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Does Microsoft Donate to Consumer Reports?

Let me say at the outset that I’m posing this question not because I truly believe that Microsoft would actually give money to Consumer Reports, or that the publication would even accept such a donation, but I have to wonder about a few things in the December 2012 issue. This is the annual product wrap-up edition, where the best picks in a number of categories are listed. The electronics category covers tablets, cameras, TVs, phones, personal computers, printers, and lots more.

No, my friends, I’m not about to suggest that CR is obligated to favor products I like, and to denigrate products I do not like. They claim to be incorruptible, largely because the magazine is run by a non-profit corporation that doesn’t accept advertising and buys all tested products at retail. That includes luxury autos, meaning CR has a budget in the millions of dollars to make those purchases. And, yes, autos are sold off after testing, so it’s not as if the investment is a total loss.

So whenever CR says a car is unacceptable, because of a safety problem, or generally inferior design, you can bet the auto makers are listening. Take the 2012 Honda Civic, that company’s flagship compact vehicle. While most car magazines called it a yawner, CR really singled it out for the inferior and jiggly ride and evidence of severe cost-cutting, particularly when it came to the dashboard and controls. As a result, they couldn’t recommend the car. Well, Honda noticed, despite high sales, and rushed to deliver a 2013 version with loads of major changes.

Indeed, when a car is rated unsafe, perhaps because it may tip over or slip out of control during an emergency maneuver, changes will usually be made. CR’s verdict is rarely disputed, even though a few auto companies have sued them over the years.

But in the interests of appealing to a large non-technical audience, CR sometimes glosses over fine distinctions among products, or generally fails to explain key differences between, say, a Mac and a PC. But when it comes to Windows 8 and OS X Mountain Lion, things have changed somewhat.

In a feature in the latest issue entitled, “Computers,” CR promised to tell you “What to expect from Windows 8, plus Ratings of Apple models.” A curious juxtaposition, don’t you think?

In the Windows 8 section, CR provides a general description of the vast changes and why, frankly, “upgrading might not be worth it” for those with a Windows 7 computer. This makes sense for a variety of reasons, but CR concentrates largely on the lack of touch capability, the loss of the Start menu, and possible application incompatibilities.

All right so far. But there is a curious paragraph earlier in the article entitled, “Its touch capability is a hit” that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. CR claims Windows 8’s touch features are “quite intuitive,” and that they could perform various tasks and move “almost effortlessly from touch screen to keyboard to mouse as needed.”

Those talking points sound as if they were written by Microsoft, because the conclusions are polar opposites of what both reviewers and regular people are saying about Windows 8. The big problem is that the touch features aren’t always obvious, and that it’s not altogether clear what function does what without a cheat sheet. Worse, without touch capability on your PC, you may find a standard input device sometimes misses the critical hot spots to deliver a feature, such as the Charms settings panel, or when switching from desktop back to the tiled interface.

Some of the swipe routines to access a given feature, in fact, come across as downright wacky, and that’s not just my conclusion. This week, on The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we’ll be featuring usability expert Jakob Nielsen, who has done a pretty thorough study of the Windows 8 Modern UI interface and come away highly disappointed.

Now as you’ll learn from the article and the upcoming interview on my radio program, Nielsen is a long-time Windows user who happens to like Windows 7. He called upon 12 “experienced PC users” to evaluate Windows 8 on regular PCs and the Surface RT tablet. And by the way, Nielsen is no fan of the iPad either, and I’d be inclined to disagree with some of the conclusions he made with that survey, conducted some time back.

But I would certainly grant Nielsen far more credibility than Consumer Reports. When you read the CR paragraph, and the conclusions Nielsen draws about Windows 8, you’d almost think they are writing about two totally different operating systems. Sure, opinions are a dime a dozen, and differences are to be expected. But if you examine a lot of the Windows 8 discussion out there, you’ll see that CR appears to be in lock step with some of those avid Windows 8 fans, rather than the larger portion of people who had serious problems with the new interface.

CR seems also curiously uninformed about another key issue. Consider the ratings of laser and inkjet printers that gave high ratings to several models from Lexmark. The text says nothing about the fact that Lexmark announced last summer plans to discontinue the manufacture of inkjet printers, and shave some 1,700 jobs from their worldwide workforce as a result.

While it’s quite possible that you’ll still be able to get service and consumables for your Lexmark inkjet for a number of years yet, why wouldn’t CR mention it, at least in passing as a cautionary note? Or maybe I’m just off-base, or living in the wrong reality.