Consumer Reports Versus Microsoft?

August 11th, 2017

Believe it or not, Microsoft is now in the crosshairs of Consumer Reports for Surface laptop and notebook defects. This comes as somewhat of a surprise, since CR’s usual target is Apple Inc.

So over the years, Apple has consistently been given short shrift from CR. In its efforts to simplify technology for a mass audience, CR would gloss over the deep differences between the Mac and the PC, not to mention iOS and Android. Tested gear was all lumped into single large categories, thus pitting incompatible equipment against each other.

The results, therefore, were questionable for obvious reasons.

This is not to say you shouldn’t evaluate personal computers regardless of OS, or smartphones for that matter. But it also means that you are dealing with tech companies that have different priorities and offer different product features. It’s not a matter of which device has the most features that makes it better. It’s often how well that feature is implemented, or even if it’s needed.

So in the feature-rich category, for better or worse, is Samsung, which routinely rates high among smartphones in CR. The Galaxy S8 scores a few points ahead of the iPhone 7 series, despite its known flaws. Samsung is notorious for adding features that are poorly implemented. So you have an awkward-to-reach rear fingerprint sensor along with two other biometric schemes that just happen to be highly insecure. Early on, it was shown that Samsung’s iris and facial recognition sensors could be easily defeated with photographs. Thus, they were useless. CR seemed unaware of these shortcomings.

Well, CR at least pointed out that the Bixby digital assistant wasn’t functional yet in the U.S., although it is now. But obviously it wasn’t thoroughly tested, so we don’t know how well it fared against Siri and the rest.

Last December, CR opted not to recommend the new MacBook Pro with Touch Bar because of inconsistent battery test results. But it turned out that the publication had its own peculiar concept of how to test a laptop’s batteries, using a canned routine that didn’t come close to mirroring real world use.

So it involved downloading sites with caching off. Unfortunately, that triggered an obscure Develop menu bug in Safari that caused problems with web site icons reloading, thus impacting battery results. This is not how anyone but a web developer would use their Mac, but CR allowed it to influence their tests. Even after the Safari for Sierra bug was fixed, and CR gave the MacBook Pros positive reviews, there were still curious factoids. Tested battery life was far greater than what even Apple claimed, and that was true for other notebook computers.

The test results were, therefore, useless, but CR stuck with it because, well, they had already tested other notebooks in the same flawed way. Too bad nobody thought to just start over, do it right, and put asterisks in the results.

Now one key facet of CR testing is reliability. Using questionnaires to readers, they judge a host of products in a number of categories. For autos, it may be useful to know if you have to take yours to the repair shop more often because of a problem with the engine or infotainment system, or just body integrity, which refers to such symptoms as squeaks, rattles, vibrations and leaks.

A personal computer reliability survey will indicate how often the unit has to visit to a repair shop for different problems, such as a defective drive, a bad display or a general systems failure. Regardless, you assume the test must be accurate because it involves readers checking the appropriate boxes. But it’s a very imprecise test, because a problem that drives one person crazy may not be such a big deal to someone else. Worse, regular people may not even remember when the notebook’s drive failed, or the battery died prematurely. It’s not that they are taking detailed notes unless it involves repeated serious failures.

You could say the same for a car. Some people are more tolerant of minor defects than others. A few extraneous noises may not be a big deal to you, but rattles and other noises drive me nuts. Ask any dealer I’ve visited about such symptoms. And if you really love your car, you may put up with far more annoyances than if you just consider it as a means of transportation.

CR doesn’t really make a big deal about the clear flaws in its reliability testing, but if one company’s product suffers more problems than another, you should take notice.

So it appears that Microsoft’s Surface laptops and tablets are not faring so well. According to CR, at least 25% of them fail under normal use and service within the first two years of ownership.

That sounds none-too-good, and, despite being highly recommended otherwise, CR has pulled the positive ratings as a result. These problems included chronic freezing, touchscreen failures, and sudden shut downs. The latter is especially troubling, and it may well be that the first and third are more about Windows bugs than hardware. But I suppose there could be a hardware component involved, since other PCs might exhibit similar symptoms if they ran the same OS.

Either way, CR would never consider the cause, just the end result.

As you might expect, Microsoft’s corporate spin machine is running full bore, as they insist that Surface gear is reliable.

Who rated number one for reliability? Apple. Just wanted to add that.

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