• Consumer Reports: Will They Ever Learn?

    November 19th, 2005

    The December issue of Consumer Reports is typically a holiday shopping guide. From vacuum cleaners, to personal computers, you’ll learn about the latest and greatest. Well, more or less that is. Once again, Apple is both praised and given unfair treatment at the hands of the anonymous editors and writers of CR. In distilling the contents to serve a non-technical audience, readers are poorly served. They not only get information about Macs that may be incomplete, but may contain errors. Worse, the differences between the Mac OS and Windows are barely explained, except for the fact that viruses for the latter outnumber the former by 1,000 to one.

    One? Well, except for some proofs of concept, there haven’t been any genuine Mac OS X viruses, but CR is under a different impression.

    Let’s take a look at the ill-concealed ills of the December 2005 computer roundup, which bears the subtitle “Multimedia unleashed.”

    A section labeled “Shopsmart” details the specifications for various types of personal computer categories, but completely ignores the Mac and how its alternative processor choices dovetail with the descriptions of Intel Pentium and AMD Athlon chips. In the section entitled “Decide between Windows and Mac,” we learn that more software is available for Windows users, but Apple has superior technical support and that “viruses and spyware are also far less likely to target Macs than Windows PC.” Nowhere is it mentioned that Apple is moving to Intel chips or what it might mean to the consumer.

    Forgetting for the moment CR’s confusion about Mac malware, and it’s difficult, the poor reader learns nothing about how the actual operating systems differ. That has been a chronic CR deficiency for years.

    In the actual product picks, the Mac mini gets high ratings for the most part, although it is dinged for lack of expansion and its “Convenience” rates merely “Good” compared to “Very good” and “Excellent” for all other computers. At the same time, CR contradicts itself and praises the Mac mini as being “more user-friendly than comparable budget Windows PCs and includes a FireWire port and a DVD writer.” The magazine reviewed the high end version of the mini, with its $699 price rounded out to $700. No mention is made that there’s a $499–excuse me–$500 version.

    At least Macs are no longed attacked for being too expensive. The iMac, for example, is said to be “priced about the same as a similarly equipped Windows system.” Finally, the truth is out there, and CR has realized it. Well, I suppose I should be pleased about such progress. Maybe CR will eventually get it, but I’m not holding my breath.

    But there is something really strange in in the list of product features. The iMac G5, eMac and Mac mini are all listed as having a single free PCI slot. I challenge CR’s editors to tell us where those slots might be found. Worse, the magazine doesn’t explain to the reader why they might need them or why such expansion capability has any value to anyone but power users and high-end business purposes. The fact of the matter is that, even where expansion slots are available, they are seldom filled.

    One thing that’s fairly obvious, however, and that is that typical PC technical support only gets worse and worse. Where Dell once received reader scores in the 60-plus range, it is now down to a mediocre 55 for desktops and 58 for laptops. Apple remains at the head of the pack, with a 77 for desktops and an 82 for laptops. For some reason, Web support for the former is not quite as good as the latter, although the information all emanates from the same sources. However, the magazine’s disclaimer explains that as a result of “differences in timing and methodology, the charts are not directly comparable.” Oh well, I’ll let that one ride.

    Reader ratings for reliability show Apple at the head of the class, despite hardware problems with the first generation iMac G5. But issues with several generations of iBooks have clearly taken their toll, as Apple is in the middle of the pack when it comes to laptops, behind Sony, IBM and Toshiba.

    Now some of you may feel that CR is staffed by a bunch of Windows advocates who are giving Macs short shrift in subtle ways to favor their chosen platform. I am not about to make such a charge, since there’s no support for it. I wouldn’t even hazard a guess as to the office politics at CR’s headquarters. Instead, I’ll stick with my original feeling, that the effort to dumb down its contents has taken its toll. That and, alas, usually refusing to admit when it’s wrong, such as the belief that a survey showed that 20% of Mac users had encountered viruses in the past two years. Now that’s a survey that is clearly out of this world!

    But why do I bother with CR to begin with? Well, its circulation is larger than any computer magazine, and millions depend on it for accurate information before making a purchase decision. That’s why I’m going to continue to hammer away at the topic, in the hope that someone at CR will realize there has to be a better approach to its computer reviews.

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