sheet.
Items I’d like suggestions about:
- Socks (Currently: M&S, John Lewis)
- Dress shirts (Currently: TM Lewin, Charles Tyrwhitt)
- Suits (Currently: SuitSupply)
Items I’m considering adding to this list:
Meat tenderiser — I use this to make cheaper cuts of meat, like pork shoulder steaks or beef round steak, more tender and appetising. It works well, so much so that a pork shoulder steak that’s been tenderised and fried is easy enough to eat in a sandwich, but I’m not sure if it has enough versatility and staying power.
Hario glass teapot — I don’t really drink enough tea to firmly endorse this, but it’s a very pretty little pot for the price.