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Consumer Reports Almost Gets It

Consumer Reports, the well-known magazine featuring reviews, comparisons, and recommendations of a wide variety of consumer products, has at long last said something nice about the Macintosh, to the point of printing "59,940 reasons to reconsider Macs" on the cover of their December 2004 issue. (The article quotes Symantec as saying there are 60,000 PC viruses versus only 60 for the Mac, hence the 59,940 number, although I’ll bet many of those 60 don’t work in Mac OS X at all.) Along with essentially no problems from viruses, Consumer Reports correctly notes that Macs don’t suffer from the spyware epidemic that afflicts Windows-based PCs. Plus, the magazine praises Apple for its industry-leading ratings for reliability and support satisfaction, the latter of which Apple has increased over the past three years while the ratings of PC companies have fallen. (Unfortunately, the full text of the article is available only to Consumer Reports subscribers.)


Sounds great, doesn’t it? The coverage is certainly an improvement from years past, when Consumer Reports tarnished its reputation among Mac users by making clueless statements about Macs and comparing them to PCs in non-representative ways. These days, the magazine discusses Macs and PCs separately for the most part, which helps, but even still, reading one of their articles about computers still raises my hackles. The base problem has long been that Consumer Reports tends to be primarily concerned with cost, with reliability and usability coming in later. That hasn’t changed, and after the positive things the current article says initially, later statements return to the ignorance of the past.

In terms of price, Macs are almost always more expensive than PCs, mostly due to the equipment that’s standard on a Mac but extra on a PC. But in this initially laudatory article, Consumer Reports goes on to claim (with no data) that Macs cost more than similarly featured Windows PCs. When you look in their Ratings table, you can see that the iMac G5, at $1,674, is indeed more expensive than all but one of the comparable PCs (an $1,850 Sony), but of course, the iMac listed includes a high-quality 17-inch monitor, whereas none of the PCs do. So much for "similarly featured." (LinuxInsider features an article that claims Macs are in fact cheaper than similarly configured PCs from Dell.)


More annoying, there’s absolutely no acknowledgment that Macs cost less to support and maintain. The article states up front that Macs don’t suffer from viruses or spyware, but nowhere is the connection made that such an advantage translates directly to lowered costs in buying software, paying for consultants, and lost productivity.

Consumer Reports also praises Apple’s reliability and support, but once again fails to make the obvious connection with price. Perhaps Apple’s reliability ratings are due to using higher quality parts and workmanship, which might account for somewhat higher prices? Might there be a cost to the user in dealing with unreliable hardware? And don’t you think that providing better support could have a cost associated with it?

Coming from a magazine that is normally good about calculating ongoing and lifetime costs for different products, this complete avoidance of the real-world costs of a computer is shameful. The anti-Mac blinders are especially bothersome because the article does correctly identify factors that add to the cost of buying a Mac, namely having to buy new software and spend time transferring and converting data.

Also strange is the fact that Consumer Reports ignores the usability of the operating system. They’re not shy to complain about a complex interface on a washing machine, but they say nothing about the relative ease-of-use of Mac OS X compared to Windows XP. Ironically, although Consumer Reports seldom comments on the industrial design of computers, they find space to compare the iMac G5 unfavorably to the iMac G4 in terms of screen adjustability and to complain about the extra cost of Apple’s Bluetooth-based wireless keyboard and mouse, which are necessary to avoid ugly cables from the back of the iMac. Of course, nowhere do they say anything about the pitiful industrial design of most PCs or make the connection between design and cost.

The article’s final criticism of the Mac is correct, though overblown. There’s no question that Mac users have fewer choices in software, especially for entertainment and educational titles. Of course, the real question is if appropriate software is lacking for any particular purpose; the Mac certainly has thin spots, but for most people, I suspect they’re irrelevant. As long as you can find software that meets your needs, the fact that you’re choosing not to buy numerous other packages simply doesn’t matter.

In the end, I’m certainly pleased to see the truth about the Mac’s lack of viruses and spyware being trumpeted in a consumer products magazine, and I’m equally as pleased to read about Apple’s top ratings in reliability and support. But I remain frustrated that Consumer Reports remains incapable of making the related leaps of logic that explain just why Macs and PCs have the price tags they do, and how those price tags aren’t necessarily related to the overall cost of ownership.

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