Are specs still important? Should we as consumers be expected to know what’s in our devices? My answer to that is yes, but it's complicated (just like specs themselves can be).
No one buys a gadget, computer or TV because they want to own a specific chipset, hard drive or piece of glass. We buy gadgets because we want to enjoy a particular experience, and we want a product that can deliver that experience: answering e-mail, getting some work done, playing games, watching a movie, whatever.
The stuff that goes into our gadgets—the specs—enable those experiences, and can serve as useful shorthand for whether or not a device can actually deliver the experiences we’re looking for.
But the key is that those specs—processor speed, memory, screen size, resolution, etc.—have to be paired with excellent software. You need both. Just as even the best software can't make up for an underpowered device, great specs can't make up for a non-intuitive user experience.
That means in order to create a great gadget experience, you ultimately need a capable device with well-designed software. Otherwise—and you see this all too often—you end up with a powerful device with poor software, or an underpowered device that can't do the things it promises to do.
Netbooks are a good example of this trade-off. When they first hit the mainstream, many consumers were upset to discover that they couldn't watch HD video on their new computers. It didn't matter that Windows was perfectly capable of playing HD content, the netbooks’ chipsets just couldn't handle it, resulting in lots of frustrated buyers who were let down by underpowered machines. Conversely, we’ve seen how even tablets with powerful processors and plenty of RAM can disappoint users when paired with sub-par software.
But back to the original question: Should the average consumer have to worry about this?
You can argue that consumers should be able to buy something without having to worry about whether it's going to deliver as promised. That might be true, but it’s not the reality of the gadget world. Given the explosion of consumer electronics options over the past few years, it's incumbent on all of us to be better informed about what it is we're buying, and understand the different elements that go into making it either great or disappointing. And yes, that means knowing a bit more about what specs actually mean and why and when they matter.
When do specs stop mattering? I think they only become irrelevant when a spec improvement doesn't lead to an incremental improvement in experience, or when the specs themselves become obsolete. An example of this is the camera megapixel war, which has mainly ground to a halt because we've reached a point where any additional jump in resolution (the spec) won’t do much to increase actual image quality (the experience). But where an improvement does lead to improved performance, you can be sure that specs are something we should care about. Just ask anyone arguing that specs don't matter whether they'd want a slower processor in their smartphone, or to give up that 4G radio for a 2G one.
One last point: None of this absolves manufacturers of their responsibility to make awesome devices. We've seen too many mediocre products marketed solely on the basis of their specs alone, rather than how those specs contribute to an overall experience. The challenge for anyone making a gadget these days is to take that hardware foundation and build something great on top of it.
This article is commissioned by Qualcomm Incorporated. The views expressed are the author’s own.