Consumer mag's rigour trumps Net's populism

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      Consumer Reports has been around for a long time, but it still beats anonymous Web ratings for helping to make electronics purchases.

      Let me say right off the top that I would hate to hear something disillusioning about the magazine Consumer Reports . There aren't many 20th-century cultural institutions that have managed to survive to the present day while maintaining some dignity, so I'd rather not know if General Motors or the Illuminati is behind it all.

      I'd prefer to stick with my original childhood conception of the nonprofit group behind it all: a bunch of folks in white coats hanging out and saying things like, "Hey, wanna buy some dishwashers and test them against each other, then maybe spend the afternoon trying to lock up the brakes on a variety of midsize sedans?" I know that's where I'd want to work. I already have the clipboard.

      What I like about Consumer Reports is that, prior to the Internet, it was about the only source you could turn to if you wanted to make an informed decision about buying a household appliance. In fact, I'd argue that its use of laboratory tests still trumps the Internet's populist system of rating products. ("Hmmm. Eight people rated it better than sliced bread and two said it sucked, but one of those guys is clearly angrier at his mother-in-law, who gave him the blender, than he is at the blender, so let's take a chance and buy it.") Meanwhile, Consumer Reports has been around since 1936, a time when practically the only consumer products more advanced than linoleum were the Model T Ford and radios the size of garden sheds.

      Naturally, the recent digital boom has resulted in a lot more products to cover, which is probably why the once-annual Consumer Reports Electronics Buying Guide , published in the fall, is now supplemented with a summer edition. The enticement on the cover is that more than 300 brand-name products are rated, but that represents just a small part of what's inside the 200-page publication. Yes, if you must have the traditional CR ratings grids, with their cryptic circles and half-circles, they're there, but the bulk of the summer 2007 issue (the first 150 pages and a 22-page glossary at the end) is dedicated to making the reader a smarter shopper, the type of education no other entity seems to have much interest in promoting.

      The result is that such special issues (and presumably the other Consumer Reports publications that I don't buy because they're not technology oriented) provide the sort of preshopping baseline knowledge that everyone needs. Dozens of short articles and sidebars explaining the basics are laid out in an easy-to-read, accessible style. I can't think of a more concise and effective way to get a grounding in whatever category of purchase you're investigating, from printers and digital cameras to MP3 players and TVs. How can you not love sage advice like "Downplay the processor speed.”¦Spend your money on more memory" and "Be sure to budget for good speakers"?

      Unlike the monthly magazine, which has an insert containing Canadian information, these tech guides are oriented to the U.S. marketplace. Except for currency conversions, that doesn't make much of a difference for most categories covered in this issue, other than some of the cellphones (and all of the mobile-service providers) that are reviewed. Even so, the pages on smart phones and cordless phones for the home are worth a read, and I'd consider the chapter on televisions and the one on audio and video gear to be essential reading. Probably the chapter on digital cameras and camcorders, too–it even includes advice on taking better photographs.

      Electronics education aside, once you get to the pages of actual ratings, they pretty much stand on their own. There's the grid of numbers, circles, and dots; numerical ratings; explanations of testing criteria; and usually some quick recommendations. For example, the digital-camera ratings have a sidebar that includes a best-value pick, choices if a zoom lens or recording video is a priority, even models with greater resolution or control. Most categories also feature the results from product-reliability surveys completed by the magazine's readers.

      Whether you buy an issue of Consumer Reports to become an educated consumer, because you want to narrow down your shopping options, or as a form of insurance against making a bad purchase, it's probably the wisest 13 bucks you can spend. Plus, each issue includes a free 30-day trial of the Consumer Reports Web site ( ), where you can look up just about anything you would ever want to buy, and might even decide that access to such useful on-line information is worth paying US$26 a year.