Everyone’s needs and budget are different. And new gadgets always come along and render yesterday’s hottest tech obsolete—and much more affordable.
In every category, however, you’ll find over-marketed specs that really shouldn’t mean much to most people. And a few specs don’t get nearly enough attention.
Before you plop down your cash, consider our advice. Here are the specs we think you can safely ignore, the specs you should consider in certain contexts, and the specs you should seek out. As long as you’re buying a modern processor, you’ll probably discover that the amount of RAM or storage space you select will have a bigger impact on your desktop or laptop’s performance than minor differences in clock speed will.
Slight differences in CPU or RAM speed: Yes, a 2.6GHz processor will be faster than a 1.2GHz CPU, but you shouldn’t pay more for small increases. You won’t notice the difference between a 2.3GHz Core i5 and a 2.5GHz Core i5, for instance, so don’t pay $100 for an unnoticeable uptick. Likewise, the noticeable difference between 1066MHz and 1333MHz RAM is practically none.
DVD/Blu-ray write speeds: Even if you are one of the few folks left tinkering with physical media, you’d be hard-pressed to find a drive that offered much of a leg up in burning speed. If you’re burning a disc, you’ll be waiting a bit whether it’s a 6X drive or a 10X drive. And all drives play movies just fine.
Graphics RAM: For watching high-def YouTube clips and Blu-ray discs, most people have no need to go from 1GB to 2GB of RAM on a midrange graphics card. The card that ships with your PC will more than likely be enough. Gamers are the exception, as a beefy card with 1GB of RAM will outpace a 256MB or 512MB rival, while the 2GB realm is reserved for $700-and-up, enthusiast cards. A faster graphics chip with less RAM will almost always do better than a slower chip with more RAM.
Quad-core processors: In the laptop world, a dual-core processor is likely to be faster than a quad-core CPU for mainstream applications. A dual-core CPU often runs at a higher clock speed, and most general-purpose programs don’t make good use of four CPU cores. But if you do a lot of video processing, scientific computation, or engineering work, four cores may be the way to go. Multithreaded applications are becoming the norm, and your PC will be able to hammer away at more tasks if it has a bit of headroom. Truth be told, aside from truly low-end models, it’s difficult to find a desktop PC that doesn’t come equipped with a quad-core CPU.
Laptop display brightness: A bright screen usually drains the battery quickly. Besides, 300 nits is so bright that it’s hard to look at indoors, and most users turn the brightness down a bit anyway. If you work outside often, though, you’ll want all the brightness you can get.
Amount of RAM: Whatever the computer, you’re better off with more RAM. Don’t settle for less than 4GB—buying 6GB or 8GB of RAM isn’t a bad idea, either.
A roomy, 7200-rpm hard drive: The revolutions-per-minute figure refers to how fast a drive platter spins. A 7200-rpm hard drive will often be more responsive than a 5400-rpm hard drive will. As for storage space, what’s the use of a souped-up rig if you can’t fit anything in it? Fortunately, storage is becoming increasingly inexpensive, and gargantuan 3TB drives are appearing.
Laptop weight: Small differences in weight make a big difference when you’re lugging your laptop around. The difference between 3.5 pounds and 5 pounds may not seem like much at first, but when your laptop bag is on your shoulder all day, it’s enormous.
Laptop battery life: Obviously, the more battery life a laptop has, the better. When you’re assessing this spec, though, take any claim the manufacturer makes and then chop off 20 percent. Vendors’ claimed battery life always assumes a best-case scenario—a scenario that you will never see in real life.
Storage interfaces: If you want to add storage to your system, make sure to buy a drive that is compatible with your machine. Obviously, a SATA 6Gb/s connector won’t help if you don’t have SATA 6Gb/s on your computer. When shopping for an external drive, look for the fastest connector that your system can support. For PCs, that includes eSATA and USB 3.0—but only the latter can work without a power adapter.
In the laptop world, a dual-core processor is likely to be faster than a quad-core CPu for most mainstream applications.
Considering a new phone? It’s easy to get pulled into the specs war. Single-core chip or dual-core processor? 3G or 4G? Today’s smartphones, however, place the greatest emphasis on big screens, so it makes more sense to pay particular attention to how everything will look on a phone’s display.
Noise-reduction technology: A few new phones boast “noise-reduction technology,” which supposedly blocks out the background clatter when you’re calling on a busy street. In our hands-on tests with such phones, however, we’ve noticed that this technology can make your voice sound strange to the parties on the other end of the line, and that it sometimes adds a weird muffling effect to your contacts’ voices.
HDMI port: Unless you plan to store a library of high-definition movies on your phone, and unless you have an HDMI cable with the proper connection for the phone (you’ll have to buy that separately) as well as an HDTV, pay no attention to whether a phone has an HDMI port. It’s a nice extra for movie junkies who want to have a lot of full-length flicks on their handset, but we’re not sure that description fits many people.
4G: If you don’t have 4G coverage in your area (or even close to your region), don’t buy a 4G phone yet. If you have the coverage, 4G is fantastic for streaming music and movies on your phone, surfing the Web, and downloading apps quickly. Be careful, though: 4G will drain your phone’s battery long before you finish streaming a typical feature film.
Camera megapixel count: When it comes to image quality, megapixels are largely meaningless. If you’ll mostly be viewing your snapshots directly on your phone, sharing them through email and MMS, uploading them to Facebook, and overlaying effects such as the ones you’ll find in apps like Hipstamatic and Instagram, a 12-megapixel camera is overkill in both resolution and file size. That said, you should choose a phone with at least a 3-megapixel camera, just to have a little more flexibility with the photos you take.
Processor speed: Dual-core processors are getting a lot of buzz, but such power is unnecessary for the average user. Unless you’re doing a lot of app multitasking or playing games with 3D graphics, you’ll probably be fine with a 1GHz processor. Aside from the chip speed, other factors—such as the software your phone runs (Android 2.3 is faster than Android 2.2, for instance) and network speeds—contribute to fast, fluid phone performance.
Display size/resolution: If you intend to surf the Web, use the calendar and organizer, or compose and read email and text messages, make sure the phone’s screen is up to snuff. For Web browsing or document editing, a screen that measures less than 2.7 inches diagonally will feel cramped. Consider the resolution, too: The higher it is, the sharper videos and photos will look. Being able to control the contrast and backlight settings can also be important, as phones have noticeable differences in their default display settings. If your phone allows you to adjust contrast and brightness, text and graphics can be easily viewable in well-lit places, and you can save battery life in a pinch.
Since tablets are still fairly new, it’s easy for manufacturers to rattle off a litany of specs. The ones that matter most, however, are those that determine how quickly a tablet will respond to your input, and how well images and text will appear on the slate’s screen.
“This Space Intentionally Left Blank”: At the moment, there’s very little you shouldn’t be considering when buying a tablet. Fortunately, manufacturers have refrained from filling their tablet specs lists with confusing jargon. Here’s hoping the situation stays that way.
Ports: With tablets, integrated ports are a double-edged sword. If the connections are built in, you don’t need a dongle to add HDMI, an SD Card, or a USB device. Ports add weight and thickness to the tablet, though. For many people, the port-free Apple iPad 2 and Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 are capable, attractive choices; and if you want to add some of the aforementioned ports to one or the other, you can easily do so via extra-cost dongles. However, if you plan to use a tablet for productivity tasks (not just for media consumption), find one that has the ports you’ll want on board.
Screen resolution: The higher the resolution, the sharper the display—that’s a rule of thumb you can count on. While many tablets have crisp 1280-by-800-pixel displays, some—such as the Apple iPad 2 (1024 by 768) and the abysmally low-resolution Dell Streak 7 (800 by 480)—fall shy of that figure. Because the display is such an integral and unchangeable part of a tablet, try not to skimp on the screen resolution.
Processor speed: Most bargain-bin tablets cut corners on the processor, and carry a sub-1GHz CPU. Single-core models, especially those with clock speeds less than 1GHz, are slow. Stick with a dual-core CPU, or a single-core chip that’s at least faster than 1GHz.
Many people still believe that more megapixels means a better camera. But it’s more important to look for features that won’t hold you back, such as quick startup and easy-to-use controls.
Digital zoom: Although the technology is getting better, digital zoom still crops a photo in the center and enlarges that cropped area, reducing the resolution of the final image. You can accomplish the same thing through image-editing software, and if you need to enlarge part of a photo during playback, you can do that with the camera’s zoom controls without affecting the source image.
Digital image stabilization: Normally these systems either boost the ISO sensitivity to noise-inducing levels (allowing the camera to use a faster shutter speed) or crop and enlarge a video image in the center of the frame, using the rest of the scene as a buffer to make the center look somewhat steady. Cameras that combine optical/mechanical and digital stabilization are effective, but we’ve rarely been impressed with digital stabilization alone.
LCD screen size and resolution: On point-and-shoots, LCD viewfinders that measure 3 inches or more diagonally are now the norm. Big screens drain the battery faster, however, and a sharp, high-resolution LCD can make image quality appear better than it actually is.
Megapixels: You shouldn’t ignore megapixels entirely, but they matter much more for DSLRs. A megapixel count indicates how large you can view, resize, or print an image without a noticeable decrease in resolution. Factor in a megapixel count if you want to make large prints or to crop and enlarge portions of an image. In point-and-shoots and camera phones, a high megapixel count often leads to noisier photos and a larger file size, which eats up storage and affects your ability to share images electronically without first reducing them.
High-definition video recording: The figures “720” and “1080” simply refer to the number of horizontal lines the video will scale to on an HDTV. The quality depends on a lot of factors: the recording bitrate, the quality of the lens and sensor, the frame rate of the video capture, and other variables. Video performance is hard to gauge; we’ve seen great (and not-so-great) HD video shot with both pocket cameras and DSLRs.
ISO: Most point-and-shoots now have astonishingly high ISO sensitivity—up to ISO 6400 or even ISO 12800—but their small sensors add noise starting at around ISO 400. A DSLR handles the upper reaches of the ISO range much better. If low-light shots and fast action are important to you, a DSLR with high-ISO settings is a good fit. But if you’re looking at point-and-shoots, consider one with a low-light mode that does something more than jack up the ISO.
Physical buttons for manual controls: If you want to get serious about photography, don’t buy a DSLR right away. Save money and learn the ropes by buying a compact camera with manual controls for aperture, shutter, and focus. Using buttons and dials on a small camera first makes using a DSLR’s controls more intuitive. Touchscreen manual controls aren’t ready for prime time yet, anyway.
Fast startup time and burst mode: Shutter lag isn’t much of a problem now, but newer cameras can still make you miss a shot. Look for a camera that turns on and allows you to shoot within about a second and a half. You may need to disable the power-on “splash screen” (if the camera lets you do that). A “burst mode” or “continuous shooting” speed is also worth noting: Even if you’re not into sports, the ability to fire the shutter continuously can help you capture a hyperactive pet, a fidgety baby, or another fast subject. Look for a burst mode of 3 frames per second or greater.
TV makers love impressive-sounding specs, but you should concentrate on selecting the right-size set for your home.
Contrast ratio: Supposedly this spec measures the difference between a TV’s darkest blacks and its brightest whites. But because manufacturers report contrast ratios without standardized testing guidelines, the numbers aren’t a reliable indicator of picture quality.
Response time: Theoretically useful for showing whether a TV has “smearing” or “blurring,” response time measures how long a pixel in an LCD takes to turn from one color to another. It is not always clear which measurement a TV maker reports; a black-to-white-to-black transition takes twice as long as gray-to-gray. Regardless, these days response times are generally adequate.
Refresh rate: The difference in image quality between a 60Hz LCD HDTV and a 120Hz LCD HDTV is tremendous; beyond 120Hz, though, refresh rate is not so important. We’ve seen 120Hz models beat 240Hz sets in our motion tests, because 240Hz frame-interpolation algorithms can create “judder” artifacts.
The smartest size: A big TV is nice. But if you don’t have a lot of space between your TV and your couch, you might end up moving your head around or viewing inferior video. And with a big set, you may see the individual lines in the image.
The difference in image quality between a 60Hz LCD HDTV and a 120Hz LCD HDTV is tremendous.
Look for a high cartridge page yield and automatic duplexing. A printer lacking both might cost too much over time.
Engine speed: Printer makers usually calculate and report engine speed using methods that do not reflect real-world usage. For instance, they may use the faster “draft” mode for their speed tests. A more realistic indicator is the ISO/IEC 24734 “Laser Quality Print Speed” standard, which prints in default mode and includes first-page-out time.
Monthly duty cycle: This number is an indication of how durable a printer is, so it’s an important metric for businesses. Even so, the actual volume of printing that you can expect to do is likely to be a small fraction—10 to 25 percent—of a printer’s reported duty-cycle number.
Print resolution: Specs labeled “optimized,” “interpolated,” or “up to” are manipulated resolutions. If you encounter a true 1200-by-1200-dpi printer (still a rarity), you will notice that it can make remarkably smooth, sharp text and images.
Scan resolution: Look for the “optical resolution” as the true measure; 300 dpi is usually sufficient. Going higher will result in slow scans, huge files, and images that aren’t necessarily sharper.
Automatic duplexing: A printer that can print on both sides of the page saves paper. Manual duplexing—usually with on-screen prompts to turn over the paper—is a hassle for most people.
Page yield: All cartridges have a spec that states how many pages they can print before they run dry. ISO/IEC standards have helped make most cartridges’ page yields directly comparable.
Starter-size cartridges: Some low-end laser and LED printers ship with “starter-size” toner cartridges that have lower page yields. They’ll run out faster than a standard cartridge will, forcing you to buy a replacement sooner.
PCWorld Magazine – October 2011
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