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Consumer Reports Screws Up Again!

You may think that I have some sort of grudge against Consumers Union and Consumer Reports magazine, since I rag on them so regularly. But the truth is that, for the most part, I respect their work. The magazine is, by and large, free of corruption, because it’s run by a non-profit organization that doesn’t accept outside advertising.

But that doesn’t mean editors and product testers don’t have their own agendas, and that’s clearly been the case with their Mac and PC coverage. Part of the problem may be over-simplification, the need to try to make often complicated technical information as understandable as possible to the general public. As a result, the differences between the Mac and Windows platforms are rarely defined in a meaningful way.

Take the September, 2007 issue, for example, which has extensive coverage on both ID theft and personal computers. There are lengthy features on both Internet threats and security software. After you read these articles, you’ll come to realize pretty quickly that most of the threats come strictly from Microsoft Windows, although Consumer Reports doesn’t really make that terribly clear unless you start to read between the lines.

Take the review of security software, for example. Only one of the companies included in the survey, Symantec, makes a Mac product. The other major provider of Mac malware protection software, Intego, isn’t represented, probably because they don’t have a large roster of Windows products.

So what should Mac users do about the state of affairs? Well, Consumer Reports isn’t clear about the fact that, as of this writing, no Mac OS X malware has been widely circulated, and most of the threats so far are in the potential or proof-of-concept category. The sole reason for installing virus protection software on your Mac, they admit, is to keep you from accidentally spreading an infection to your fellow Windows users. There’s also a smattering of that security-through-obscurity argument, that the Mac would be more susceptible to such threats if it had a larger market share. But with Apple tied for fourth in the U.S. retail market as of the most recent sales survey, I should think the Mac represents a large enough target for Internet vandals to have their way with us, if there was a chance their filth would quickly spread far and wide.

I dare say that if you were seriously considering whether to buy a Windows PC, a fast read of that Consumer Reports article should give you pause. Take a look at all the potential threats from which you have to be protected, such as viruses, spyware and all the rest. Consider, also, the drag on your system from installing such software. The magazine suggests that you need 1GB of RAM, minimum, to prevent system slowdowns because of all that preventive sludge that keeps Windows reasonably secure.

Add to that the fact that you have to make sure that your software is not only updated regularly, but that you spend an average of $50 per year to renew your security coverage. That’s like the insurance policy that never ends until you depart the mortal plane of existence.

I know some of you will remind me that there are definitely free alternatives to the commercial protection products, but not all of them are near as comprehensive. Besides, the average user is not going to find it easy to select the right applications that work properly together, and that’s the main audience of Consumer Reports.

Now this particular issue also contains reviews of new computers, with Apple’s products continuing to get high marks. But there’s nothing in the articles to explain what makes the Mac OS different from Windows other than that a Mac seems to carry a high retail price. Worse, the Windows PCs selected aren’t always competitive matches with the Macs, since they might lack key features, such as FireWire 800, gigabit Ethernet and other components that Apple makes standard issue. Such things often require the click of the Customize button on the PC, where the price may jump rapidly if you select too many checkboxes.

Oh, and by the way, there was also a brief review of the iPhone, where Consumer Reports concluded that call quality was “so-so.” How so? Not clear, not loud enough, what? To my way of thinking, the quality of the review itself was so-so.

However, the worst flaw is the one that Consumer Reports still refuses to address, and that is specifics on why the Mac and the PC are different. Now I realize that might be a tough call in a general interest consumer magazine, but a few paragraphs in a sidebar would help. Also, it would be nice if their product testers would do direct Mac and Windows comparisons to see which operating system is easier to master and to use for your day-to-day work.

But that might work against their agenda, particularly if that agenda favors Windows. Regardless of the reasoning, it means that, once again, Consumer Reports has failed to deliver a quality computer review, and I don’t see that situation changing anytime soon; that is, unless the magazine’s editors wake up and realize that the Mac and the PC really are different animals and attempt to explain to their readers why.