Inside Consumer Reports' Electronics Testing Lab

You probably only read Consumer Reports if a) you are at your grandparents house or b) you are a grandparent yourself. But that's too bad, because tucked quietly away in the NYC suburb of Yonkers lies one of the biggest and best electronics testing labs money can buy. And what goes on here at Consumer Reports main test facility probably puts most other tech pubs to shame.

We got a chance to look at all of the top dollar gear used to put everything found in CR's electronics pages in a complete vacuum of testing, basically removing every possible outside variable to test the pure hardware performance. That means anechoic chambers built on their own foundation (at a cost of $US2.5 million in 1980) for total sound isolation; industrial-quality cell tower base station generators inside fully RF-shielded rooms that can crank out every possible mobile phone frequency at any strength; a "head and torso simulator" named Pedro, able to be calibrated down to the millimeter for testing every aspect of mobile phone call quality possible, and a nameless human finger simulator composed of, well, meat (in action below as well).

Unfortunately, what makes CR so exemplary as a reliable testing lab also contribute to its fate to be found mostly on grandmother's end table next to the bowl of fossilised peppermints. As a non-profit organisation, CR doesn't sell any advertising to anyone, anywhere, nor do they accept any review units or advance loaners from the company—everything they test, from a new BMW to an electric toothbrush, they buy.

While that means employees get pretty sick re-sale discounts on new cars every year, it also means CR is fighting an eternally uphill battle vs. the other tech pubs that don't keep such high standards, and that CR must keep all of its online content walled within a pay site for subscribers only. The subscribers it has are among the most loyal of any magazine, but the vast majority of them are older.

(The aforementioned human finger simulator gets put to the test on a mower that CR's resident high-RPM blade expert refers to as "the most dangerous thing I've ever tested." - video edited by BBG)

And due to the natural constraints of a magazine with no ads, the mountains of test data gathered for any particular product end up truncated and distilled into CR's famous comparative charts, where their scores are rendered in linearly receding bars and crimson doughnut dots. CR's benchmarks are designed to place all new products on a relative continuum, rating them "fair" to "excellent" in comparison to how products over the last several years have fared with the same rigorously standardised tests. But a problem there, obviously, is that often it looks like CR loves just about everything—this year's television are naturally going to present marked improvements over what's been available over the last few years, which tends to stretch the data toward the good end. Kind of like how you have to search forever to find a review on CNET with a score of less than 7.0.

(Inside the soundproof womb of the anechoic chamber - video edited by BBG).

Such are the dilemmas of serious hardware testing that makes any type of claims towards ultimate authoritativeness. But it's also the reason why the old bound volumes of Consumer Reports are the most well-worn volumes in the periodicals room of the public library where I used to work. The data is there, and it's rock solid. Taking a tour of their labs and meeting the engineers that do the work, it's immediately apparent that what goes on in Yonkers is among the more vigorous and pure analysis of technology being done by anyone, anywhere.

After all, don't you just have to trust folks who keep this poster hanging above their main laptop test bench?

[Consumer Reports, video courtesy Consumer Reports, edited by the good gentlemen of Boing Boing Gadgets - see them for more]