Did Samsung Bamboozle Consumer Reports?

May 23rd, 2013

Although the iPhone 5 has received favorable reviews from Consumer Reports, several other models, from HTC, LG, and now Samsung, rate slightly better. While CR is entitled to its conclusions, I wonder if the surfeit of sometimes useless features on the Galaxy S4 has overwhelmed the magazine’s testers and granted the product a higher rating than it might otherwise deserve.

As a point of reference, the iPhone 5 scores a 77, while the Galaxy S4 scores an 81. Both are very good indeed, and the differences are slight enough as to not be significant in the real world. In saying that, the review of the new Samsung smartphone makes it crystal clear that the Galaxy S4’s overwhelming feature set has clearly influenced the magazine’s tech editors, even though it’s clear not all those features really work, or are even useful.

One tact taken by CR is to simply omit some of the Galaxy S4’s failings. My personal experience demonstrates that, for example, the Smart Scroll feature, where a page of text automatically scrolls on a tilt of the head or a tilt of the handset, is barely usable and usually doesn’t work at all. CR doesn’t mention the feature in the review. CR also ignores the fact that the handset’s universal remote app, WatchON, is limited to TVs and your cable or satellite box. You can’t add a Blu-ray, gaming console or even a surround sound audio system.

It’s also true that Samsung’s decision to stuff the device with bloatware means that nearly half of the 16GB storage capacity of the entry-level model is already filled. It doesn’t leave space for much for your stuff, so you are forced to consider the 32GB version, or buy an SD card. Once again, CR’s review doesn’t mention this problem, which may be a significant shortcoming for some potential customers. So much for serving the needs of the public.

One notable problem with the Galaxy S4’s AMOLED display is poor visibility in sunlit surroundings. It’s better than the Galaxy S3 at the maximum brightness level, but still essentially unusable under such circumstances. CR ignores the issue by concluding that the “Display and keypad is easy to see in bright light.” CNET, which had a more realistic take on the Galaxy S4, concluded that, “Its screen is dimmer than competitors’.”

While CR adores Samsung’s keypad, I found it totally inept at predictive text, which is a feature that’s necessary for efficient typing on a touchscreen. My solution was to install the free JellyBean keyboard from the Google Play Store, which is meant to mimic the standard Android keyboard. My typing speed nearly doubled.

Without going into detail, a number of other Galaxy S4 features that CR writes about are little different from most smartphones, such as GPS navigation and spoken turn-by-turn directions. You almost wonder if CR believes the magazine’s readers have amnesia or short-term memory problems.

Another significant quibble is the excellent “Ease of use” rating, which is decidedly not true for Android phones. This is particularly important if you’re upgrading from another Android phone. CR doesn’t address the well-known migration shortcoming, assuming, I guess, that people buying a Galaxy S4 do not own another Android smartphone, or don’t have a lot of stuff to transfer.

But I do not just disagree with the positives. The negatives are also questionable. CR complains the Galaxy G4 “Lacks Flash video,” which evidently means the magazine is unaware that Adobe gave up on the mobile version of Flash, which never even made it past the beta stage, a while back. This negative, therefore, applies to pretty much all current handsets, so it’s a non-issue.

CR also fails to evaluate the accuracy of the turn-by-turn navigation, which has become an important issue in the wake of Apple’s problems with Maps. Since Apple has made improvements to Maps, even while Google still declares their navigation feature a “beta,” why not run an updated comparison between the two.

More to the point, a proper review meant for the non-technical reader should have examined all of the Galaxy S4 features that Samsung made a fuss about and report whether they actually work as advertised. It would be a real eye-opener.

However, I’m not surprised that the Galaxy S4 rated tops in CR’s playbook. Besides, CR has yet to really compare usability with other mobile operating systems. The “Ease of use” conclusions make little or no sense, since you’d assume that all mobile operating systems are basically identical, since they all rate “Excellent.” Is that really true? Not in my experience, or in the experience of any tech journalist I know.

Understand that I do not consider the Galaxy S4 a bad phone. It is clearly better in some respects than the Galaxy S3. Samsung also makes a good argument for putting a larger display on a smartphone. It may not be so easy to navigate with one hand, but there are attractions in having more stuff on a screen. This is a lesson Apple ought to learn, if they haven’t already.

Sure, Tim Cook won’t let you forget about what they regard as shortcomings of those larger screens. However, despite the ongoing problems in sunlit surroundings, Samsung has clearly improved the picture quality on the Galaxy S4. Battery life is also noticeably longer than the previous model. For many, this product may indeed represent the state-of-the-art for smartphones, at least for now. Apple can’t take the competition lightly, and will have to really deliver something spectacular in the next iPhone.

As for Consumer Reports, the shortcomings in their review process do not surprise me in the least, and I remain disappointed.

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7 Responses to “Did Samsung Bamboozle Consumer Reports?”

  1. Articles you should read (May 23) …. says:

    […] “Did Samsung Bamboozle Consumer Reports?: Although the iPhone 5 has received favorable reviews from Consumer Reports, several other models, from HTC, LG, and now Samsung, rate slightly better. While CR is entitled to its conclusions, I wonder if the surfeit of sometimes useless features on the Galaxy S4 has overwhelmed the magazine’s testers and granted the product a higher rating than it might otherwise deserve.” — “The Tech Night Owl” (www.technightowl.com) […]

  2. tz says:

    Sadly, it appears to me that CR is losing their objectivity.

    I just bought a car that they famously put on their “not recommended” list. Said same car sits at the top of their frequency of repair ratings, it gets top scores in IIHS crash tests, and is the least new expensive car to operate. They must have really flogged it hard. I am returning 30% higher numbers than their results, and I live in where horizontal highways are close to non-existant, every road is an uphill or down hill. My trips to Denver involve an elevation change of over 6000 feet.

    For many years before the recent Java attacks CR has been squishy about what operating systems get malware or not, implying that Apple OSX got it too.

  3. Consumer Reports seems to have lost its objectivity for well over a decade now. I’ve found that nothing they print can really be trusted.

  4. tz says:

    That would be the Prius C.
    And oops, bad proof reading . . that 30% refers to fuel efficiency. The got 43 mpg. I am averaging 56.

  5. SteveS says:

    Gene, nice post. But honestly, CR has never been a reliable source of information with regard to consumer electronics. This applies to computers, phones, cameras, etc. Their reviews are almost comical to those more familiar with various product categories. I would only be surprised if a CR review actually nailed an accurate review for a consumer electronics product.

  6. Ozymandias says:


    Consumer Reports is practically hardwired not to notice the things that Apple does well. The entire Consumer Reports schema lies in comparing like items and like features. And aesthetic refinements matter not at all. Not as much bias as it is simply not knowing what to do with Apple. They have never really figured out how to assess the differences between OS X and windows. Or, for that matter, the differences between iOS and android. They don’t have a good way of looking at platform differences, so their Apple coverage always comes out weird.

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