Home The Death, Rebirth, Re-death, and Re-rebirth of Specs

The Death, Rebirth, Re-death, and Re-rebirth of Specs

There’s an interesting discussion brewing in the wake of some of the comparison articles recently published about the latest Android tablet devices, including Amazon’s Kindle Fire. I’m on record here as liking what I saw from the initial publication of Joshua Topolsky’s “revenge” upon Engadget, The Verge, and I’d be blind if I didn’t point out that competitor publications may feel they have something to gain by casting The Verge in a negative light. That’s by way of disclaimer.

That said, I think the discussion about what’s important in a product review is an important one to have, and we need to have it periodically. The current debate stems from whether device specifications – particularly with respect to this positive recommendation of the iPhone 4S by Consumer Reports and this comparison of Kindle, Nook, and iPad tablets by The Verge – truly matter nowadays with respect to buyers’ decisions.


Blogger Drew Breunig weighed in with this discussion by commenting that customers’ perception of performance is a more important metric with respect to a device’s salability than the speed of the processor or the capacity of the memory. “The Verge’s feature chart covers price, availability, and hardware specs,” Breunig wrote. “Nowhere is there content selection (all devices listed lockdown their content, so this is rather important), cloud services, or perceived speed, which despite being objective is a better indicator of performance for all of these devices.”

That helped start a little fire over at TechCrunch. There, editor M.G. Siegler argued that the appearance of the Nook Tablet’s superiority to the Kindle Fire by way of device specifications, will not matter with respect to the inevitable popularity of Kindle Fire by way of its connection with and to Amazon. “Clearly, [Nook Tablet] is the better value for your money,” Siegler wrote. “And yet, the Nook Tablet will not outsell the Kindle Fire. That’s the thing: ‘On paper’ doesn’t matter anymore. What matters is that the Kindle Fire comes with Amazon’s content ecosystem attached to it. Perhaps more importantly, it will be peddled like no other on the all-important Amazon.com homepage. The specs are secondary in this race at best. The reality is that they will be an afterthought. Or again, the Nook would win.”

Blogger John Gruber typically makes very poignant observations, and yesterday’s was no exception. “Spec-based reviews of computers and gadgets are inherently flawed, a relic of an era that’s already gone,” wrote Gruber, before making a valid point that most readers would find a movie review that went into the details about the cinematography, materials used on the set, and the grade of the camera lenses dull and boring – and more importantly, unrelated to the final quality of the motion picture as an art form.


I’m a believer in specs. And no, I don’t think they’re dead; what matters is their place and their relevance.

In my own other lives as an editor through the last few decades, I’ve instructed many new journalists as to what makes a good product review. My basic principle is this: Start by placing yourself in the role of the engineer/developer/creator. Imagine yourself using the tools and resources your company affords you to design and build this product. Is the engineering as resourceful as it should be? Then place yourself in the role of manufacturer. Are the components as well constructed as they should be? Then move to the marketer’s chair. Is the distribution channel as effective in delivering the product, and the marketing and advertising as effective in driving awareness and crafting a value proposition, as they can be? Then become a user once again. Do you have in your hands something worth using for the tasks you had in mind for it?

Everything is equally important. You can’t say otherwise and yet, with the same breath, associate yourself with the mastery of the product lifecycle currently exhibited by Apple. No other company at present is as skilled or adept in marshaling every one of these critical aspects.

If you believe that Apple succeeds by virtue of its engineering, then by default, you’ve conceded the importance of specs. Every element of iPad engineering is important in the Apple lifecycle, including the choice of components.


The question then becomes, should a publication make a recommendation based on a parts list alone? Well, if you take a look at The Verge story once again, you’ll notice it didn’t actually do that. It simply put the specs of four devices in (very well laid out) columns. In that limited respect, this article does perform a service. And it put a clear indicator at the end that a product review was forthcoming.

As for Consumer Reports, it made an open recommendation against the iPhone 4 – which some sources now believe to be the best-selling smartphone premiere in history – and for the iPhone 4S, in both cases citing product specs and comparative features in its decision. Picking up on the general tone of condemnation for CR’s “wrong call,” TechCrunch’s Siegler believes both incidents demonstrate the uselessness of specs in rendering product recommendations; in both cases, he says, customers will follow their instincts and their hearts.

Now, let’s think about this for a moment. Should a product review be an assessment of its engineering excellence and performance superiority, or rather a prediction of which one will prevail in the market? Imagine if CR took the blogger route: “Consumers’ Union recommends you purchase the iPhone 4S,” its review would read. “Although we subjected all devices to rigorous scrutiny, let’s face it, you don’t really care. You’re going to buy the product with the Apple logo on it because it’s not really about technology anyway, it’s about fashion. I mean, imagine reading a software review where instead of us telling you you’re going to buy it anyway, we sat there with a stopwatch and timed every transaction it performed. Who would want to read a bunch of boring nonsense about programming and memory latency and antenna attenuation, when what you really want to know is, does it play Angry Birds or not?”


This just in: Specs have never determined the outcome of a device’s popularity, sales figures, or overall usage. If they did, the Apple II, the Commodore 64, the IBM PC XT, the Motorola RAZR, and Microsoft Internet Explorer would never have been milestones in our history.

But the Web has room to inform and educate, and there’s absolutely no excuse for omitting some element that may not be pertinent to most readers’ criteria – or may not yet be pertinent due to lack of proper explanation. If The Verge did anything wrong, it was just to blurt its comparison chart out there in a random fashion. It would have been more pertinent in the context of a greater comparison that measured not only end user experiences and perceived performance levels, but included a parts teardown as well.

If the Web is supposed to be so open, then why can’t Web publishers produce all the information they can about a subject, and let the reader decide what’s important?

About ReadWrite’s Editorial Process

The ReadWrite Editorial policy involves closely monitoring the tech industry for major developments, new product launches, AI breakthroughs, video game releases and other newsworthy events. Editors assign relevant stories to staff writers or freelance contributors with expertise in each particular topic area. Before publication, articles go through a rigorous round of editing for accuracy, clarity, and to ensure adherence to ReadWrite's style guidelines.

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