Various fundamental phenomena of strongly correlated quantum systems such as high-$T_c$ superconductivity, the fractional quantum-Hall effect and quark confinement are still awaiting a universally accepted explanation. The main obstacle is the computational complexity of solving even the most simplified theoretical models which are designed to capture the relevant quantum correlations of the many-body system of interest. In his seminal 1982 paper (Feynman 1982 Int. J. Theor. Phys. 21 467), Richard Feynman suggested that such models might be solved by ‘simulation’ with a new type of computer whose constituent parts are effectively governed by a desired quantum many-body dynamics. Measurements on this engineered machine, now known as a ‘quantum simulator,’ would reveal some unknown or difficult to compute properties of a model of interest. We argue that a useful quantum simulator must satisfy four conditions: relevance, controllability, reliability and efficiency. We review the current state of the art of digital and analog quantum simulators. Whereas so far the majority of the focus, both theoretically and experimentally, has been on controllability of relevant models, we emphasize here the need for a careful analysis of reliability and efficiency in the presence of imperfections. We discuss how disorder and noise can impact these conditions, and illustrate our concerns with novel numerical simulations of a paradigmatic example: a disordered quantum spin chain governed by the Ising model in a transverse magnetic field. We find that disorder can decrease the reliability of an analog quantum simulator of this model, although large errors in local observables are introduced only for strong levels of disorder. We conclude that the answer to the question ‘Can we trust quantum simulators?’ is$\ldots$ to some extent.