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  • Why Do You Believe Consumer Reports?

    April 6th, 2011

    Just this week, Consumer Reports posted an online review covering the iPad 2, and a small number of also-rans in the tablet PC world. This report was meant as an upgrade to an article that appeared in the May 2011 newsstand issue, which was prepared before the iPad 2 was available to evaluate.

    The conclusion was predictable. The iPad 2 gets an “excellent” rating in nearly every category. Curiously, the original iPad was placed in a tie with the Motorola Xoom, though heaven knows why. Well, at least CR didn’t find any bogus antenna issue with which to downgrade Apple’s iconic gadget, but they aren’t entitled to much more credit than that, simply because they still haven’t a clue how to properly review products of this sort.

    They have, for example, an ephemeral “ease of use” category, but they don’t really explain the criteria for such ratings. If they were really paying attention, it would seem highly questionable for the Xoom to rate very highly because, if you consider what you can do with this gadget, it barely rates a xero — make that a zero.

    You see, you can rate CPU and graphics performance, and whether the interface is snappy or not. You can certainly judge the features, such as onboard cameras, or, in the case of the original iPad, the lack thereof. You might also look at accessory ports, such as an SD card slot, or an HDMI port, neither of which Apple incorporates, even though they offer convenient and relatively low-cost adapters for both.

    But none of this matters if there are no apps to run. Apple has over 65,000 specifically designed to run on an iPad. In contrast, the Motorola Xoom, which uses Android 3.0, or Honeycomb, has a few dozen.

    As a result, the argument is over. Your usability options on a Xoom, or any other Android-based tablet, are extremely limited, unless you want to stick with regular smartphone apps, which look horrible when blown up to the full size of the display.

    Other Android tablets, using older versions of the OS, are in worse shape. Those products are dead ends, because they weren’t designed with tablets in mind, and new apps will never be compatible. That’s their fault for not paying attention to Google. This, along with the growing and irritating fragmentation issue, are the reasons that Google is asserting greater control over the ways licensees can fiddle with the interface and bundled software. Indeed, they are also holding off on releasing the source code, with no definite date as to when it might be available.

    Unfortunately, CR doesn’t grok any of this. They seem utterly unable to judge these products on the basis of real usability, which means having enough apps to actually afford a choice of what to do beyond email, Internet access, and access to your favorite social network. Indeed, one of the reasons that the Mac was denigrated early on was the myth that very few applications were available for that platform. In that case, it wasn’t true for the most part, except for certain vertical applications for business consumers that were only available on Windows.

    When it comes to an Android 3.0 tablet, the situation is dreadful, utterly dreadful. Worse, app developers aren’t going to have much of an incentive to build apps for the Xoom and its ilk, simply because the iPad has swamped the marketplace. Developers who want to make money know which platform is best.

    Understand that CR’s editors are entitled to their opinions, and they even entitled to publish highly flawed reviews that fail to address the needs of the end user. Rather, I’m concerned why the media, tech, mainstream and elsewhere, largely accepts CR’s word as gospel. The vast, vast majority of articles about their reviews are not critical. They never consider whether or not the magazine is using poorly conceived testing methods.

    I can see where manufacturers might avoid public criticism, simply because it will sound like sour grapes. Indeed, when it comes to auto testing, CR has it right when handling tests revealed certain vehicles nearly tipping over or swerving out of control in extreme handling tests. While CR was once sued by an auto maker over this issue, more recently Toyota promptly responded to a reported handling flaw by rejiggering the onboard software so the electronic stability control would kick in faster. But you wonder why they never noticed during the product design phase.

    When it comes to consumer electronics gear, Apple didn’t suffer in any noticeable way because the two flavors of the iPhone 4 weren’t recommended, based on that alleged “Death Grip.” Certainly, if there was an ounce of evidence that sales might be hurt, I’m quite sure Apple would have gotten ahold of CR in order to set them straight. Certainly what CR reports flies in the face of Apple’s tests, once posted online, and still mirrored all over the globe, not to mention blogs populated with antenna experts, and all those people who posted YouTube videos demonstrating that antenna sensitivity issues can be duplicated on many smartphones. I’m most troubled, however, that CR doesn’t seem to know about warning labels, and those cautions in user manuals about the unsavory impact of holding a mobile handset the wrong way.

    Or maybe their test team doesn’t believe in reading manuals. While I realize consumers don’t either, a magazine that prides itself on thorough and balanced product testing ought to know better.

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