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Quick Look: Consumer Reports Mobile Shopper for iPhone

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Consumer Reports has a long-standing history of provider shoppers with advice about what to buy. Now, you can carry it with you on your iPhone as you shop and check products instantly. So, scanning the barcode of the iPhone 4 (s aapl) with its camera will (in theory) reveal CR’s high rating, and its lack of a “Buy” recommendation.

Maybe Consumer Reports’ refusal to issue that recommendation is why the app isn’t optimized for the iPhone 4’s Retina Display, though that wouldn’t make much sense, as the newest iPod touch also supports high-res graphics. Either way, I’m surprised to see a new app come to market today without Retina-optimized visuals, especially when it’s an app that costs $9.99.

Graphics aside, what really makes the Mobile Shopper app useful is its ability to tag barcodes on the fly and return product information and ratings. While it may just be that I was trying out things that weren’t well-suited to the technology, I found the barcode scanner to be hit or miss. I tested five or six products, and only video games and Amazon’s (s amzn) Kindles returned results. No Apple products worked.

When it did work, it was impressive. The Kindle DX included a ratings report card, with detailed information provided in an easily readable format consisting of clear icons displayed along with a legend. There’s also a review, complete with highs and lows.

Manually searching for products is only marginally more time-consuming than scanning barcodes, and much more likely to return good results. You can also view local results, and shop online, though shopping locally will kick you out to Safari. Shopping online will, too, but at least you get to see a PriceGrabber comparison chart in-app before selecting an actual retailer.

A nice feature Mobile Shopper provides is the ability to compare devices in the same category. You’ll get a chart if one is available, providing scores, price and buy recommendations. You also get access to CR buying advice, which provide tips on how to shop for different categories of products. Basically, you get access to much of the content you only get through the website by subscribing, and for a much cheaper one-time fee of $9.99 (or $14.99 beginning Jan. 1, 2011).

In the end, though, unless you’re an avid Consumer Reports user, I can’t recommend this app. From the low-res graphics, to the poorly designed user interface, to the sporadically effective barcode scanning, it just seems like an amateurish offering. Which is too bad, because the content is there.

Maybe if we see an update that brings the app in line with the type of quality we’ve come to expect from developers these days, especially when affiliated with an organization like consumer reports attached, I’ll have a change of heart, but until then, doing comparison shopping the old-fashioned way (via Google (s goog) in mobile Safari) is not only easier, but also easier on the eyes.

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