Which of the following cloth belts would you rather have?
Belt 1: 42 Stamina, 30 Intellect, 49 Spell Power
Belt 2: 9 Stamina, 39 Intellect, 50 Spell Power, 7 Mana Regen/5 seconds
Don't get me wrong, stamina is a useful stat, since a dead mage deals no damage. Then again, so is mana regeneration, and that's actually a decent chunk of mana regen on top of minor upgrades on the other two stats. For most cloth casters, I'd call belt number 2 the clear winner.
The catch? Belt number 1 is the [Path Cutter's Cord], an ilvl 154 green quest reward from a level 74 quest in the Grizzly Hills. Belt number 2? That's the ilvl 138 [Gholamcloth Wrap], socketed with the lowest quality, cheapest Northrend gems (a [Runed Bloodstone] and a [Glowing Shadow Crystal] - note that you could trade in the 9 stamina for 6 spirit or 2 mana/5 for swapping to a different purple gem, or you could ignore the socket bonus and gain an extra 3 spell power for using two bloodstones) from a level 71 quest in the Howling Fjord.
Gem Inflation and Northrend Items
Those of you who ever considered epic quality gems may have noticed that the Bloodstone is good for 14 damage, which is two MORE damage than the epic quality [Runed Crimson Spinel] that represented the top of the line a month ago. This is not an accident - Blizzard did not want players to feel obliged to farm Karazhan for badges to buy gems, so they just wiped the gem slate clean by making even the weakest level 80 cut better than the best level 70. Enchantments went through a similar process.
The difference with gems, however, is that not every item has sockets. Blizzard clearly has some value they're assigning in the item budget for giving an item a socket compared to some other stat (say, more spell power). Additionally, items that spend almost all of their budgets on a large value of a single statistic receive a penalty for doing so, while adding a socket does NOT seem to add such a penalty, even though players can and will ignore the suggested colors to stack the stat of their choice. (I only socketed my hypothetical case with a red and a purple because the socket bonus was for spell damage.) The result is the example I gave above - a substantially lower level item with sockets is better than a higher level item that does not have sockets.
Obviously, it's not breaking news that some quest rewards are better than others. Also, Blizzard claims to have made a conscious decision to avoid sockets in leveling items, since players will be replacing them over time. Still, I can't help but wonder whether they fully anticipated the effects of making socketed gems more powerful. People coveted items they could fill with red gems in TBC as well, but more powerful gems may exacerbate the problem. As it is, it looks like an item with more sockets will be better than a nominally more powerful item with fewer sockets for what - I'm guessing - may be longer than Blizzard has in mind.
Changing the profession landscape?
It will also be interesting, or perhaps alarming, to see what this change does to jewelcrafting. I previously discussed Wrath's changes to BoP profession perks. With an increased focus on sockets, the jewelcrafter-only gems may increase in value simply because everyone has some blue/yellow socket they're rather not have to fill with a purple/orange gem.
Case in point, the Mage forum at subcreation.net has a pair of threads going on in which disgruntled tailors are pondering the benefits of dropping tailoring. As a mage with tailoring, I have to admit that I'm at least considering Jewelcrafting (once I get my alts high enough to do my mining for me, I'm neither dropping enchanting nor buying literally all the minerals I'd need off the AH), and the need to fill sockets weighs heavily in that decision.