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Specs and More Specs

Some members of the tech media are, predictably, falling into Samsung’s trap as they speculate on the forthcoming Galaxy S5 smartphone, which is due real soon now. Rather than consider if there will be any significant enhancements in usability, it’s all about the specs, without very much chatter about how those specs will impact users.

So we have a few columnists who are examining alleged secret benchmarks of the new Samsung handset. As a result, they are claiming that display resolution will jump from 1,920×1,080, or 441 pixels per inch, to 2,560×1,440, or 560 pixels per inch. Now understand that the iPhone 5 series has a resolution of 1,1350×640, or 326 pixels per inch.

So doesn’t that make the Samsung much better?

Well, not quite. For one thing, a Retina display, which you find on recent iPhones, means that, at a normal viewing distance, your eyes can’t make out the individual pixels. It doesn’t matter how much more densely packed they are once that figure is exceeded if other display characteristics aren’t improved. It’s just about bragging rights.

And Samsung can’t brag about the quality of the AMOLED displays used on the S-series smartphones for the simple reason that the picture washes out severely in sunlit conditions. But, to the tech media, is mostly about the raw specs, and very little is being said about the impact in the real world.

There’s also some comment on what sort of hardware Samsung might employ on the S5, with one report speaking of an 8-core processor with 64-bit capability, the latter to hone in one of the advantages of Apple’s A7 processor. But there’s little evidence that mobile apps are really tuned to take advantage of all the extra cores, and there’s nothing about 64-bit support with Android 4.4 KitKat, the latest version of Google’s mobile OS.

When it comes to all those extra cores, the situation in the mobile space is far worse than the situation that prevails on desktop computers, where Apple’s Mac Pro, offering Xeon chips with up to 12 cores, only offers a speed advantage on a very small number of apps.

Regardless, I suppose the S5 will run faster, and that might make it seem snappier, assuming it’s a major improvement. But Samsung is also notorious for running hardware over-clocked when certain benchmarking apps are run. So the results do not tell you how well these products do with the apps most people actually use.

It’s also reasonably certain the new Samsung’s camera will sport more megapixels, but the existing model, with a 13 megapixel sensor, doesn’t take better pictures than the iPhone 5s, which has eight megapixels. This time, Samsung will reportedly tout reflector-integrated flash LEDs to capture improved snapshots. We’ll see.

For Samsung, however, it’ll be all about having hot specs to make it seem as if the product is better. I would hope, however, that something will be done about all that useless junkware that stuffed the S4 to the gills. It got so bad that half the capacity of the 16GB version was filled with software, not leaving you quite as much for your own stuff. But maybe Samsung’s recent deal with Google over cross-licensing, and the latter’s decision to unload Motorola Mobility at fire sale prices to Lenovo, will persuade the former to avoid the excesses this time and focus on native Google apps.

According to a Bloomberg report, a Samsung executive is quoted as saying: “For the S5, we will go back to the basics. Mostly, it’s about the display and the feel of the cover.”

I can hardly wait.

Now one feature that will likely be useful — if it’s executed well — is a fingerprint sensor to compete with Apple’s Touch ID. To be fair, Touch ID isn’t the perfect solution by any means. Some of our readers have had troubles with it, and even when it works properly, it’s not a 100% solution. You often have to create multiple fingertip profiles to cover as many touch possibilities as possible. For me it mostly works.

But you have to wonder whether Samsung will attempt to  offer a better solution, or just be happy to have something to include in the S5’s specs. To Samsung, it’s about having yet another bullet point entry than something that truly enhances usability.

Once the new smartphone is announced, however, you can bet the usual offenders in the tech media will be salivating over the improved specs, as if they were somehow important to the end user. Even Consumer Reports fell into this trap, writing about features in the Galaxy S4 that barely functioned, and there’s no doubt the S5 will, unless some serious flaw is discovered, get an even higher rating.

This isn’t a case of sour grapes, however, when the Samsungs are compared to an iPhone. For Apple, it’s mostly about features that actually do something to enhance the user experience somehow. With Samsung it’s about features that look good on the spec sheet.

This brings to mind the months I spent with a Galaxy S3 and a Galaxy S4. Between the two, I didn’t find much of a performance difference, even though the latter was supposedly roughly twice as fast as the former in benchmarks. The slightly larger screen made little real world difference, and the improvements in pixel density were hardly discernible. But handling the bloated software Samsung loaded onto the S4 was mostly a waste of time. At the end of the day, I stuck with the same apps I used on the S3, and, thus, had a decent user experience.

Yes, I’ll read the spec sheet for the S5, but I don’t expect to remember much of the changes, or care about them.