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Is What You See What You Really Get?

In the old days of desktop publishing, the ideal personal computer display had a resolution of 72 dots per inch, which essentially meant that the page you saw on the screen was about the size of the physical version. Of course, color accuracy was another story entirely.

Today, displays are far sharper, at the expense of the document window being noticeably smaller than the printed counterpart, assuming, of course, that there is a print equivalent. In our digital universe, it hardly matters, so long as text is sharp, eminently readable.

But you want to believe that when you see a picture of a new product, be it food or a tech gadget, that the photo has some connection to reality. You may, for example, see a frozen food box at your neighborhood supermarket. Based on the picture you see on that box, the contents seem absolutely delicious, with liberal helpings of the various ingredients that make up the dish. But when you open the box, more often than not, you see some overcooked mush that barely fills half a container. It’s a common trick to entice you to buy something, but I have to wonder why anyone would give those companies a second chance.

When it comes to our tech corner of the world, you know that when you see a photo of a TV set with a brilliant picture, the picture is a composite created in the graphic arts studio. You are not seeing the real TV playing a real show or movie. Getting that set’s picture to look decent in a real world photo isn’t easy; it’s better just to present the mock-up, but you have to hope that the TV maker is giving you a realistic portrayal of the actual product. Of course if you see the set on display for yourself, you can come to your own conclusions.

Now what about all those wonderful handheld computers? Is there any outright deception going on there? Well, Nokia tried to pull a fast one with the Lumia 920. Touting the rear camera’s supposedly superior low-light and image stabilization features, they actually used a professional camera to record the photos for an ad campaign. Of course, it was done in such a clumsy fashion that they were caught. But if the camera was really so good, why the fakery?

Recently, in his McElhearn blog, author Kirk McElhearn, who is also Macworld’s “iTunes Guy,” caught Amazon with their pants down, metaphorically speaking. A fan of the original Amazon Kindle for reading e-books in sunlight, he bought the $119.00 Kindle Paperwhite, which touts a built-in light to increase display brightness. Amazon’s photos show a smooth bright white background, with rich sharp text. The name offers the promise of mimicking the look of real paper, but the unit Kirk received was decidedly unlike that photo. On his Paperwhite, “the lighting is uneven at the bottom of the Kindle, and there is a very large difference in brightness.”

As you see if you follow our link to Kirk’s article, the reality is very much unlike the product Amazon is advertising. While this sort of deception may be routine for a cheap container of frozen food, it is totally unacceptable for a consumer electronics device at any price point. Kirk bought the Paperwhite because he felt his iPad mini wouldn’t produce a satisfactory image in sunlit surroundings. Instead, the Paperwhite was returned: “It’s a good idea, but it’s just a bit cheap and poorly designed. Amazon should really do better with a device like this.”

But that’s only part of the story. Amazon shouldn’t be allowed to get away with false advertising. Sure, if you see one of these in a store, you will know for yourself the limitations. But what about those who buy one online, depending on those descriptive ads to provide useful information about the product’s performance? If all Paperwhites suffer from the same uneven image, customers should return them in droves, with appropriately worded complaints. Maybe Amazon will get the message that this sort of chicanery is absolutely unacceptable.

Sure, it’s perfectly normal for a company to provide, shall we say, exaggerated claims for a product or service. But it’s the degree of deception that counts. Some might say Apple is misrepresenting the capabilities of the Siri voice assistant, pointing out that those TV ads demonstrate a potential in voice recognition accuracy and performance that isn’t realized by non-actors in the real world. Apple’s excuse? Siri remains a beta.

Apple didn’t have so good an excuse with Maps for iOS 6, and I don’t need to discuss the problems, since they were front and center. But iOS 6 is free. Even if you bought an iPhone 5 or recent iPad on which it was preloaded, you paid for the hardware. The OS may have bugs, but they will likely be fixed over time. Even now Maps has become better in a number of significant ways, though there’s much more room for improvement. But if the defect is in the hardware, you con’t fix it with an over-the-air update.

I wonder what sort of excuse Amazon will offer, assuming they ever respond to Kirk’s review — but I doubt they ever will.