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Guessing and Testing

As you might expect, whenever a new Apple product is anticipated, there will be speculation about the spec and features. That’s fine as far as it goes, although nothing is confirmed until Apple makes the official announcement. So Apple’s March 21st event will likely include the launch of a new 4-inch iPhone.

The rumors suggest it’ll have specs similar to that of the iPhone 6s, only in a smaller case. That means an A9 processor and a pretty decent camera. What few know outside of Apple is whether 3D Touch will be part of the picture. That’s designed to give you extra context-related choices if you just tap harder and even harder than that.

None of this has stopped some alleged tech pundits from criticizing Apple for real or imagined slights. So The Macalope, the house critic of all things anti-Apple at Macworld, has an article about the sins of reviewing products that don’t exist. It’s an area I’ve also covered often. In one particular column, the horned one rips apart the complaints of one blogger about the lack of 3D Touch on that unreleased iPhone.

So what’s wrong with that? Well, as I said, the product hasn’t even been announced yet. So while some of the rumors suggest that 3D Touch isn’t included, perhaps to save on manufacturing costs, we really don’t know. So what sense does it make to attack Apple for the lack of such a feature? Why waste words?

It reminds me of the foolish blog I wrote about in yesterday’s column, in which someone claims that the jig is up about Mac security because of the first successful ransomware attempt; another occurred some years back but evidently wasn’t “perfected.”

But complaining about missing features in a product where the features have yet to be announced is only one example of foolishness. How about reviewing gear based on specs alone — or expected specs? That’s even more foolish, since relying strictly on those numbers, real or imagined, doesn’t tell you how fast it’ll perform or how fluid the user interface will feel. It won’t help you decide how the various features work, or if they work.

You see, hard specs are only a rough indication of a gadget’s potential. Compare that to a motor vehicle, where rated horsepower only gives you a rough idea of how fast it’ll go from zero to 60 miles per hour. There are loads of other factors that determine performance, and that includes vehicle weight and engine torque, and sometimes the car with less horsepower accelerates faster, but this isn’t a car column.

I’m particularly concerned when you see lists of specs compared to other lists of specs. I’ll just focus on articles published after a product is released, so you have the hard numbers of a sort. Consumer Reports, the magazine that claims it is incorruptible and balanced because it doesn’t take ads, often falls for feature-itis. So an Android smartphone will often rate better than an iPhone because it does more things. How well it does those thoughts ought to be just as important, but that isn’t always the case.

In the case of CR, I always assumed that hard testing carries the day, but not always. Superior specs and longer feature lists have too much influence.

If it does appear as rumored, Apple’s 4-inch iPhone will inevitably be compared with the latest products from the iPhone 6 lineup. Some will compare it to smaller Android handsets, but it would have to be by specs alone until the product actually ships and undergoes testing.

Superior specs are often cited to demonstrate performance potential. But you can’t do that with Android and iOS, simply because Apple’s mobile operating system is better mated to the A-series processor. So the iPhone and iPad will often, with fewer cores and less RAM, match or exceed the performance of supposedly faster Android gear. Canned benchmarks help, but they cannot tell you how fast and fluid the OS might feel, how quickly it’ll start and shut down and how fast apps launch.

Some years back, Samsung pulled a really silly stunt, pushing a Galaxy smartphone’s processor to a higher clock speed when the benchmark apps were run, so it would appear faster. Supposedly these apps were modified to prevent that from happening.

It vaguely reminds me of how VW cheated on emissions tests with its diesel engines. The onboard smog controls worked when the tests were being run, but in normal use and service were disabled to allow for better performance and fuel economy. It didn’t matter to VW that more pollutants were spewed into the air.

Of course, setting up a tech gadget to display inflated benchmarks isn’t necessarily going to harm anyone’s health, but it may fool a customer into expecting better performance than the product can actually deliver in the real world. That might be regarded as fraud to some; I don’t know whether any laws are necessarily broken, or if anyone would care if they are.

In any case, I look forward to learning the facts about the next iPhone, if that’s one of the products we’ll see at the next Apple event. But that won’t stop some tech commentators from trying to review it anyway. Or maybe they’re jumping through time and they already know the future. Sure. Right.