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  • Yet Another Reviewing the Reviewers

    December 9th, 2009

    Please Note: We’re a little late today. Your long-suffering editor is recovering from surgery and things got, well, a little complicated Tuesday. But the situation is far more reasonable today.

    There was a time when publications had copy editors and technical editors to make sure that the material they published was as accurate as possible. This was particularly true for tech publishing, where lots and lots of intricate detail must be as accurate as possible.

    Well, it’s not as if those positions have actually been exorcised from the ranks of a publisher’s staff, but you have to wonder sometimes if they are actually earning their paychecks. Consider a certain consumer-oriented magazine that doesn’t accept ads, and won’t even allow a company to reprint a favorable review. They even claim to buy all the products they test, so you can be totally assured they maintain an extremely high level of accuracy.

    But in lots of ways, Consumer Reports falls down on the job. Part of the reason is that the magazine is often simplifying (notice I avoid the phrase dumbing down) down complicated information for a general audience, but you can also see a bias that should not exist in a publication with such high and mighty pretensions.

    Take CR’s reviews of Macs. Yes, Apple’s gear gets high ratings, but you wonder sometimes the basis on which they arrive at certain conclusions and certainly about the outright factual errors or omissions.

    Just the other day, in fact, I was examining the CR Buying Guide 2010, their magnum opus paperback work that contains the essence of all of recent tests evalating over 1,500 products. You would certainly come to believe that they are going to take extra time to recheck their facts before distilling down longer feature articles to be summarized in their annual book.

    However, it’s the little things that count.

    So in their roundup of reviews covering computers, phones, peripherals and related products, you can see subtle examples of a political agenda. In the section on RAM, for example, they conclude: “Computers with 3GB [of RAM] can be slightly faster; we don’t think any more than that is beneficial.”

    Anyone who has seen their Macs slow down because lots of apps are running, and how they seem to just sing and dance with a memory upgrade to 4GB and higher wouldn’t believe that claim for a moment. But when you realize that millions of older 32-bit PCs can’t address more than 3GB of physical RAM, even when 4GB is installed, you can see that CR must be behind the times. And, no, the article doesn’t recognize the existence of a 32-bit and 64-bit version of Windows, nor what 64-bit even signifies.

    CR also lists the processors used on PCs, concluding that Apple strictly uses the Intel Core 2 Duo, while mentioning the wider variety used on PCs. They ignore the existence of the Mac Pro, which has, since its introduction in 2006, contained Intel Xeons. While they do mention the arrival of the Intel Core i7, they say nothing about how many processor cores it contains or why this might be important, nor do they mention that one of the early models to be equipped with that new chip is the iMac; the one, in fact, on which I’m typing this article.

    The review of smartphones mentions the older version of the iPhone (the 2008 3G in fact), and continues to claim the audio quality of phone calls on this device is worse than average. Unfortunately, CR’s precise methodology is never discussed, so I can’t tell you where they get that impression, or whether the problem is more carrier-related in their locale than attributable to the product itself. In any case, having used a number of mobile handsets from AT&T, Sprint and Verizon Wireless, I can tell you that the iPhone sounds as good (or bad) as any of them.

    Unfortunately, the technical lapses can’t be blamed strictly on a single consumer product review publication. Various and sundry tech magazines also demonstrate the lack of technical chops. I am particularly concerned about Mac|Life, the successor to MacAddict, because they clearly need to beef up their review process. I do hope the new editor, Paul Curthoys, whose credentials include a stint at a magazine covering the NeXT computer way back when, will set things right.

    In the meantime, we have that recent review of Epson’s Artisan 810 all-in-one printer that neglected to evaluate its copying, faxing or scanning capability, and conveyed the impression that print quality was the only factor worth considering. The reviewer also forgot to mention that niggling driver bug, where Mac OS X’s Collate feature, to print documents by the last page first for easy sorting, is unfortunately unsupported.

    In the January 2010 issue of Mac|Life, they carry a review of a wireless charging product, WildCharger Pad, and give it a pretty unfavorable evaluation due to the ill-fitting charger case, but the conclusion is that the product is “Solid,” the equivalent of three stars, I suppose. Now yes, it does work, but the review appears to describe a product that’s noticeably subpar; the rating seems awfully optimistic.

    I could go on. I have little hope that CR will mend its ways. But I would hope new leadership at Mac|Life will provide a sorely needed dose of technical authority to a rather middling magazine.



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