I have been mighty critical of Consumer Reports and the way they cover consumer electronics. For some reason, Apple gets the brunt of their bad behavior, but I’m not about to suggest that CR has it in for them. The publication claims to be fair and balanced, mostly based on the fact that it’s run by a non-profit organization that doesn’t accept ads, and buys tested products at retail. So they know they’re not getting a “ringer” designed to work better than the mass-produced version, nor should they be unduly influenced by the companies who make the products they test. At least that’s the theory!
But they don’t seem to have a handle on how to test such consumer electronics gear as personal computers, smartphones, or tablets. When it comes to a PC, CR continually fails the Mac OS from Windows platforms. Yes, they realize the two operating systems exist, and will occasionally mention them with short blurbs about new versions and so forth and so on, but they don’t seem to have ever done a real test to see which one is best from a usability standpoint.
Worse, when they test a Mac against a PC, in almost every case, they will choose lower-end models for the latter, thus amplifying the perceived price difference. Yes, the tested models might be similar in having the same display size for note-books, or in an otherwise matching category, such as all-in-ones. But they never seem to do a comparison that involves configuring systems with identical hardware, and similar software bundles. CR’s efforts to dumb down their content for a general audience end up helping nobody.
It’s one thing, however, to just generalize to a fare-thee-well, and fail to distinguish critical differences. But when faulty testing results in a product that’s criticized for what’s basically a non-existent problem, or normal behavior, you have to wonder about CR’s agenda.
Consider the iPhone 4. It got the highest ratings from CR, compared to all other tested smartphones. But CR won’t recommend this hot-selling gadget because of their erroneous interpretation of the so-called “Death Grip” phenomenon.
Now when someone discovered that, when holding the iPhone 4 in a certain way, in a marginal reception area, you could kill your Internet connection or phone call, the story became viral. Soon lots of people made YouTube videos showing just how their iPhone 4 was impacted, but it went further. Others were able to duplicate a similar phenomenon on almost every other smartphone out there.
It’s not that Apple helped very much. The first response came in the form of a smart aleck remark from Steve Jobs suggesting the user should just hold the phone differently. Media coverage inflated to the point where Apple had to actually hold a press briefing to explain the problem, the state of mobile phone antenna technology, and deliver a reasonable solution.
For several months, Apple offered iPhone 4 customers free cases. At the same time they put up several pages on their site showing how easy it was to duplicate the “Death Grip” on other smartphones, including some of the popular models that CR was testing. But after a few days, the site was taken down. Maybe Apple felt they were giving competitors too much free space.
Worse, the manuals of some of those other smartphones warn of the dire consequences of holding the unit “improperly.” Some phones even have labels affixed to them pointing to the sensitive regions. Despite this, CR claims to have been unable to duplicate the “Death Grip” symptoms on any other smartphone. This has to mean that they are either incompetent, or being deceptive, since it’s so easily done.
Now when the Verizon Wireless version of the iPhone came out, the tech media noticed that Apple had redesigned the antenna to provide a “diversity” effect, meaning that the antenna element that gets the strongest signal has priority. Supposedly this layout might help reduce the “Death Grip,” which appears to be the case.
That is, except for CR’s testers, who still believe there’s a problem that Apple must address, which is why the Verizon iPhone is also not recommended.
A significant reality check comes in the form of an article published at CNNMoney.com, quoting an analysis from AnandTech, which is populated by real antenna experts. Their tests, with graphs included, demonstrated that the “Death Grip” symptoms were far less on the Verizon iPhone, and only a hair worse than on other smartphones.
I’m most concerned about the statement, in this particular article, that CR declined to provide details of their test results. I would think that the world’s largest consumer testing magazine would want to stand behind their work or, if need be, correct mistakes. Instead the CR rep quoted in the article simply claimed the two versions of the iPhone performed “similarly,” which, if you examine AnandTech’s test results, makes no sense.
So whom do you trust? Well, I don’t know if CR has any antenna experts on their testing staff, but AnandTech does. More to the point, it makes little sense to me how CR was unable to duplicate obvious smartphone antenna issues when anyone with two hands, and a camcorder to shoot the results, was able to do so.
Unfortunately, far too many members of the media take CR at face value. Maybe if journalists started asking them the tough questions, they’d realize they have to change their ways, and fix the serious, persistent problems with their test methodology.
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