Consumer Reports Fails to Kill the iPad

March 28th, 2012

I suppose conspiracy theories might be in order. When Consumer Reports concluded that they couldn’t recommend the iPhone 4 because of alleged reception problems if you held the handset the wrong way, they might have really expected to see sales of Apple’s smartphone plummet. But it doesn’t seem there was any impact at all, other than in the quarter before the iPhone 4s came out. That was when customers apparently remained on the sidelines awaiting the new model, not because CR had anything to say about it.

That’s quite a difference from the auto industry. When CR downgrades a motor vehicle for severe handling defects — a few models nearly overturned during emergency handling tests — you can bet manufacturers will take notice. Within days after a certain Toyota was attacked for defect of this sort, the onboard programming was reworked for the electronic stability control (ESC) to set things right. But you do wonder, in passing, how Toyota missed such a critical product defect during quality control testing.

Now when Honda redesigned the compact Civic for 2012, CR found the car to be far inferior to the previous model, and thus couldn’t recommended it. Their criticisms were more pointed than most car magazines, which basically said the new Civic was all right, if nothing special, in most respects. Even though Civic sales have actually increased this year, Honda has taken notice and they are rushing out an update for the 2013 model to, one expects, address some of CR’s concerns.

But that’s the car business. With the iPhone, Apple didn’t pay attention to CR’s non-recommendation. The customers didn’t either, obviously, or not in any significant way.

Now I wouldn’t presume to judge the value of CR’s criticisms of the Civic. I took a test drive in it just once and didn’t notice the jiggly ride the magazine’s reviewers complained about. I’m not an auto expert, but a poor ride would be immediately noticeable, and it wasn’t. Yes, the car was boring so far as it goes, but that’s not unusual for a Honda.

On the other hand, when it comes to smartphones, CR just didn’t get it. Yes, the iPhone 4 exhibited a significant loss of sensitivity when you covered the junction of the two antennas at the lower left, unless it was protected by a case. The problem was easy to replicate, especially in a poor signal area. But they totally ignored the fact that other mobile handsets displayed similar symptoms, but usually when held in somewhat different ways. Loads of people documented those problems, revealed in YouTube videos. For a time, Apple did as well, but, after a few weeks, withdrew their own demonstration videos.

The problem appears to be due to the fact that CR apparently looked for signal loss in one region of the iPhone 4, and thus failed to realize that, despite the massive amount of evidence already available, other phones could be made to suffer from signal loss only with different types of death grips. To them, there could be only one.

Now CR tried once again to get in front of the debate when some people complained that the new iPad ran hot. One of their representatives went on a cable TV news show to talk about the problem, but that was ahead of the magazine’s own testing. While stressing the iPad to the max could deliver temperatures of up to 116 degrees when the unit was connected to a battery charger, that wasn’t deemed sufficient to make it really hot to the touch. Heaven help anyone who tries to drink a reasonably warm cup of coffee or tea.

Other publications managed no better than 100 degrees at the extremes, although this was 10 degrees or so warmer than the iPad 2. But this was easy to understand, since the third generation iPad draws a lot more current because of the Retina Display and beefier graphics chip. Despite clear expertise at keeping their gadgets relatively cool, it’s not that Apple can violate the laws of physics.

More interesting, however, are the temperature tests of other tablets that indicate the difference between them and the new iPad is, at best, a slight to none. Under normal use and service, those variations wouldn’t be terribly noticeable. As these tests are repeated and published, it makes CR look more and more foolish. Clearly, they targeted Apple, hoping, perhaps, to find a serious defect and gain more attention than they received when they messed up the iPhone 4 test.

Now Antennagate did resonate with the public for perhaps a few weeks. When Apple got in front of the problem with the offer of a free bumper for anyone who cared, that pretty much ended the controversy, such as it was. Oh, yes, there was that class-action lawsuit where, at the end of the day, winning consumers got — a free bumper. Or $15, which is roughly half the price of the bumper, if they preferred. I didn’t check to see how much the ambulance chasing lawyers received for that winning gambit, but it’s probably in the millions.

As for CR, with an apparent recommended rating looming for the iPad 3, it’s clear they won’t be able to hurt that tablet’s amazing sales. The only way for Apple to fail now, assuming product strategy and marketing remains top-tier, is for someone else to build a better mouse trap. But as the iPad gains more and more acceptance with both consumers and businesses, the window of opportunity is closing fast, with or without CR’s help.

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8 Responses to “Consumer Reports Fails to Kill the iPad”

  1. Nan says:

    Hope “Consumers Distort” mag test people view this Businessweek 54-second video

    I get CR’s “Biased Rag” and called them to say I found their coverage of Apple Products rather uninformed. The
    Customer Service woman did for PR what the Hindenberg did for flying!

    Suburban Hermit

  2. winc06 says:

    I thought it was significant that CR refused to change their iPhone rating after the free bumper was included in the price of the phone. Bumper cured problem and was included, but CR unwilling to rate the phone with its then standard equipment. Apparently they could not wait, as you point out, for publication to pile onto the iPad. CR is not a neutral tester. Occasionally their biases show.

  3. Cancelled my CR subscription.

  4. RvB says:

    Consumer Report is still in business? I thought they went under when the tooth brush went electric…

    The nerd “shock-and-awe” phenomenon is getting old….

  5. Ben G says:

    I am a devout Apple fan and I absolutely love their products (I own an iPhone 4, iPad2, Macbook Pro, iPod Classic and a shiney new 27″ iMac) yet I felt that CR’s review of the iPhone 4 antenna issue was/is actually justified and fair. Sure the problem was easily remedied with a bumper or other case, but what about those who prefer to use the phone in all of its incredibly sleek nakedness? Sure, attenuation problems exist on other phones, too, but the attenuation problem on the iPhone 4 occurs when holding the phone in a very natural and frequently-used way. And let’s not forget that Apple did actually end up making some changes to the antenna design. So while CR’s review may not have impacted sales (or even Apple’s decision to redesign the antenna) they simply acknowledged a known problem and chose to not recommend the product for it. As far as CR being biased, foolish or targeting Apple, do you think that contributed to their reviews of the iPhone 4s, iPad2, 21.5″ and 27″ iMacs that are all “CR Recommended” products?

    • @Ben G, There are different “natural ways” to hold a smartphone, depending on the person, the size of their hands, etc. That Consumer Reports failed to take this into account does indeed indicate that their review was seriously flawed. At the same time, CR never distinguishes among desktop and mobile computer operating systems, except by name. They do not evaluate them, and the OS is very much the determinant of the user experience, which they also don’t properly evaluate.

      With the iPhone 4s, Apple implemented a method, diversity antennas, which is used already on many cars. But that still leaves loads of other handsets with similar problems. CR also didn’t mention that other companies warn users about holding the handsets the “wrong way” in their user manuals or with labels on the products themselves. How could CR not notice?


  6. Robert Lyle says:

    Once upon a time, the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, I subscribed to Consumer Reports and took their advice religiously. Their protocols, at the time, were very valid. If CR said a product was not good, it usually wasn’t. Then came the 90s and something at CR changed. CR started busting unions and reporting on just a few items over and over. I also started to notice that items that they reported on were not always as good as they reported them to be. During the 80s through the 2000s they definitely had a bias against all things Apple.

    In the 2000s I started reading the reviews that individuals gave to Consumer Reports on the products that CR reviewed. I noticed a pattern occurring more and more. CR would give an item a high rating followed by a lot of people who bought that item giving it comments that were nowhere near Consumer Reports praise. And after buying several item based on CRs praise and finding them broken within 3 months, I decided CR was not doing its job. So this year, 2012, I canceled Consumer Reports. I never thought this day would come.

    I have to conclude that money can buy anyone, or, somebody is just sitting in a room making up reviews. As a once great comedian often said, that’s just my opinion I could be wrong.

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