Opinion: Geeks keep companies honest, even when you’re not looking

geeks latest tech specs update

You know how if you have a truck, everyone hits you up when they need to move? Being a technology writer is a lot like that: Everybody you even remotely know asks for your advice and recommendations whenever they’re buying something with a transistor.

Recently, three or four people asked for some technological guidance, and in the course of helping them, something hit me: Megahertz, gigabytes and refresh rates don’t matter anymore. The spec is really, truly dead.

People aren’t looking for numbers

Going through the requests, I realized that none of them referred to hard drive size, display refresh rates or processor speeds. Instead, my friends and colleagues just knew what they wanted to do with their gadgets:

“I need a laptop with a big screen, but I hate Macs. I only use it to check my email and surf the Web. Oh, and it has to be white.”

“I just want a TV that will look good with sports and has a button to let me watch Netflix.”

“What smartphone is good for watching movies?”

“Can you recommend a good, cheap laptop?”

“Can you recommend a good, cheap tablet?”

Of course, tasks like watching Netflix tie back into core specs, but the specs themselves are meaningless. Nobody cared about the technical details. Nobody wanted to know how much RAM a PC had or the response time of an LCD display. The people just wanted to know if the device they were buying would meet their needs.

Why don’t specs matter?

Of course, none of this is new. Pundits have heralded the death of the spec before. Deciphering specs has never been a major concern for the mainstream consumer; tech specs are a foreign language for most folks. Unfortunately, marketing departments have taken advantage of that ignorance by slapping laundry lists of untrue, misleading or outright useless specs on the outside of electronics packaging, all in the hopes of swaying confused customers with increasingly large, increasingly B.S. numbers.

The good news is, most people don’t care about the numbers, nor do they need to.

There are a few reasons for that. First, as I argued a few weeks back, mainstream tech is more than powerful enough for mainstream users. Pretty much any smartphone can handle the Facebook app, and even the Atom processors and AMD APUs found in lowly netbooks can play 1080p video with nary a hitch these days. Video looks great — or at least good enough — on even the cheapest of flat-screen HDTVs. Even the cheapest of PCs comes with 4GB of RAM and a 320GB hard drive, which is more than enough for the average user. If the budget options can blow through your basic needs, why worry about complex technical jargon?

computer specs

Second, we’re moving away from a locally hosted, hardware-driven world into an ecosystem that’s increasingly handled by offsite servers and small, mobile-friendly apps. A lot of people already store their data in Dropbox, or edit their documents with Google Docs or Office Web Apps, use HTML5 apps, or stream video with Hulu or Amazon. The transition to the cloud brings up its own concerns, but one thing is for certain: you don’t need a lot of horsepower to run a rig that’s basically a conduit for the Web.

As much as it hurts me to say it as a hardcore hardware geek, we’re moving towards a future where the software built on top of the hardware matters significantly more than the hardware itself. Look at smartphones: With quad-core chips, dozen-core GPUs and 4G LTE technology, Android devices should be far and away the dominant option in the mobile arena. But last quarter, the older, slower iPhone 4S accounted for more than three quarters of AT&T’s phone sales and nearly half of Verizon’s phone sales. Android devices may be more technically powerful than Apple’s baby, but the Android operating system is also much buggier and less intuitive than iOS. (Google’s making big leaps forward with Android ICS and Jelly Bean, though. If Android OEMs would only push updates out faster…)

Features make the world go ’round

All that being said, one “spec” still matters when most people go looking for new electronics: features.

No, not the bevy of features that are basically just specs in disguise, like WiDi support, DLNA compatibility, a built-in webcam or surround-sound output, many of which are de facto standards these days, anyway. Not refresh rates or contrast ratios. I’m talking about truly awesome features that can change your day-to-day life or cause passers-by to stop in their tracks and whistle admiringly. Features that are tangible, concrete and useful to average people, not just techies.

john malkovich siri ad iphone commercial

You know who really gets that idea? Apple. Siri and the whole “You talk, Siri answers” advertising campaign were sheer brilliance and generated a lot of excitement in the general population. Once you’ve laid eyes on an iDevice with a Retina Display, everything else seems so… bland. And before you call that a spec, note that the important part is the jaw-dropping smoothness of the image, not the technical resolution. It’s a feature, not a benchmark.

Google’s doing a great job in this realm, too. The turn-by-turn navigation in the Google Maps app was huge when it first appeared, while Android Jelly Bean’s “Google Now” feature seems to tap into your brain to make your day easier. These are the kinds of things that sell electronics. Well, either strong features or competitive prices.

Notice that those prominent examples revolve more around software rather than hardware. That’s because normal users judge electronics as a complete package, with hardware and software joined in holy union rather than treated as separate elements in their own right.

Why we still need geeks, and specs

I said before that the world needs geeks to drive tech innovation; with the death of the spec, the world needs geeks to keep manufacturers honest, too. Because in a world where the guts of a device remain a total mystery, manufacturers have more opportunity than ever to screw people over in a bid to cut costs and raise profits. Some companies already refuse to divulge who makes the CPU in their Android devices.

Ultrabooks have already seen manufacturers fudging parts purchases as consumers gaze away from specs. Laptop Magazine recently ran an article about how OEMs have gotten tight-lipped about which SSDs make it into Ultrabooks. The practice makes some sense on the surface, since manufacturers often pull components from several different suppliers, but the performance of those SSDs vary greatly. Laptop’s Michael Prospero says the SanDisk SSDs found in several top Ultrabooks are even slower than 7,200RPM mechanical hard drives.

All of that is unacceptable. As Prospero notes, the storage performance is a key component to how good a laptop “feels,” and the CPU is the heart of any electronic device. That’s the kind of trickery that can be exploited now that the spec is dead… unless the geeks stay vigilant.

Specs may be dead to the mainstream, but manufacturers still need to be accountable for delivering what they promise. And that’s why the geek vanguard — with its obsession for benchmarks and hard data — remains very important, even when those very numbers are gibberish to most people. The spec is dead to the public, but underneath all the utilitarian functionality and glamorous features the core specs still matter, regardless of whether or not the masses realize it.

So yes, you can say sayonara to the spec. But at the same time, you should say “thank you” to the geeks who refuse to let the spec die quietly — and force manufacturers to stay honest.

[Laptop image credit: Jurgen Ziewe/Shutterstock]