The Efficient Mac User

Consumer Reports Just Doesn't Get Macs

- 2005.11.17 - Tip Jar

The latest issue of Consumer Reports arrived in the mail earlier this week. This month has buying guides for the holidays, a great tool for anyone who has plans to give tools, computers, or other electronics as gifts this holiday season.

I love Consumer Reports (CR). As someone concerned with efficiency - "The Efficient Mac User", remember? - I find the information offered in CR to be both helpful and interesting.

But in the year that I've read CR regularly, I've noticed a major flaw in its reporting: CR just doesn't get Macs.

Anyone who has read their reviews of computer systems (and they offer them several times a year) knows what I mean. There is no side-by-side comparison of Macs to Windows PCs, and they often categorize Macs in ways that I don't exactly understand or agree with.

This is a problem any time, but for a holiday buying guide this seems especially egregious.

Have no fear, Low End Mac readers - the Efficient Mac User is on the job! For those of you who will be shopping for a new computer this holiday season, I'll offer a supplement to the CR guide that gives a more complete and Mac-friendly perspective.

Computer Stores

CR gave the highest computer store ratings to Apple for manufacturer direct purchasing. And they do get props for including Apple computers along with the other major brands when addressing all possible venues (manufacturer direct, retail website/catalog, retail store, TV shopping network), as opposed to separating Apple computers out like they often do (see the discussion of Ratings Charts below).

However, they failed to mention Apple Stores under the "Retail Stores" section of their ratings. CR readers aren't told that Apple's retail stores offer the same prices as their website - and many of the same bargains and close-out deals as well.

CR also neglects to mention that Apple retail stores offer full custom configuration options and keep a stock of their inventory so you can walk out with the computer you purchased. (Some brand-oriented retail stores don't keep inventory on-hand locally.)

Also, the Apple Stores offer incredible service at their Genius Bars, where trained technicians do everything from answering questions to full-service technical repairs. None of the retail stores mentioned in CR scored as highly as Apple's manufacturer direct service, although it is a safe bet that Apple's retail stores would have.

Multimedia Computers

iMac G5CR again gets props for acknowledging the newest G5 iMac as something worth considering for multimedia functionality, although their publication date prevented them from considering it substantially in this issue (I see that as Apple's fault, not CR's).

They also highlight the fact that the Macintosh platform is a legitimate alternative to Windows PCs, which surprised me a bit considering CR's downplay of the Mac in past issues.

But then they began to show their unfamiliarity with the Mac, claiming that viruses and spyware were "less likely to target Macs than Windows PCs" by an estimated 1000-to-1 ratio. This number, unexplained by CR, implies that there are active spyware and virus threats on the Mac platform and that (given that there are more than 100,000 known viruses for Windows PCs) there may be as many as 100 viruses to contend with. In fact, there are currently none for Mac OS X.

Top Picks

In consideration of computers beyond multimedia capability, CR is consistent with one thing in this issue and all others: They regularly report that Macs have substantially fewer problems than other manufacturers' machines, and they always show Apple at the top of the ratings for technical support. They even go as far as recommending only Apple computers as the picks for best reliability and support in both the desktop and laptop categories.

Computer Ratings Charts

But when it comes to rating computers themselves, CR's approach confuses and frustrates me. This is probably the section I am most concerned about, as the ratings charts in CR are probably the most heavily relied-upon sections in each issue.

A reader may not read every paragraph, but they will likely look over the ratings charts. And what will they find? Confusion. Misinformation. Unclear comparison.

Let's assume a holiday shopper - say, someone like my mom, who knows how to use computers but doesn't know much about computers. She doesn't really care whether she's using Windows or the Macintosh platform as long as she can reliably get her work done.

Where might such a shopper go to find out what computer to buy her son for Christmas? If you guessed Consumer Reports, you'd be right.

Would she find the information that she needs to make an informed decision?

Probably not.

The Mac Ghetto

CR assumes that readers know whether they want a Windows PC or a Macintosh and therefore divides computers into those categories. This division implies that readers don't know which manufacturer's computer works with which platform and leads to difficult comparisons, at best.

Further, CR divides Windows PCs into subcategories, but not Macs. For desktop computers, Windows machines are divided into "budget" (defined as "relatively low-cost systems for most general uses, including photo editing") and "workhorse" (defined as "have additional memory and storage for more intensive uses, such as 3D games and video editing"), while Macintosh models are not divided at all - the one category is said to include "both budget- and workhorse-class models".

Seasoned Mac users may therefore assume that the list would include the latest G5 tower, right? They would be mistaken.

Unfair Comparisons

The only desktop Macs evaluated in the chart are the iMac G5, the eMac, and the Mac mini. These are three very good Macs, I'll grant you, but hardly a cross-section of the Apple line. In fact, in the Apple world all of these would fall into a category of "consumer/budget" machines, while nothing in the "professional/workhorse" category is mentioned. (If you think I'm being unfair about the categories, know that the specs on the Windows "workhorse" machines were roughly equivalent to the 2.5 GHz Power Mac G5 Quad.)

While it's doubtful my mom would be searching for a machine of this caliber, it is likely that she might look over the test results, capacity, and features sections of the ratings and think that Apple's offerings don't approach those of Windows PCs. Thus the iMac (which is CR's best guess of Apple's workhorse machines), when compared here to true workhorse Windows machines, is not given a fair comparison.

Furthermore, the desktop ratings charts actually mislead consumers when comparing machines, especially Apple's. For example, the two models pictured are an eMachines budget desktop and a Mac mini - neither of which come with any type of display. But some of the Windows systems come with a display bundled into the package (including the priciest of the workhorse models), but no mention is given anywhere about whether a display is included in the price shown.

This further disadvantages the Mac line, since both the eMac and the iMac include displays. At the same time, CR felt it necessary to highlight the fact that keyboard and mouse were not included with the Mac mini, adding (according to their figures) another $78 to the cost of that little gem.

Why CR points to the exclusion of inexpensive input devices but ignores the inclusion of more costly computer displays is beyond explanation.

Laptops

The laptop section is even worse. Many of the same traits are at play here: Mac laptops get their own category, while Windows laptops get four!

The Windows machines are divided into the following categories: budget, multimedia (defined as having "enhanced sound and video components for home entertainment"), slim and light (defined as "lightweight systems for travelers or students"), and workhorse.

CR lists only two Mac laptops, which they say, unsurprisingly, includes "both budget- and workhorse-class models": the 14" iBook, and the 15" PowerBook. In truth, Apple's laptop line includes five different machines, each of which satisfies a particular niche.

CR doesn't mention the 12" iBook, which at $999 would have been quite competitive in their budget category alongside the 14" iBook. The 12" iBook and the 12" PowerBook (retailing for $1,499) would both outscore most of the machines in the slim and light category, where the CR pick is slower and more expensive than the PowerBook.

As far as I can tell, the distinctive features of a multimedia laptop are a large screen, a fast processor, and a DVD drive. Apple's 17" PowerBook meets these criteria and exceeds the capabilities of the two models CR features. With Apple's 1680 x 1050 pixel display, the PowerBook would blow away CR's Toshiba pick - weighing in at more than 3 pounds less to boot.

Even with the 15" PowerBook, CR missed some important data, using old numbers for processor speed and display resolution. (In truth, however, even the PowerBook specs they provide make it quite competitive with the other workhorse models described.)

I know that CR can't list every model by every manufacturer in their charts. However, if Dell, HP/Compaq, and Toshiba can be in almost every category, Apple ought to get a fair shake, as well.

Final Thoughts

One more note on Apple products: CR's gift-buying guide did name the iPod nano as the top choice among MP3 players, and they did have some notes about the Motorola ROKR phone. However, since that issue went to press Cingular has begun offering the ROKR at US$149 (when accompanied by a two-year contract), down from US$249. Also, Motorola has announced that a new version of the slick and popular Razr phone (the Razr V3i) will have iTunes capability.

Consumer Reports is not hostile to Apple products or Macintosh computers, but they are not fair in their computer evaluations either. The attention given to Macs in the ratings charts is insufficient and doesn't serve the reader by offering a clear comparison.

I hope I've offered a sufficient supplement to CR's ratings for the holiday shopper. LEM

Link: How Consumer Reports could compare Macs fairly, 2005.11.23. Using Consumer Reports' own data and chart design, an example of how they could realistically compare Macs and Windows PCs.

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