My title is a tad misleading. Specs do matter but I’m gonna offer up only the one or two that matter most. Let’s assume for now you’ve selected your operating system and form factor of either smartphone or tablet. In the smartphone category you’re generally looking at screen sizes between 3.5″ to 5″. Tablets generally range between 7″ to 10″. There’s also a goofy category informally known as Phablets that fall in between these two categories. After screen sizes you’re bombarded with a bevy of software features, hardware options, and naturally long lists of tech specs and benchmark ratings to comb through before making a purchase. If you’re purchasing a middle to top tier device (by price) let me save you some trouble and tell you that you can assume generally good processing speed and graphics performance from most devices. I’m trying to stay away from confusing you with geeky technical specs but must now dive into one spec a bit to illustrate this point. The iPhone 5 uses a dual core processor that clocks in somewhere around 1.3 GHz. By comparison the new Samsung Galaxy S4 (man that’s a mouthful of a name) carries a 1.9 GHz quad core processor. Translation- the S4 blows the processing power of the iPhone out of the water by a mile. With this said let this geek who’s made the iPhone 5 his primary smart device vouch that not once, not even for performance sapping games, have I ever felt even a slightest lag in performance. I doubt seriously I would notice a difference with Samsung’s processor in my iPhone. It’s always snappy and reliable except of course when AT&T is throttling me. Criminals.
Summary: for most flagship and even many entry level smartphones or tablets focus on those hardware options that matter most to you like a keyboard, NFC, metal case, plastic case, waterproof, etc. with the knowledge that your performance should be sufficient until you decide to upgrade or for most of the duration of your contract. Regarding the hardware my advice is to primarily focus on two things -screen and camera quality.
Let’s talk about screens a bit. Again if you read the specs you’ll be bored by countless labels like Super AMOLED HD, IGZO, Retina, etc. What you need to know is simply all of these technologies have their strengths and weaknesses but ultimately I advise focusing on one spec: Pixel Count. This is usually designated by 3 numbers followed by ppi like 326 ppi which is the current pixel count for the iPhone 5. The higher the number the better the resolution. Trust me when you go to the higher resolution you’ll never want to go back. Most of these devices are tiny and reading on them can be downright atrocious. Do your eyes a favor and splurge for the better resolution. Besides good screen resolution goes hand in hand with my next recommendation: Good Camera.
This recommendation pertains mostly to smartphones because trust me once you’ve unlocked the power and convenience of snapping a pic or shooting a quick video at any given moment you’ll eventually stop lugging around your fancy Canon dSLR or Sony camcorder. Trust me it’s inevitable. Naturally a smartphone camera won’t beat a dedicated decent camera but you don’t have to jip all quality for convenience. In this case don’t pay any attention to pixels. Look for 4 inconspicuous letters buried in the specs…CMOS. This will be the type of image sensor built into the camera. Cameras typically use one of two 2 types of image sensors CCD or CMOS. CMOS generally performs better in low light conditions and decently in most other conditions. Smartphone manufacturers typically don’t throw CMOS sensors in their cameras unless they are serious about image quality. Thus there’s a good chance that if the phone camera has a CMOS sensor in it then typically it won’t skimp much on pixel count anyways.
My last piece of advice is to please, pretty please go hands on with your device before buying it. There’s just no excuse not to given the long term investment you’re making and ease in which you can try out devices in stores. Also avoid the Best Buy temptation. There’s a good chance you won’t get to touch a device that actually powers on plus it is a proven Law of Physics that you cannot get past their displays of gadgets without setting off one of those annoying security tethers!