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  • Can One Magazine Review Vitamins and Personal Computers?

    August 10th, 2010

    It seems scarcely an issue of Consumer Reports appears that doesn’t cover personal computers and other electronics gear these days. In the wake of their strangely-concocted criticism of the iPhone 4’s antenna design, CR has gotten loads of favorable public attention — often not deserved.

    It’s unfortunate that virtually nobody in the mainstream media ever seems to take CR to task for its serious shortcomings. Yes, the magazine doesn’t seem to be influenced by manufacturers, because it is published by a non-profit corporation that doesn’t take advertising. What’s more, the tested products are all bought at retail at regular dealers. That includes autos, which means that CR must run up bills in the millions of dollars to acquire all these products.

    At the same time, being perceived as incorruptible doesn’t mean CR can’t be wrong. As I’ve said before, being a jack of all trades and a master of none has its shortcomings. CR wants to reach a general interest audience that is perceived as not technically savvy. So they strive to oversimplify technical details in such a way that the interests of would-be buyers isn’t being served.

    In the September 2010 issue, food supplements and vitamins share top billing, followed by computers, printers, smartphones and even 3D TVs. You also learn “5 Ways to Slash Your Cell Phone Bill.”

    Is there anything they don’t know?

    Well, yes, because they seem totally ignorant of the fact that the most popular personal computers are available with either of two different incompatible operating systems. The latest review does mention that there is something called Windows, but the existence of a Unix-based alternative, Mac OS X, isn’t part of the picture.

    While Apple continues to rate high among the product ratings, usually at or near the top, the subjective category of “Ergonomics” restricts its focus to such hardware considerations as “the quality of the keyboard and mouse or touchpad and accessibility of features.” The usability, predictability, reliability and performance of the operating system isn’t part of the picture.

    A magazine that prides itself on trying to protect the consumer ought to also add a category covering a computer’s security. After all, billions of dollars are lost almost every year as the result of Windows-borne malware. But CR doesn’t appear to want you to know that it’s essentially a Windows problem.

    Indeed, the average reader who isn’t well versed on such not-so-fine distinctions would come away with the impression that Macs may be highly-rated, but they are also expensive, so why not just select something cheaper since it ought to be near as good?

    In addition to eliminating one of the key considerations in the choice of a personal computer, CR fares hardly better with a brief survey of tablet computers. Yes the iPad seems to get the highest marks, but its gaming performance is, peculiarly, rated as simply average. An unnamed $700 laptop gets a “better than average” gaming score, which is preposterous. Note-books in that price category generally have integrated graphics or the cheapest possible discrete graphics chips. Many popular 3D games are simply too powerful to function on such hardware at high screen resolutions with all or most options selected. Or maybe CR relies strictly on Pacman.

    In contrast, every single game on an iPad is not just playable, but performs exceedingly well according to every test report I’ve read.

    Now I suppose some might suggest that CR has to be correct because their gaming test methodology is more scientific. But we don’t know what that test methodology is, since it’s not mentioned in the magazine. More to the point, I challenge CR’s editors to produce a $700 portable computer that can play all the popular PC games at a decent frame rate, if they run at all. In contrast, I also challenge CR to tell us which iPad games fail to deliver good performance, assuming that there’s no program bug that might create a playability problem.

    On the positive side of the ledger, CR does seem to make a passing effort to define the various smartphone operating systems, although the claim that the Android and iOS are very closely matched is not borne out by most reviews of these products. Or maybe CR’s standards, whatever they might be, are far too lax to accommodate anything but a drastic difference.

    However, the iPhone 4 does seem to fare well, simply because that absurd laboratory test of its antenna system isn’t mentioned. Perhaps the magazine’s deadline passed, or CR is starting to realize that junk science doesn’t trump Apple’s multimillion dollar antenna test facility. Or, for that matter, those widely-publicized videos that demonstrate that rival smartphones are also prone to signal degradation when held the “wrong” way.

    At least I now know which multivitamin to purchase, and which food supplements to avoid. I feel confident that I’ll live a longer and healthier life as a result, although I’ll continue to remain in total ignorance about what electronics gear to buy, at least if I depend on CR for that information. And I don’t.

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