This may be my first published use of “specsploitation” – a term I coined a few years ago to describe the dubious use of technical specs to try to convince consumers that a product is unique or better than those from competitors. I’ve written on the topic a few times, such as in last December’s NY Times article “Making Sense of Specs” and in September’s PC World article “The Cable Game.”
The latter article had some information about specsploitation that we had to cut due to space constraints. I recently saw an article in a reputable consumer magazine in which the author, unfortunately, fell for a specsploitation trick. So I wanted to get the word out.
The author was advising readers to buy some rather pricey video cables, and one of the justifications was that they used “99.9% pure silver-plated OFC (oxygen-free copper).”
Boy, that does sound impressive. It’s on par with Ivory Soap!
But here’s the rub. You would have a VERY hard time finding any video or audio cable using copper that is less than 99.99% pure and that is not free of oxygen. And you certainly wouldn’t want to use it. Anything less would be a truly crappy signal conductor. And, you can find plenty of inexpensive cables that are ALSO 99.99% pure.
On the flip side, you can also find cables that are 99.999% pure, and even 99.9999% pure (what techies refer to as “six 9s”). It’s highly questionable whether one or two extra “9s” make a difference, but it is a plain fact that 99.99% is no big deal.
(As for the silver plating, it's unclear whether that makes a difference, either. The research that went into “The Cable Game" indicates that most video cables are just fine.)
While shopping for wire, you may also be baffled by a term like “Nitrogen-injected dielectric.” Here's what it means. Every wire needs to be covered by an electrical insulator, known in geekspeak as a “dielectric.” An inert gas (AKA air) is the perfect dielectric. But you can’t suspend a copper wire in an envelope of air. So the next best solution is to use plastic foam filled with lots of bubbles. And Nitrogen, as we learned in grade school, is the main component of air, so foam dielectric typically uses Nitrogen. Now, this is a good thing. Cheaper wires might just use something like solid PVC plastic. So, Nitrogen-injected cable is good, but not as exotic as it might sound.
Oh, one other cable tip I’ve got to tell you.
Some fancy audio receivers accept digital inputs from disc players or PCs. Digital is generally better, since you don’t lose any quality in the transmission. So the idea of a digital connection is a good thing, but companies still find a way to use that fact for specsploitation. These digital connectors come in two forms: fiber-optic cable or copper coaxial. If you are using the coaxial connection, beware of specsploitation. The cable used for digital audio is IDENTICAL to the cheapest type of analog video cable, known as composite. Yet when shopping at Best Buy recently, I noticed that a given “digital coaxial audio” cable sold for about $10 more than a “composite video” cable of the same length, from the same manufacturer. Hard to justify, because IT’S THE SAME CABLE.
So, shop carefully, and don’t blow your hard-earned cash on specsploitation.