Archive for June 23, 2009

New Consumer Reports printers Ratings: Something for everyone

We’ve just posted our latest Ratings of 72 printers.

Do you need a regular inkjet or an all-in-one? A multifunction laser or a regular model that does nothing but print, and does it quickly? Or perhaps all you require is a portable snapshot printer. Whatever your needs, we’ve got recommended models for you: Four regular inkjets or lasers, four all-in-ones, and a couple of great snapshot printers.

All the lasers print excellent text; some are quite a bit faster than others. With many of the inkjets, you can print very good to excellent photos for 35 cents apiece, or less. Check out our Ratings to find the model that best suits your needs and budget. —Donna Tapellini

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Buzzword: Blogola

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You’ve likely heard of the “payola” schemes of early broadcast radio, where local radio stations would receive money from record labels for giving certain artists’ songs preferential air time. Now you may hear a lot more about so-called “blogola,” which some say is the Internet-era equivalent.

The term describes the acceptance by some blogs of free products or services, or other gifts and remunerations, from companies looking for a positive review of their offerings. It’s controversial enough to have now attracted the attention of the Federal Trade Commission.

The AP reports that the federal agency is looking to implement a set of guidelines to combat blogola and enhance transparency in the blogosphere. Unlike journalists who work for news organizations that have a set of ethical standards, many bloggers, who are often self-employed, have no official obligation, and many do not disclose gifts and perks they receive.

Some of the highest-profile cases of blogola have involved technology blogs. In 2006, Microsoft, AMD, and PR firm Edelman were criticized when it was revealed they had sent Acer laptops pre-loaded with Vista to prominent bloggers, hoping for a review of the then-new operating system.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know how Consumer Reports operates: No blogola or payola here. For the record, our policy is to accept no gifts—including free products or trips—from any manufacturer. (We will sometimes make exceptions for modest items provided to all media, such as food at news conferences or thumb drives that contain product information.) Neither do we run ads, as you may have noticed on ConsumerReports.org or in our magazine.

What do you think of the FTC’s initiative? Is it a necessary move, or, as Caroline McCarthy at CNet has questioned, will the attempt to regulate the diverse and crowded blogosphere be like “herding cats?” —Nick K. Mandle

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Kodak takes our Kodachrome away

After more than 70 years marketing the iconic color slide film, Kodak has announced that Kodachrome is about to bite the dust. For more details on Kodachrome’s illustrious history and impending demise, see “Tightwad” Tod Marks’s posting on our Money blog. —Jeff Fox

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Why electronics stores "suck"

electronics stores consumer electronics retailers failure customer service Ratings restructuring circuit city compusa best buy tiger direct online retailers

How can brick-and-mortar consumer electronics stores serve customers better? Let Gilbert Fiorentino, an executive at Systemax (which now owns the Circuit City brand name), count the ways.
[ Photo courtesy of Ed Yourdon (Under Creative Commons) ]

The shopping experience at walk-in electronics stores "sucks," according to a keynote speech at the recent Consumer Electronics Association conference in New York.

No, that messenger wasn't me or someone else from Consumer Reports, talking about how our Ratings of places to buy computers and other major
electronics items
(available to subscribers) reveal that satisfaction with
brick-and-mortar stores lags behind that for online retailers.

Instead, the observation came from someone with firsthand knowledge of electronics retailing: The relatively-new owner of CompUSA's stores and Web site and of the TigerDirect.com and newly-relaunched CircuitCity.com Web sites, too.

In the most colorful presentation at the CEA Line Shows event, Gilbert Fiorentino, the Chief Executive (Technology Products Group) of Systemax, the parent company for CompUSA, said he took over the ailing chain last year determined to improve the experience of shopping for electronics in a store.

"Go into a typical electronics store," he says, "and can you see the product manual? No. Can you find out how many HDMI inputs the TV set has? No, not unless it's on the little card on the shelf in front—and someone hasn't taken that for themselves. Can I even use the TV? No, someone stole the remote control, too."

Apple iPhone 3G S digital camera Consumer Reports review camera performance cell smart phone Ratings

At revamped CompUSA stores, products on display are linked to nearby flat-panel displays that show additional information about the model that is picked up. Click to enlarge.
[ Photo courtesy of Systemax ]

A key problem, Fiorentino said, is that stores all but ignore the Web—the primary source of consumer electronics information. "Half the time, the salesman has to go into the manager's office or something to get onto the Web and check something for you. That's crazy."

Fiorentino highlighted a paradox in electronics retailing: Most buyers research online, in part at retail Web sites that offer a rich mix of user reviews, videos, and detailed specs. Yet the overwhelming majority of sales are still made in brick-and-mortar stores—dismal as those mostly are. ("People love to see stuff, and try it out, before they buy.")

The walk-in electronics store will endure, Fiorentino predicts, but only if it changes with the times, and fast.

CompUSA is now revamping its stores—now numbering 24, most of them in Florida—to bridge what he calls the "chasm" between Web and brick-and-mortar. For example, stores will give every TV set its own feed, continually showing HD demos and model information.

Another pledge: the same prices in CompUSA stores and on its website. (Higher store prices may have hurt Circuit City, which pledged to match their own online prices in ads aired shortly before the chain's demise.) And Fiorentino says if you can't find what you want in the store, but the store's website has it, he's working towards easy ways to order the item in the store, with free shipping to your home.

Given the changes at CompUSA, we'll be curious to see if the chain fares better with
subscribers in our 2009 survey of electronics retailers, which we'll publish later in the year. In past years, CompUSA has ranked towards the bottom of the Ratings of stores, along with most of the other major national chains.

What do you think? Weigh in with your observations on CompUSA's plans, or on the state of electronics retail stores. —Paul Reynolds

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Ratings: Laptops, Desktops, and Netbooks

If you're in the market for a computer (desktop or portable), check out our latest Ratings of desktop computers, laptops and netbooks. We've got recommendations for 13 laptops, three netbooks, and 12 desktops. (Ratings and Recommendations are available to subscibers.)

Both major commercial operating systems are slated for a change this fall. Apple plans to release its OS X upgrade, Snow Leopard, in September. Current Leopard users will be able to upgrade for $29. There will also be also a five-license family version for $49.

Snow Leopard will use 6GB less hard drive space than the previous version, the company said.

Microsoft will release the new Windows 7 on October 22. The company says it's still working on upgrade programs with computer manufacturers and retailers. If you're on the fence about when to buy a new PC, it might be worth holding off until we learn more about upgrade options. —Donna Tapellini

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