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Stop fretting over the wrong gadget specs

Some specs don't tell the whole story. Here's what to look for when shopping for a new camera, smart phone, or laptop.

By Staff Writer / June 25, 2012

Don't worry about screen sizes, megapixels, and processor speeds. There are better ways to comparison shop.

Phil Marden

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For most people, a gadget's worth is measured in specs. How many gigahertz? What's the screen size? Is that enough megapixels?

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Forget those numbers, says Will Smith, an editor at the technology website Tested.com. At one point, such specs were a crucial part of comparison shopping. But now, processor speeds, pixel counts, and many of the other benchmarks don't mean that much anymore.

"The problem with megapixels is that it is the most useless metric for comparing Camera A and Camera B," says Mr. Smith. Megapixels measure the size of a digital photo, not the quality. Since companies know that most shoppers make decisions based on that one number, reviewers like Smith see devices with massive megapixel counts and middling image quality.

"You can have a 21-megapixel camera that produces a noticeably inferior picture to an 8-megapixel camera," he says. "That's not easy to convey on the spec sheet on the side of a box."

Shoppers need to stop comparing the classic specs, he says. There are better ways to shop, methods that ignore misleading numbers and speak to the experience of actually living with a new gadget.

With cameras, reviews and a few snapshots from inside the store can help distinguish one model from another. Here are some simple rules for other gadgets:

Choose by screen quality, not screen size. Android smart phones have one metric the iPhone can't match: screen size. For five years, Apple has stuck to 3.5 diagonal inches. Android covers the gamut – the Samsung Galaxy Note is a colossal 5 inches. This extra real estate is great for viewing websites, but bigger isn't necessarily better.

"With a 4.5-inch phone, you may not realize until you walk out of the AT&T or Verizon store that this thing won't fit in your jeans when you go out on Friday night," says Smith. "Not to mention it's hard to hold with one hand."

Instead, look for bright, sharp screens. For example, Tested called the HTC One X the best Android phone that AT&T customers can buy right now. "The screen on that is just glorious," says Smith.

Laptops follow the same general rule, but with an extra wrinkle. Avoid any compact laptop that doesn't have a high-resolution screen. Higher resolutions mean that a PC can fit more on screen, even if it's a small screen.

Most new laptops and monitors have the same stretched dimensions of a wide-screen TV. The problem: Websites aren't wide, they're tall. Vertical layouts look silly on squat, low-res screens.

Choose by battery and keyboard, not processor speed. If you are a professional video editor or intense gamer, you need the fastest machine possible. Gigahertz are your friend. However, if you spend most of your time in a Web browser, Smith says that processor speeds really shouldn't affect your comparison shopping. This is true for both computers and phones.

Smart phones have so many varying components – both hardware and software – that the gigahertz count can't accurately describe its speed. In some cases, higher numbers come attached to slower machines.

"When you fire up the phone, it's much more important that the keyboard works effectively and it makes it easy to type, than if it has an extra 200 megahertz," he says.

Also, pay close attention to battery life. An extra two hours can free you from schlepping around recharge cables.

Choose 4G, not 3G. Phone carriers are still rolling out 4G networks, which enable extra zippy download speeds if you have the right device. But since most phones require a two-year contract, Smith says that a new 3G phone will feel downright drowsy by the time you're allowed to upgrade.

"You probably don't want to buy a 3G phone at this point," he says. "You'll be stuck with it for two years, and websites aren't getting any smaller."

For more on how technology intersects daily life, follow Chris on Twitter @venturenaut.

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