When a new category of consumer technology makes an appearance, the company that makes it can market the device based on its appearance and function. No one cares much about specs.
When Apple (AAPL) released the first iPad, did consumers know what processor was inside or exactly how many pixels were on its display? No.
The device was like nothing else out there, fit in one hand, ran iOS apps and cost $499 — nothing else mattered. But when competitors catch up and the shelves are suddenly crowded with shiny alternatives, marketing teams use specs to try to make their product stand out. And that can be problematic because comparing specs is like comparing apples and oranges — and most consumers are not engineers.
We’re at the point now where escalating specs are muddying the waters for tablet and smartphone buyers.
As consumers (and rational thinkers), we’ve been primed to believe that bigger is better when applied to a device’s capabilities. Marketing teams take full advantage of that assumption when trying to make their product look superior to the competition.
A good example is the Samsung (SSNLF) Galaxy S4. The company heavily promoted its flagship smartphone’s powerful quad-core, 1.9GHz processor with 2 GB of RAM. When Apple released the competing iPhone 5S, it was powered by an A7 processor –a dual-core chip at 1.3GHz with 1 GB of RAM. Sounds like no contest. The Galaxy S4 has twice as many cores, runs at a higher frequency (the GHz part) and has twice the memory to play with.
But in performance benchmark testing, the iPhone 5S handily beats the Galaxy S4.
I’m not going to get too technical with this, but mobile devices use CPUs with differing architectures and from different chip manufacturers. Operating systems and apps have to take full advantage of those extra cores to get the full effect, and each core is sharing other system resources –not always optimally. As a result, the big numbers don’t necessarily translate into real-world performance gains.
Another spec that tablet and smartphone manufacturers love to trot out is PPI — pixels per inch. The higher the PPI, the sharper images or text on a display will look. Apple actually started this particular spec war when it introduced the “retina display” with the iPhone 4. Competitors countered by turning this into a numerical spec — PPI — and the battle was on to dazzle consumers by cramming as many pixels into a display as possible.
Apple’s new iPad Air (with a retina display) has a PPI of 264. Amazon (AMZN) introduced an 8.9-inch Kindle Fire HDX tablet with a 339 PPI display. Does that mean the Kindle’s display blows away the iPad’s? No. You’ll be hard pressed to find someone who picks up an iPad Air and complains about the crappy display.
There’s a point at which the human eye literally can’t tell the difference — and we’ve reached that point. For a device held 18 inches from the face, that number is 300 PPI. Depending on how close you hold the tablet, the Kindle may look a little crisper but there are other factors at play that affect overall viewing experience — like color reproduction, contrast, viewing angle and brightness — that aren’t accounted for in that number.
We’re at a place where a smartphone like Google’s (GOOG) Nexus 5 — with its 5-inch display — has the same 1080p resolution (1920 x 1080 pixels) as the 60-inch HDTV in your living room. That gives the smartphone a PPI of 445. It’s a great big number, great for marketing, but overkill.
The real problem for smartphone and tablet manufacturers is that both of these markets are mature enough that you have to try reasonably hard to find a recent device from a brand name company that’s truly horrible. It’s that stage in the market where most of the products are “good enough.”
Design can help them stand out — a strategy that Apple employs quite successfully to keep up the premium pricing on its iPads and iPhones. Lowball pricing is another model. Amazon is known for pricing its tablets at or below cost in order to get buyers hooked on its digital offerings. But most consumer electronics manufacturers are looking to make money on hardware, and that means falling back on trying to overwhelm consumers with impressive sounding specs.
That’s why when you look at the product page for Samsung’s latest Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet, the very first feature you see spiked out is its four million pixel display (double the number found on an HDTV).
As an informed consumer, your reaction should be that the technical achievement is impressive, but not any reason to choose it over any other reputable full-sized tablet. Samsung is betting that you won’t bother finding out how many pixels an iPad Air has. And even if you do, it’s hoping that you’ll do the math and immediately drop Apple’s 3.1 million pixel piece of junk and grab that Galaxy Note 10.1 before it sells out.
So the next time you think about buying a new tech toy, remember: It’s not the size of the specs — it’s how you use them.
As of this writing, Brad Moon did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.