Specsmanship: The numbers do lie

The shame! You bought a 2.2-gigahertz computer the day before the 2.4-GHz model came out--with a 10 percent faster graphics card and a 20 percent faster hard drive! The humiliation! Or not. Take comfort in this axiom, a bit of deep philosophical wisdom that I've gained from years of experience: Product features that can easily be expressed in numbers are rarely as important as those that can't.

Vendors like to compete on quantifiable things; they note how fast the CPU runs, how many USB ports are available, how much hard drive space you get. The feature tables may look good, but they won't say whether the system will ship without a shred of printed documentation or whether you'll be unable to open the case without the Jaws of Life.

True, a few numbers are worth worrying about, but they almost always express capacity, such as how big the hard drive is or how much RAM the machine includes. The others are largely irrelevant. Humorless geeks may fret about the speeds of their CPUs, buses, graphics cards, and drives, but unless you're into high-powered video editing or heavy-duty games, those specs just don't matter much.

Look--And Touch

The important features tend to be those you can't easily measure, those that interface with your senses. More important than the difference between the innards of an optical mouse and a mechanical mouse is the way either one feels in your hand. More important than a monitor's official resolution is the sharpness of its images. If you have to take a printer apart whenever you feed it an envelope, you may not care how many dots it can put on a square inch of paper. If a PC's roaring fan drives you nuts, it'll be a bigger drain on your productivity than a 50 percent reduction in processor speed.

The more portable and integrated a device gets, the more subjectivity comes into play. A desktop PC is basically a box of interchangeable, replaceable parts; if you don't like the monitor it comes with, you can go get another. A notebook is a different story, because its configuration is far more difficult to change without compromising its essential integration. No spec sheet can explain such fundamental matters as the smoothness of the pointing device or the clarity of the screen.

Idiosyncratic personal devices such as organizers and MP3 players are so far from being commodities that specs recede even further into insignificance. How much memory a PDA includes is likely to be unimportant compared with how easy it makes syncing with a computer or entering data on the fly. The size of the pictures a digital camera can produce may not matter if it gets five shots per battery charge. A tiny digital camcorder may be done in by a lousy microphone. And who cares how fashionable a cell phone is if your fingers slip off the miniature keys?

So trust your senses and your research--and the next time somebody brags about a barn-burning new PC, stay calm. Windows and internal hardware bottlenecks will slow it down enough that it won't get much more work done than yours does, and its mouse may just be a rat.

Contributing Editor Stephen Manes, cohost of the public television series Digital Duo, has written about PCs for nearly two decades.

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