Specs: Not Meaningless. But Getting There.

By  |  Sunday, March 8, 2009 at 11:10 pm

T-Week[NOTE: Here’s a post that first appeared in our free T-Week newsletter, which you can subscribe to here.]

Once upon a time, I could quote every major speed and feed associated with each computer I owned from memory. I knew the CPU’s clockspeed and how much RAM I had; I knew how much memory the graphics card held and what my screen resolution was; I knew how much hard disk space I had, and how fast the CD-ROM drive was. That was just the beginning. come to think of it: I could also tell you how many megabytes were free on the hard drive, and–in the days of DOS, at least–how much free memory I had once the PC had booted. All of this made sense–every spec had a meaningful impact on my everyday productivity.

Today? I’m not saying I ignore specs–I do pay some attention when I’m making a major investment in new stuff. But I don’t obssess over them like I once did. I’m too busy thinking about other factors which play at least as big a role in determining whether I’ll be pleased with my tech investments.

How come?

There’s such a thing as enough power. If I were a hardcore 3D gamer, I’d still be fixated on techy specs, since games can easily eat up all the processing power a PC can throw at them. I’m not, though–I spend most of my time in my browser, office suites, and graphics software. They need some muscle, sure. But most of the computers I’ve owned over the past few years have had been more than potent enough. (RAM is an exception: I always try to buy a computer with twice the memory that’s typical at the time.) Same thing with digital cameras–if I have six megapixels, I’m good, so I focus in on items like the zoom lens and the battery life and whether I’ll be able to slip the camera into my pocket.

Some speed limitations are out of your control.
The more that we live our computing lives online, the more that it’s stuff beyond the PC that keeps you zipping along or bogs you down. Like, for instance, the speed of your broadband service–and even if you think you’re paying for 6-mbps service, it can slow to a trickle without warning. And even if your broadband is lickety-split, sluggish servers on the other end can leave the world’s fastest PC feeling like an arthritic Commodore 64.

Who wants a product that’s fast, but bad? I’ve seen some PCs with screamin’ CPUs, oodles of RAM, and hard-disk real estate as far as the eye could see…that had chintzy cases, impossible-to-get-at memory slots, and power supplies that that buzzed like beehives. None of which you could tell by simply comparing features with seemingly similar machines.

Specs can be beside the point. Too many PCs that don’t lack for powerful hardware components are frustrating slowpokes–because their manufacturers lard them up with pre-installed apps that pig out on resources and/or don’t tweak drivers and settings to help ensure you get the speed you paid for. On the flipside, there are also computers without cutting-edge ingredients that are faster than you’d think.

Specs can lie. Which they do whenever a camera or scanner manufacturer quotes interpolated resolution figures–“interpolated” being a code-word for “we’re claiming that our device is capable of capturing more pixels than it really can in hopes of convincing you to buy our product.”

Specs can be downright dangerous. I think back to the period when flatbed scanners first got cheap and their manufacturers plastered boxes with selling points like 600-dpi resolution. Without making it clear that scanning everything at 600-dpi would take forever and needlessly fill up your hard drive. And this was in the dial-up era, when uploading a 600-dpi image to the Web would have been a pointless exercisee in futility. It would have been far better for scanner packaging to carry a warning label: “For God’s sake, you’ll almost never need to scan anything at a resolution higher than 300-dpi–and not even that, usually.”

It’s possible that I’m not being attentive enough when it comes to specs. (Out of curiosity, I asked my Twitter buddies if they still pay attention to their computers’ basic specs, and most of them immediately quoted their PC’s vital statistics to me off the top of their heads, and sounded surprised that any well-informed geek wouldn’t be able to.) But I do know this: Even though I think less about specs than I once did, my batting average for buying products I’m happy with over the long haul is at least as good as it ever was. Maybe more so.

Agree? Disagree? I’m all ears-, so tell me if I’m on the right track. Or nuts, if that’s how you feel. I’d love to hear your buying strategies, whether they’re highly technical or profoundly emotional…


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5 Comments For This Post

  1. RulesRoulette Says:

    I agree, I was the same with every computer I have (and about ram and DOS, i used a lot of time trying to use the 2 megs in wolfestein 3d). But now is not necessary to be the same

  2. Vulpine Says:

    It’s been proven more than once that it really doesn’t matter what specs you have; it’s how those specs are used. One of the biggest ‘spec’ arguments over the years was based on CPU clock speeds and how certain computers with an obviously-slower clock speed could process data twice as quickly as their competition. This sort of thing is still going on today, despite the fact that clock speeds are now essentially pass√©.

    No, specs aren’t as critical as they used to be. What’s important is how well the computer does the job. That’s a product of the software and Operating System more than specs alone. Proof of this is quite clear when comparing the operating speed, for instance, of Windows XP, Vista and Windows 7. Put all three on otherwise equal machines and XP before SP3 was faster than Vista. Windows 7, a somewhat cleaned-up and more efficient version of Vista, is faster than Vista itself. This isn’t specs, this is software efficiency doing what it’s supposed to do.

    Problem is, until 7 and Snow Leopard are released, system specs are still going to play a major role in how quickly things are done.

  3. Dave Barnes Says:

    Think stereo equipment.

    In the 1970s, I would set my price point (usually $300 for a component) and then analyze all the candidates to death. For example, THD or Total Harmonic Distortion was an important metric.

    The, one day, I realized that EVERY component at my price point was better than I would ever need. So, I bought on brand and how sexy it looked. Not one second given to the specs.

    Why should PCs be any different?

    In 2005, I switched from building my own machines to letting Steve Jobs telling me what to buy. My life is certainly simpler in this regard and I can devote more brain cycles to other aspects of my life.

  4. Aaron Pressman Says:

    I’d add one other factor — the demise of the phone-book-thick-sized computer magazines like the Computer Shopper’s and PC Magazine’s of yore. I remember in my teens and early 20s, reading every page and every advertisement and all the SPECS! And it was all part of being informed about the market and the value of your own PC and whether it was time to upgrade yet and exactly which five models would be in the running for your upgrade dollars.

  5. Alan Moore Says:

    I miss the phonebook sized Computer Shoppers. I miss comparing Zeos to Gateway. I miss trying to find the elusive EGA video card for my Epson Equity I at a price I could afford. I miss drooling over my new-to-me PS/2 55SX and Windows 3.1 with COLORS. But I also don’t miss DIP switches, floppy floppies, 20MB hard drives, CONFIG.SYS, and AUTOEXEC.BAT. It’s a lot easier these days to buy a computer based on the processor, RAM, and the color of the case. For the most part, the system will do everything you want it to do, unless you need blisteringly fast graphics for Couterstrike or serious video rendering power. “Yes, I have a 2-tone Claret Red and Quicksilver Core 2 Quad with 6GB of RAM, it’s better than my b*tchin Camaro!”

    Uh, which I don’t, I have an ex-corporate lease Dell GX260 P4 1.8 with 2GB of RAM, a 40GB HD, and Windows 2000. But I have a dream…and even without Computer Shopper…my heart will go on…

1 Trackbacks For This Post

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