The Specs That Matter [and the Specs That Don't]

It usually goes like this: An ad in the paper (or online) catches your eye. It lists a few product specs and claims some special features, but that's about it. Still, the price seems okay. May as well pull out the wallet now, right? Wrong!

Don't get suckered by an array of twinkling numbers into buying gear you don't need. To prevent that from happening, you need to arm yourself with more than just marketing material from competing vendors. That's where we can help.

Before you plunk down a credit card to buy anything, ask yourself what you need your new gear to do. Put together a list of the tasks that you have in store for it. For example, do you need high-powered hardware, or are you paying extra for bragging rights? Are all of the features on a particular gadget critical, or can you do everything you want with a lower-priced model that can fulfill the primary wishes on your list?

Get the answers to these kinds of questions first. Then, with a little help from us, you'll be able to sort out which of the features that the vendors are pitching really count.

Mobile Computing

A closer look at a laptop PC ad.
A closer look at a laptop PC ad.
Whether you are looking for a lightweight device to handle low-demand Web browsing and document writing or a Death Star-size desktop replacement, the perfect notebook for you is out there somewhere. But try to get what you want at the outset: Laptops are trickier than desktop PCs to upgrade.

Battery life: Notebook battery life continues to improve--especially in the ultraportable category--but the times that vendors quote tend to be inflated by being measured under optimum conditions, with the power-draining wireless receivers turned off and often with the extended-life battery (which usually costs extra). In PC World Test Center tests, laptops equipped with a T7200 Core 2 Duo processor had battery lives ranging from a little under 2 hours to as long as 5. The results depend on which of a multitude of components are sucking power under the hood. Check the fine print to learn whether the notebook was tested with the standard battery.

CPU: Vendors slap an Intel (or AMD) logo on a laptop, cite a speed, and leave it at that. Rarely do they acknowledge that laptops with low-end CPUs can barely get out of first gear running Vista. Beware of processors that run at less than 2 GHz. Intel Centrino 2-powered laptops have roared through our WorldBench 6 performance tests. But don't expect Centrino performance out of Intel's Atom processor, a hamster-wheel CPU designed to run sub-$500 mini-notebooks.

GPU: Most laptops rely on basic integrated graphics chips. That's not an ideal component for playing recent 3D games (including social network games like Second Life) or running high-end graphics programs. To handle those capabilities, look for a laptop with a discrete nVidia or ATI graphics chip. But the extra graphics power comes with a catch: Laptops with discrete chips tend to be larger and heavier, as evidenced by some of the mammoth gaming notebooks on the market.

RAM: Even though a laptop's RAM is relatively easy to upgrade, you should still buy as much memory as you can at the outset. Most laptops have two RAM slots, and it's not uncommon for a machine configured with 2GB of memory to have a 1GB module in each available slot. But if you start with this configuration, upgrading to 4GB of RAM later on means paying for two completely new RAM sticks. By opting for a generous quantity of RAM from the get-go, you won't need to spend money down the line on upgrading your sticks.

Weight: Ads often omit "little" things from the laptop's declared weight--like the battery and power supply, which you'll likely carry with you when you go mobile. Before you buy, ask what the total weight of the product is with these critical accessories included. Better yet, go into a store and do a few power-lifting reps with the machine in its road configuration.

Screen: Though it certainly is important, screen size tells you nothing about how well you will be able to read text. Ask about the laptop's native resolution--and see it for yourself. And while you're at it, test the screen coating, too. The very thing that makes images pop on the show floor can make it unusable in broad daylight. Some laptop screens bounce reflections like a mirror, which can make them very difficult to use outdoors. LED-backlit screens provide greater brightness, though they do jack up the price.

Buying Guide: How to Buy a Laptop

Your Next Desktop PC

A closer look at a desktop PC ad.
A closer look at a desktop PC ad.
One second you're talking about wanting to use your next PC to make quick edits of home videos. Suddenly the salesperson is pushing a computer suitable for Pixar. But no matter what retailers say, you don't need a supercomputer. For a system capable of handling most basic tasks flawlessly, you probably shouldn't have to spend more than $750. So fend off the salesfolk and take a closer look under the hood.

CPU: Vendors love to highlight GHz numbers in ads, because those numbers go up constantly and are sure to look better than what you have on your current system (even if it's only two months old). The truth: Any recent CPU can handle the basics. Pile on power thoughtlessly, and you waste money. Often the performance gain after a certain point is minimal--though if you'll be juggling tons of multimedia files, you do need a little muscle. AMD's Phenom 9600 Quad-Core CPU, for example, goes toe-to-toe in price with Intel's Core 2 Duo 8400 and will power you through any workday job. But only the most demanding multimedia users need heavy-duty hardware like Intel's quad-core Core 2 Extreme QX9770.

RAM: This quick-and-easy upgrade for your desktop comes with a catch: the maximum amount that your operating system can handle. Common 32-bit versions of Windows Vista and Windows XP can address no more than 4GB of RAM, even if your machine has more available. So unless you're using the 64-bit version of Vista (or 64-bit XP, if you can still find a copy), 2GB to 4GB of memory is the right target.

Graphics board: In bygone days, a high-quality graphics board mattered only to gamers. But now everyone with a digital camera to download or a TV show to watch craves graphics performance. Even so, premium cards don't offer enough of a boost to justify their high-end pricing unless you are a serious gamer. Instead, look for a PC configured with a decent CPU and a good GPU--such as nVidia's GeForce 9800 GTX or ATI's Radeon HD 4850. Only hard-core gamers and video editors need to drop $600 on a fancy graphics card.

Expandability: A desktop PC lets you upgrade later without having to rebuild from scratch. But few stores provide a full accounting of a system's upgrade options. Don't let that discourage you from checking. Note how many open PCIe slots and available internal and external drive bays the system has. And look for easy access to FireWire and USB ports.

Buying Guide: How to Buy a Desktop PC

Digital Photography

A closer look at a digital camera ad.
A closer look at a digital camera ad.
If taking the highest-quality photos you possibly can is all that you care about, you should opt for a digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera. But when you carry an item around all day, you soon realize the value of light weight and compact size. Here's what to look for in a DSLR or a point-and-shoot.

Megapixels: The most hyped and misunderstood camera spec is the megapixel count. The pitch you'll get is that more megapixels equals better photos--but 5 megapixels is enough to create a sharp 11-by-14-inch print. A higher megapixel number does come in handy if you need to crop and zoom in on a section of a photo; but unless you're planning to print movie-size posters, a 14.5-megapixel camera is overkill.

Optical zoom: Ignore vendors' specs for digital zoom and focus instead on the optical zoom. Digital zoom crops the image you see in your viewfinder and expands it to full-frame, reducing the quality of the resulting image. Optical zoom uses the lens to magnify the subject, resulting in a crystal-clear shot. But the higher the optical zoom, the more important optical image stabilization becomes; if you zoom in tight, very slight movement will blur your shot. Most point-and-shoots have optical zooms of 3X or 4X. For anything higher than that, you'll need optical image stabilization.

Manual focus: Manual focus is a great option for a point-and-shoot camera to offer, and all DSLRs have it. Very-low-end cameras frequently omit manual focusing or permit only stepped focusing, forcing you to choose from preset distances or scene modes. These days, more digital SLR cameras are offering point-and-shoot-like features, such as autofocus and scene modes to lure casual users. Casual photographers who are looking for more functionality may be better off opting for an upper-end point-and-shoot with a high optical zoom and a host of manual settings than splurging on a DSLR.

Exposure settings: Many digital cameras offer aperture- and shutter-priority modes, which let you fine-tune the exposure settings for certain situations. Look for a camera with high shutter speeds if you plan on capturing fast-moving action, such as cars racing by or athletes running. Try to find a camera with a low aperture, such as f2.8, if you want to take shots in dark environments without using a flash.

Viewfinders: A big, beautiful display is handy, but it's also a huge energy drain. Ask if you can adjust the screen's brightness, and whether you can toggle it off. Old school or not, having an optical viewfinder as well as an LCD can be a tremendous advantage when you're trying to prolong a camera's battery life.

Optical image stabilization: With image stabilization, as with zoom, optical wins out over digital big time. Because it physically shifts the image sensor to counteract movement, optical image stabilization does a much better job of capturing a clear shot. Digital stabilization simply adjusts the image's pixels or the camera's shutter speed in an effort to create a less-blurry shot. In any case, a tripod can save the day.

Buying Guide: How to Buy a Digital Camera

High-Definition Viewing

A closer look at an HDTV ad.
A closer look at an HDTV ad.
Are you ready to treat yourself to a new television set? HDTVs--whether plasma, LCD, or rear-projection--are easy to use, but far too many retailers hype them with confusing and often incomprehensible sales jargon. Let's decode what it all means.

Contrast ratio: In HDTV ads, this number enjoys way too much prominence. It measures the difference between the darkest and brightest light values a display can produce at the same time. The benefit of a high contrast ratio: It provides a more detailed and realistic image. But specs for contrast ratio are not measured consistently among vendors. LCDs start at a 600:1 ratio, and plasmas kick off at 1000:1; some sets boast high numbers up to 1,000,000:1. Trust your eyes first, and look to the numbers second.

Manufacturers crank up the contrast on their LCD TVs so that the images will look brighter under showroom lights. Try adjusting the image at the store to get a better sense of how the picture will look at home.

Refresh rate/response time: These numbers show up occasionally, and they are useful if you play video games or watch fast-action programs such as NASCAR races. Shopping for a plasma TV? Move along: Neither of these specs will come into play, as plasma technology is fast enough to handle the content. When it comes to LCD sets, look for a low response time. These days, we rarely see a response time above 10 milliseconds. Refresh rates, measured in hertz (Hz), matter for LCDs, too. A high refresh rate translates into less on-screen blurring. An HDTV with a 120-Hz refresh rate should handle fast-moving action.

Resolution: If you plan to buy a Blu-ray player, get a 1080p set; that spec means the TV will display 1920 by 1080 lines of resolution. No Blu-ray? Then just about any HDTV that supports both 1080i and 720p (1280 by 720 lines of resolution) content will do. All current models have one of these two resolutions. The "p" stands for "progressive scan," which produces superior images without antialiasing and better video scaling than interlaced video (the "i" in the 1080i specification).

The 1080p spec represents the maximum resolution of the TV and the maximum resolution of Blu-ray Disc. If you aren't diving into Blu-ray--or if you're buying a TV with a screen smaller than 40 inches--get a 720p/1080i set. The image won't match the crisp detail of a 1080p set, but the difference is less noticeable on a smaller TV screen. And since cable, satellite, and over-the-air HD video is currently broadcast at only 720p or 1080i (depending on your provider), the native content won't take full advantage of a 1080p set, anyhow.

Screen size: A 65-inch monument to couch-potato excess may look gorgeous until you put it in your den. To determine the ideal TV for your home, multiply screen size (in inches) by 2; the result is the optimum viewing distance for the set. Thus, the viewing sweet spot for a 52-incher is 104 inches (8.5 feet) away. Lack the space? Get a smaller TV or a bigger room.

Buying Guide: How to Buy a Flat-Screen HDTV

Networking Equipment

A closer look at a router ad.
A closer look at a router ad.
Once upon a time, cobbling together a network was a painful procedure reserved for businesses, hard-core geeks, and kindly elves that appeared mysteriously at midnight. But these days, setting up a network--wireless or not--has never been easier. That said, it's still not as simple as purchasing the first router you see, plugging it in, and starting up. You still have to navigate the ins and outs of optimal connections. With a home network, you especially need to take into account not just what you're planning to hook up but also the layout of your house.

Wireless speed: Vendors will happily tell you the network's theoretical speed limits, but here's the ugly truth: You'll be lucky if your network hits 150 mbps. Take 802.11n, the latest draft of Wi-Fi. In our lab, we test with encryption on (a must!), and we rarely see speeds higher than 100 mbps. Also, beware of vendors promising proprietary technology that will provide a speed boost. The latest draft of 802.11n eliminates the need for most of those special "extras."

Wi-Fi standards: Draft-n routers are backward-compatible with older specs (802.11a, b, g, and pre-n), but those specs may slow the whole network down. Any 802.11b/g devices that are connected to your draft-n router may hobble the entire network with 11b/g speeds. Also, avoid older, "pre-n" (as opposed to draft-n) routers if you come across them at clearance sales. Pre-n gear may work with 2.4-GHz draft-n products, but only at the speeds of aging 802.11g gear.

Security: Using a Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) password is about as effective as hiding your system under a wet paper bag. That said, older devices might not support the more secure (and more recent) Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) standard, much less the current (and most efficient) WPA2 security standard. Regardless, any new gear you buy should support WPA2 because--even if you have to stick with WEP for a while to accommodate older gear--you'll want to move up to snappier speeds eventually.

Wireless antennas: Generally, the greater the number of antennas that are sprouting out of your router, the faster you can transmit data. So if you are a fan of video streaming and multimedia, three is your magic number.

Wired alternatives: Wired connections may be a pain to install, but they are still the most reliable and secure high-speed broadband option. If snaking Cat5 ethernet cable throughout your home isn't feasible, consider getting a power-line network designed to work with the electrical wiring you already have.

Alas, power-line networks have their own issues: You will need adapters for each outlet you plan to use (plus one for an existing router); and there are three power-line standards, each of which is incompatible with the other two. Our advice: Look for HomePlug AV products.

Buying Guide: How to Set Up a Wi-Fi Network

How to Find Other PCs On Your Network

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