Consumer Reports’ Deck Stacking — or Incompetence — Exposed

January 11th, 2017

Macs tend to fare second best in Consumer Reports testing, partly because the magazine lives in ignorance of the differences between Apple’s computers and Windows boxes. But they’ve always been recommended, until recently. I can quibble about the way the tests appear to emphasize features over performance, usability and reliability. In fact, I have.

But it took a poor rating by CR to trigger a dialogue that revealed a serious flaw in their testing. The tests also triggered an obscure bug in Safari for macOS Sierra that might otherwise have remained undiscovered and unfixed.

It all started when CR reported wildly divergent battery life results, ranging from 3.75 hours up to 19 hours over three tests for each product. The latter is way more than Apple’s estimates, which range up to 10 hours.

Now all three MacBook Pro models exhibited similar behavior. A clue that something might be amiss was the fact that CR uses the default browser, in this case Safari. When the tests were rerun in Google Chrome, battery life was within acceptable limits.

Now Apple usually ignores test results from the media, but not CR, which has a circulation of millions of consumers and is highly influential when readers make buying decisions. A bad rating can kill or seriously hurt sales of some products. It can also accomplish good things, such as when an auto manufacturer has to go back and modify a faulty suspension system that might cause a rollover during a rapid maneuver to avoid an accident.

This time, Apple was in the hot seat. Even though a number of owners of the new MacBook Pros have reported an assortment of battery issues, CR’s results were unique. The inconsistency didn’t make sense, and thus marketing VP Philip Schiller posted a tweet — the new normal for getting the word out nowadays — saying that the results didn’t jibe with Apple’s own field tests. Apple was working with CR to figure out just what was going on.

Now CR’s tests are intended to be consistent from notebook to notebook. It involves downloading 10 sites from the company’s in-house server until the battery is spent. So just what was going on here, and was the test deliberately designed to leave Safari — and Macs — second best?

Well, that’s debatable, but to achieve consistent results, CR turns off caching on a browser. With caching on, the theory goes that the sites would be retrieved from the local cache, which presents an anomalous situation since different computers — and operating systems — might do it differently. On the other hand, it would also be using the computer normally, not in an artificial way. CR’s excuse, by the way, is that the test sequence puts greater stress on the battery: “This allows us to collect consistent results across the testing of many laptops, and it also puts batteries through a tougher workout.”

But how can such a test possibly produce results that in any way reflect what a typical user would encounter? After all, normal users might check a site several times a day, rather than constantly bring up new uncached sites. While all notebooks are being evaluated the same way, it’s a curious choice. Unfortunately, CR would have to go back and retest hundreds of computers to switch the testing scheme.

On Safari, caching is switched off via a seldom-used menu bar command, Develop, which is available in the apps preferences under the Advanced category. Clearly this is not a feature most users will ever use — or even know about. I use it to access the “Show Page Source” command from the context menu when I’m examining a site’s coding.

Now I suppose using a non-standard test scheme of this sort shouldn’t have had a disastrous effect, but it did. It seemed that the action triggered an obscure and inconsistent bug in Safari. With caching turned off, logos would reload, thus unnecessarily taxing the battery. It’s a bug that Apple discovered and fixed in the latest beta for macOS Sierra 10.12.3. You can download it if you’re a public beta tester or developer, and it will be made available for general distribution in a few weeks.

In the meantime, CR has accepted Apple’s findings: “According to Apple, this last part of our testing is what triggered a bug in the company’s Safari browser. Indeed, when we turned the caching function back on as part of the research we did after publishing our initial findings, the three MacBooks we’d originally tested had consistently high battery life results.”

It would have been nice if they said that before the review appeared, because that clearly indicated there was some sort of software issue that might be unnecessarily impacting the tests in a way that customers wouldn’t encounter. In other words, it’s an admission the test was unfair, and that the results didn’t in any way reflect a normal use case. After all, CR is testing a notebook’s battery life, not the capabilities of the default browser to render pages without caching.

In any case, CR is retesting the MacBook Pros with the revised macOS, and it shouldn’t take more than a few days to deliver the results. Assuming battery life is normal, the rating will be changed accordingly, and the new notebooks will be added to the recommended list.

Of course, CR should have realized something was amiss as soon as the battery life normalized with caching on. They could have reached out to Apple before the results were published for clarification. As it was, CR got a boatload of publicity for its decision not to recommend the MacBook Pros. Of course, that result will soon be changed if all goes well.

Will CR learn a lesson from this debacle? Probably not. After all, few companies would dare protest a bad rating. Indeed most companies who build products that don’t past muster probably deserve it.

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10 Responses to “Consumer Reports’ Deck Stacking — or Incompetence — Exposed”

  1. DaveD says:

    Consumer Reports went with a sensational headline to not recommend the 2016 MacBook Pros. Instead of questioning the obvious showing of the wild swings of battery life. The very high 19 hours reading was a red flag that something was amiss, an anomaly.

    The proper approach was to hold off making any recommendation pending a further review. Just a disclosure that the battery test results were out of the norm and manufacturer notified. Apple should have been contacted for an explanation prior to publication.

    • gene says:

      It’s a weighing of the two possibilities, against getting hits and subscribers from a sensational headline, or holding off until they get their ducks in a row.

      The hit bait headlines won out.


  2. Tom Hubble says:

    True enough… While the bug was Apple’s fault, real world testing is what’s needed.

    OTOH, there are still several tech sites that have found than stellar battery life– and scores of users, many experienced, reporting weak battery life and something fundamentally wrong.

    The tech reports and user comments seem far more widespread than with previous Mac models– which often had reports of people finding greater battery life, not substantially less.

    Has any investigative tech journalist examined this? There really does seem to be something amiss with the battery life–and it’s not due to Spotlight indexing in the first days.

    • gene says:

      It will be interesting to see the impact when the next macOS update comes out. You can download it now if you don’t mind beta software when you sign up as a public beta tester.


  3. Kirk McElhearn says:

    Consumer Reports did not know that there was a bug when using the configuration they used. There was some logic to what they were doing; loading pages without a cache more correctly simulates a user browsing multiple websites. It’s not CR’s fault, ard I suspect they did the same thing in the past. The problem was that this uncovered a bug.

    No matter what, it still doesn’t explain why many users with the new MBP are also seeing bad battery life.

    • gene says:

      Kirk, my biggest quibble, beyond test methodology, is that, when the results were so all over the map, Consumer Reports should have reached out to Apple — or to any manufacturer — when anomalous test results are achieved.

      I suppose we’ll see if the 10.12.3 fixes some of those battery issues, beyond that Develop menu bug.


    • SteveS says:

      Consumer Reports provides advice for consumers. Their testing methodologies should represent how actual users use their machines. Relying on settings found in developer mode to perform such tests is not representative of how consumers would use their machines. Their testing methodology is clearly flawed. As Gene mentioned, they should have checked with Apple on their anomalous results before publishing their findings. They went for the click bait. CR already has a poor reputation for consumer electronics in general. They continue to demonstrate that they don’t have the technical knowledge required to conduct proper tests or to interpret the results.

      • gene says:

        Long and short of it, a test shouldn’t use an artificial set of steps that people generally don’t follow. They should do something that mirrors the way people use notebooks. Here, Apple’s tests are more reflective of reality, since they have more than a single test scenario.


  4. dfs says:

    “As it was, CR got a boatload of publicity for its decision not to recommend the MacBook Pros.” Perhaps the key sentence in this piece. The publicity generated by taking a potshot at Apple was in CR’s corporate best interest, or so they may have imagined. (When they have to backpedal it works the other way, of course).

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