Which Specs Deserve Your Respect?

Here in PCWorld Reviews Land, we often end up in conversations like this:

"So, what do you do for a living?"

"I review [insert product type here] for PCWorld."

"Oh, I'm looking to buy a new [insert product type here]! Which one should I get?"

There's never an easy answer to that question. Everyone's needs are different. Everyone's budget is different. And just about every week, a new gadget comes along and renders yesterday's hottest gadget obsolete--and much more affordable.

In every product category, however, you'll find certain overmarketed specs that really shouldn't mean much to most people. For that matter, many features are important in some contexts but not others, and a few specs don't get nearly enough attention.

Before you reach for your wallet and plop down cash for a bajillion-gigahertz CPU or a bajillion-megapixel pocket camera, consider the advice we dispense in this article. Category by category, here are the specs we think you can safely ignore, the specs you should consider in certain contexts, and the specs you really should seek out.

Laptops and Desktops: Specs That Don't Matter

Slight differences in CPU clock speeds: Yes, a 2.6GHz processor will be faster than a 1.2GHz processor, but you shouldn't pay more for small increases in clock speed. You won't notice the difference between a 2.3GHz Core i5 and a 2.5GHz Core i5, so don't pay $100 for the privilege of an unnoticeable uptick in processing speed. Related: Overclocking for Newbies

RAM speeds: Again, faster is faster, but the noticeable difference between 1066MHz and 1333MHz is practically none. Related: How to Overclock Your RAM

DVD/Blu-ray write speeds: Even if you are one of the handful of 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 going to burn a disc, you're going to be waiting a bit whether it's a 6X drive or a 10X drive. And they all play movies just fine. Related: Can't Get Blu-ray to Play? Try This!

Laptops and Desktops: Specs That Sometimes Matter

Graphics RAM: Looking to watch some high-def YouTube clips or enjoy the occasional Blu-ray video? Most people have no need to pay more to go from 1GB to 2GB of RAM on a midrange graphics card. The graphics board that ships with your PC will more than likely be enough--even the integrated graphics capabilities of AMD's Fusion chips and Intel's Sandy Bridge lineup will be more than a match for your media.

Gamers are the exception here, as a beefier card with 1GB of RAM will outpace a 256MB or 512MB counterpart. The 2GB realm is generally reserved for the $700-and-up, enthusiast-level cards--a different beast altogether.

Really high amounts of graphics RAM are useful primarily on very high-end graphics on very high-resolution screens. A faster graphics chip with less RAM will almost always produce better performance than a slower chip with more RAM. Related: How to Upgrade Your Graphics Card

Quad-core processors: In the world of laptops, a dual-core processor is likely to be faster than a quad-core for most of the mainstream applications that the majority of users run; a dual-core CPU often operates at a much higher clock speed, and most general-purpose applications don't make good use of four CPU cores.

But if you do a lot of video-processing tasks, heavy scientific computation, or engineering work, four cores may be a great way to go. If you want to buy a future-proof desktop system, keep in mind that multithreaded applications are becoming the norm, and your PC will be able to hammer away at more tasks if it has a bit of extra computational headroom. Truth be told, unless you're looking at a particularly low-end desktop, it's difficult to find a desktop PC that isn't already sporting a quad-core CPU. Related: How to Upgrade Your CPU

Laptop display brightness: A bright laptop screen is usually one that drains the battery quickly. Besides, 300 nits is so bright that it's hard to look at indoors, and most users turn their display's brightness down a little anyway.

The exception? Display brightness is important for people who often use their laptops outdoors. If you do, you'll want all the brightness you can get. Related: Top 10 All-Purpose Laptops

Laptops and Desktops: Specs That Always Matter

Amount of RAM: No doubt about it, in any computer you're better off having more RAM. A netbook with 2GB of RAM will be a lot snappier than a laptop with 1GB. If you're serious about performance, don't settle for less than 4GB--and getting 6GB or 8GB of RAM isn't a bad idea. Related: How to Upgrade Your RAM

A roomy, 7200-rpm hard drive: Usually listed in revolutions per minute, "hard-drive speed" refers to how fast the platter spins. Faster-spinning platters generate both faster data-transfer speeds and faster seek times. A 7200-rpm hard drive will often produce a more responsive feel than a 5400-rpm hard drive will. Related: Top Internal Hard Drives

As for storage space, what's the use of having a souped-up rig if you can't fit anything in it? Fortunately, storage is becoming increasingly inexpensive, and gargantuan 3TB drives are starting to make the rounds. Looking at solid-state drives? We love them, but they can still be woefully pricey. If you have the cash to splurge, we recommend using a solid-state drive as a lightning-quick boot drive for your applications and operating system. Related: The ABCs of SSDs

Weight: Small differences in weight make a big difference when you're lugging your laptop around wherever you go. The difference between 3.5 pounds and 5 pounds may not seem like much, but when your laptop bag is on your shoulder all day, it's enormous. Related: Top 10 Ultraportable Laptops

Battery life: Obviously, the more battery life the better. When you're assessing this spec, however, take any claim by the manufacturer and chop off 20 percent. Claimed battery life always assumes a best-case scenario--a scenario you'll never see in real life. Related: How to Extend Your Laptop's Battery Life

Printers: Specs That Don't Matter

Engine speed: The engine-speed numbers that most vendors quote are supposed to be indicators of how fast a big print job will take, but printer makers usually calculate them using methods that do not reflect real-world usage. For instance, the printer may be in its faster "draft" mode for speed tests, even though most people print in default mode. Or vendors might omit the first-page-out time (how long the first page takes to exit the printer) from their engine-speed calculations, because it includes an image-processing delay. Unfortunately, that delay is an unavoidable part of any print job that a regular person does.

An example of a more realistic engine-speed indication is the ISO/IEC 24734 "Laser Quality Print Speed" standard, which prints in default mode and includes first-page-out time. Related: How to Fix and Avoid Printer Paper Jams

Printers: Specs That Sometimes Matter

Monthly duty cycle: This number is an indication of how durable a printer is, so it's an important metric for businesses or other heavy-duty use cases. Some lower-volume printers, such as the one you probably use at home, will not even have a duty-cycle number.

If a printer has a monthly duty cycle of, say, 20,000 pages, it's built to take a fair amount of punishment. However, just as you wouldn't want to run your car at full bore all the time, you wouldn't want to run that much paper through the printer constantly. The actual volume of printing that you should realistically expect to do should be a small fraction--maybe 10 to 25 percent--of a printer's duty-cycle number. Related: How to Choose the Best Printer for Your Business

Print resolution: A printer's true resolution has become less important as vendors have manipulated dot size, shape, and placement to improve image quality without increasing the actual dots per inch beyond the most-common 600 by 600 dpi. Resolution specs with a qualifier such as "optimized," "interpolated," or "up to" are manipulated resolutions. If you come upon a printer with true 1200-by-1200-dpi resolution--such a thing is still something of a rarity--you will notice that it is capable of remarkably smooth, sharp text and images. Related: How to Print Digital Photos

Scan resolution: Similar to print resolution, scan resolution can be interpolated. Look for the "optical resolution" as the true measure, and also note that for most scanning purposes, 300 dpi is a sufficient resolution. Going higher will result in a really slow scan time, a much bigger image-file size, and a resulting image that isn't necessarily any sharper. Resolution specs with a qualifier such as "optimized," "interpolated," or "up to" are manipulated resolutions. Related: Top 10 Inkjet Multifunction Printers

Printers: Specs That Always Matter

Automatic duplexing: A printer that can duplex (print on both sides of the page) automatically saves paper. That's good news for both trees and your budget. Manual duplexing--usually with on-screen prompts to walk you through turning over the paper--is better than nothing, but it's probably too much of a hassle for most people. Related: The Cheapskate's Guide to Printing

Page yield: All ink and toner cartridges have a page-yield spec that indicates how many pages the cartridge can print before it runs dry. This spec used to be all over the map, but ISO/IEC industry standards have helped make most cartridges' page yields directly comparable. That said, your mileage will vary depending on what you print and how much you print. Related: How Much Ink Is Left in That Dead Cartridge?

Starter-size cartridges: Some low-end laser and LED printers ship with "starter-size" toner cartridges that have a lower page yield than the usual sizes (and are not for sale otherwise). The starter-size cartridge will run out faster than a standard-size cartridge will, forcing you to buy a replacement sooner. Related: Which Ink Refills Can Save You the Most?

Cameras: Specs That Don't Matter

Digital zoom: Digital zoom technology is getting better, but a camera's "digital zoom," "enhanced zoom," "intelligent zoom," or other creatively rebranded feature still does the same thing as it always has: It crops your image in the center and enlarges that cropped area, reducing the resolution of the resulting image. You can do the same thing with your photos 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. Related: Photo Resizing Tricks

Digital image stabilization: We've seen cameras with some incredibly effective stabilization systems--optical and mechanical stabilization systems, that is. Digital stabilization? Meh, not so much.

"Digital stabilization" systems normally work in one of two ways: They boost the ISO sensitivity to noise-inducing levels (allowing the camera to use a faster shutter speed), or they work in video mode in much the way a digital zoom does, by cropping and enlarging the image in the center of the frame, and then using the rest of your scene as a buffer zone to ensure that the center of the video looks somewhat steady. We've rarely been impressed with digital stabilization alone, but cameras that use a combination of optical/mechanical and digital image stabilization are usually quite effective. Just be wary of cameras that offer digital stabilization only. Related: Using Your Camera's Image Stabilization

LCD screen size and resolution: Like it or not, point-and-shoot cameras have largely done away with optical viewfinders, and LCD viewfinders that measure 3 inches or more on the diagonal are now the norm. Such screens are great for reviewing photos and performing basic shot composition, but you'll get over that extra real estate quickly. Big screens drain the camera's battery faster, and a sharp, high-resolution LCD can make image quality look better than it actually is. Your images may appear noticeably more soft or blurry at full size, but you won't know that until you offload your pictures to a computer--which means you've already missed the chance to reshoot on the spot.

In general, it's best to use your LCD for shot composition only, as color fidelity, sharpness, and exposure levels may look much different when you've offloaded your photos. Use your camera's histogram! Related: Use the Histogram to Avoid Exposure Issues

Cameras: Specs That Sometimes Matter

Megapixels: You shouldn't ignore megapixel counts entirely, but keep in mind that this spec matters much more in the realm of DSLRs and large-sensored cameras. Many people confuse high megapixel counts with indicators of how good a camera's image quality will be, but in reality it's simply a measure of how large you can view, resize, or print an image without seeing a noticeable decrease in resolution. Megapixels translate to image size, not image quality, so you should factor in a camera's megapixel count mainly if you plan on making large prints or cropping and enlarging portions of an image.

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