I'm Drew Breunig and I obsess about technology, media, language, and culture. I live in New York, studied anthropology, and work at PlaceIQ.

Device Specs have Become Meaningless

We’ve talked before about the diffusion of physical, contained devices across servers and services. The iPhone 4S’s Siri only works with the help of a server farm in North Carolina. The Kindle Fire’s Silk browser derives a speed boost by routing requests and processing through Amazon’s web services. Both devices cache files in cloud storage.

These types of devices disrupt the very idea of “spec lists,” those bulleted items you might see under a device at Best Buy. How do you measure the Kindle Fire’s and iPhone’s processing speed and storage capacity if the CPUs and disks used to deliver an experience to the user exist both in and outside the device?

According to today’s technology press, you simply ignore these complexities.

The Verge’s feature chart covers price, availability, and hardware specs. 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.

Gizmodo’s Nook Tablet hands on perfectly illustrates the need for a perceived speed metric:

I wasn’t expecting mind-blowing performance, but I’ve seen lesser spec’d devices with more polish. Barnes and Noble handlers didn’t allow me to play around with the device on my own, but watching it in action, the sluggishness of the UI and browsing was noticeable. Menu and app transitions, along with page turns and scrolling looked choppy and somewhat unresponsive. The homescreen UI wasn’t as affected as, say, the web browser, but I was hardly wowed by what I saw. Pages seemed to render quickly enough, but that could have been a cached page. Web pages, especially, panned and zoomed with the fluidity of a first generation Android device.

Compare this to their earlier hands on with the under-specced Kindle Fire:

So now we see it in the flesh. The first thing that hit us? This. Thing. Is. Really. Fast. Flipping through the media carousel (your movies, TV shows, magazines, etc) was smooth as Thanksgiving gravy. There’s nothing worse in a tablet than a choppy interface, and the Fire seems to be completely chop-free. Swapping between apps—say, going from reading a magazine back to the home menu, or firing up a movie—was very, very impressively fast. Near-instant.

And yet we still cling to specs. B&N reps won’t let the demo unit out of their hands so tech reporters cite clock speed. I can’t think of a more worthless metric for an eReader.

Devices, at least contained devices, are obsolete. New products can’t be built or reviewed without human context, the messier the better. Performance can no longer be measured with instruments, only with humans, which makes both engineering and reviews particularly tricky. Even Apple is not immune to awkwardness inherent in this shift, as the best critiques have noted. Specs have become meaningless; usage is everything.

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  1. greatiostips reblogged this from dbreunig
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  3. youngmania reblogged this from dbreunig and added:
  4. sathishpaul reblogged this from dbreunig and added:
    Not sure if I entirely agree with this, but the more I think about it, the harder it is to ignore. (via Daring Fireball)
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  8. ideasonthings reblogged this from dbreunig and added:
    Drew Breunig: As I have said before: don’t judge a gadget by its specs.
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