Techlog: The Specsploitation Game and How to Beat It

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Buying a tech product can be a daunting chore. It's not easy to keep on top of the latest improvements, upgrades, and new features, even for the experts here at PC World. Pity the uninformed buyer who just wants something that works.

Making your buying decisions all the more complicated is the confusing and misleading marketing hype that manufacturers and salespeople push at shoppers. I've fallen for it, just as most folks have, sometimes with disastrous results.

So this month we decided to turn the tables on the hucksters. In "The Specs That Matter [and the Specs That Don't]," Senior Writer Darren Gladstone exposes the hooey that vendors and retailers use to hook you. And he found no shortage of bunk and hokum.

He also provides handy information on what features really count and what to look for before placing an order or buying a product at a store. It's an important read that can save you thousands of dollars.

Be Wary of Vendor Claims

As the PC World Test Center's analysts discovered long ago, manufacturers and marketers don't have to lie to pull the wool over your eyes. All they have to do is test products in absolutely ideal conditions or use proprietary tests that no one else can replicate.

Take, for example, vendor claims, usually found in their specs, that a wireless router is rated at 300 megabits per second. Such high-end performance may be possible in a lab with no obstructions, signal interference, or long distances between devices.

But the real-world results that PC World and other reputable testing organizations have achieved tell a very different story: The typical wireless router is lucky to get half that speed, and performance is often much less than that.

Another trick is to hype a spec that has little meaning in the real world. For example, one of the most widely touted HDTV specs is contrast ratio, a measurement of the difference between the brightest white and the darkest black that the set can produce. Theoretically, the higher the contrast ratio, the more detailed and more realistic a high-def set's resulting image will be.

But contrast ratio has been turned into a marketing gimmick, with numbers of 15,000 to 1--or 50,000 to 1, or more--touted in ads. Here's what you should know: Contrast ratios are not measured consistently among vendors. More tellingly, vendors don't have to specify how they came up with their ultrahigh number.

That aside, a superhigh contrast ratio means very little for actual TV viewing. Studies have shown that unless you are watching your TV in a completely dark room, you won't be able to detect the difference between a set with a modest contrast ratio (of, say, 5000 to 1) and one with a stratospheric rating.

Keeping Them Honest

The late President Ronald Reagan famously said to "trust, but verify." That's pretty much our motto when it comes to testing and reviewing products. We've learned--sometimes the hard way--that taking a vendor's specs and performance claims at face value is a disservice to our readers.

That is why we check and confirm the important specifications of every product that passes through our Test Center, and why we rely on our own independent, real-world testing.

And while it sounds obvious, make certain you know what you want a product to do for you. Selecting something that is far more than you need, or is inadequate for the task, is a sure way to bring on buyer's remorse.

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