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Stop fretting over the wrong gadget specs

Some specs don't tell the whole story. Here's what to look for when shopping for a new camera, smart phone, or laptop.

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Don't worry about screen sizes, megapixels, and processor speeds. There are better ways to comparison shop.

Phil Marden

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For most people, a gadget's worth is measured in specs. How many gigahertz? What's the screen size? Is that enough megapixels?

Forget those numbers, says Will Smith, an editor at the technology website Tested.com. At one point, such specs were a crucial part of comparison shopping. But now, processor speeds, pixel counts, and many of the other benchmarks don't mean that much anymore.

"The problem with megapixels is that it is the most useless metric for comparing Camera A and Camera B," says Mr. Smith. Megapixels measure the size of a digital photo, not the quality. Since companies know that most shoppers make decisions based on that one number, reviewers like Smith see devices with massive megapixel counts and middling image quality.

"You can have a 21-megapixel camera that produces a noticeably inferior picture to an 8-megapixel camera," he says. "That's not easy to convey on the spec sheet on the side of a box."

Shoppers need to stop comparing the classic specs, he says. There are better ways to shop, methods that ignore misleading numbers and speak to the experience of actually living with a new gadget.

With cameras, reviews and a few snapshots from inside the store can help distinguish one model from another. Here are some simple rules for other gadgets:

Choose by screen quality, not screen size. Android smart phones have one metric the iPhone can't match: screen size. For five years, Apple has stuck to 3.5 diagonal inches. Android covers the gamut – the Samsung Galaxy Note is a colossal 5 inches. This extra real estate is great for viewing websites, but bigger isn't necessarily better.

"With a 4.5-inch phone, you may not realize until you walk out of the AT&T or Verizon store that this thing won't fit in your jeans when you go out on Friday night," says Smith. "Not to mention it's hard to hold with one hand."

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