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Consumer Reports Flips a Finger Again at Mac Users

When I read an article the other day that Macs were finally getting a better break in the June 2008 issue of Consumer Reports, in an article entitled “Best & worst computers,” I felt optimistic. Up till now, although Macs routinely get good marks in their tests, the magazine’s editors do little or nothing to distinguish them from the generic PCs they review.

In fact, for all intents and purposes, you get the strong impression that a Mac is nothing more than a pretty PC with a higher price. Period.

So what was there about the June issue that seemed to inspire that optimism? Well, I read the article, and, frankly, I found nothing in it to foster the impression that Consumer Reports had actually changed its ways. For one thing, the few instructional paragraphs provided, such as what to do about removing programs, were decidedly Windows-oriented. Once again, the article and the various sidebars didn’t contain any information to help the magazine’s millions of readers decide whether to go Mac or PC.

Lots of product features were listed in the tables accompanying the ratings, but with little guidance about whether any of them have significant value or even the purpose they serve. The ubiquitous card readers, for example, which allow you to handle media cards from different hardware. How many Mac or PC users need them — really? Most of us have a single digital camera, which can be attached directly to your Mac’s USB port to download your photos. Where there are multiple devices at hand, you can always buy a card reader for a small sum, rather than pay to have it included with the computer as standard equipment.

The biggest missing category, though, is “Ease of Use.” You find that in the review on monitors, which, by the way, excludes Apple’s display line, but not with personal computers, where it really counts.

Years ago, one of the earliest TV spots about the iMac touted the simple setup process that involved three steps to get online. “There is no step four,” the announcer added. But Consumer Reports, owned by a non-profit corporation that touts its independence from influence by the companies whose products it reviews, doesn’t provide a single word about the setup process when you buy a new computer, nor the issues involved in migrating your stuff from an older computer, which can be a daunting process. Or used to be, since Apple’s Migration Assistant makes Mac to Mac upgrades a trivial process in most cases.

Worse, the magazine doesn’t do anything to explain to its readers how Mac OS X and Windows differ, their plusses and minuses — and such categories can be fairly applied to both. They fail to realize that personal computers are still not commodity products, such as toaster ovens, and they appear unable to address the real usability problems that persist on all platforms.

So, in the end, Consumer Reports fails abysmally in its PC review process.

Sure, Apple’s products got high marks. Their customer support ranks way ahead of all the competition, and those figures are based on reader surveys from tens of thousands of participants, not arbitrary editorial standards. There is, by the way, one potentially troubling area, which is note-book reliability, where Apple rates dead last with a rating of 23, compared to a high water mark of 20, achieved by Lenovo, which acquired IBM’s PC business a few years ago.

However, statistically speaking, such differences are relatively minor and may not impact you all that much. As the magazine itself states, “differences of less than three points are not meaningful.”

So where has Apple failed — if that is truly a failure? Well perhaps the well-publicized extended repair programs on certain Mac note-book models to replace such components as batteries and logic boards, which may experience premature failure. While current models seem to be quite robust, reliability scores follow an historical trend, and it may take a few years for improvements to register.

In saying that, I would grant that, within the limits of the survey, note-book reliability is quite close among all the major brands. The Dell is not any more likely to fail than an Apple, the top-rated Lenovo, or a Gateway. They are all, in fact, assembled by the very same Asian factories, using industry-standard components. So how would you expect them to be all that different?

In the desktop universe, Apple excels with a 12, compared to a range of 17 to 20, again statistically insignificant, for the rest of the bunch.

As to the magazine’s curious editorial posture, some years ago, one of their IT people told me that the editors who managed the PC test process were heavily biased towards Windows. While Apple’s products continue to be reviewed and garner superior ratings, the bias clearly persists, and that may explain why they still won’t provide any meaningful guidance as to which PC operating system is best for their mostly consumer audience.

When you consider that Consumer Reports has a combined circulation larger than all the Mac and PC magazines combined, that’s a tragedy. At the same time, I suppose you can find other product categories, such as autos, where their reviews may fail to distinguish the advantages of models that, while a little quirky in some respects, deliver a driving experience that is unique, enjoyable, but still safe.

Or maybe all of this is due to their ongoing editorial “dumbing down” process that removes important information that would better serve the interests of all their readers. Will that ever change? Frankly, I’m not at all optimistic. Next time Consumer Reports covers PCs, a few Mac commentators will again state they have changed their ways, but that’s just not the way it really is.