Specs Still Matter (Or: iPad 2 vs. Motorola Xoom)S

Apps are the most important part of any tablet right now. But great apps need great hardware to run.

"A lot of folks in the tablet market are rushing in and they're looking at this as the next PC…and they're talking about speeds and feeds just like they did with PCs." That's what Steve Jobs says about specs in this new "post-PC" world of tablets and smartphones.

Ironically, where speeds and feeds don't matter as much anymore for the average user is in the PC world, because hardware there is, in most cases, "good enough." But in the mobile world—where smartphones and tablets are evolving very quickly—they still matter more than they do in PCs. Even if they're not an end to themselves. They are, after all, what enable the software magic to happen.

They're what make games like Infinity Blade look and feel incredible. Produce astoundingly good photos. Sear our eyeballs with intensely beautiful colors and thousands and thousand of pixels on a screen. They're what allow software to have the shimmer of verisimilitude, responding to every touch and intention instantly, so it feels like we're actually manipulating something real, not a bundle of code and graphics.

So how do the iPad 2 and Android's best tablet to date, the Motorola Xoom, compare in specs? And when does it matter?

They're both using customized chips based around 1GHz dual-core processors, wrapped up with hardy graphics chips. The Motorola Xoom's Nvidia Tegra 2 has a dual-core heart of ARM's Cortex A9, which is very probably the soul of the iPad 2's A5 chip too. The GeForce graphics bundled in the Tegra 2 are formidable; presumably, so are the iPad 2's, especially if it's using PowerVR SGX543 graphics, as has been reported. In processing and graphics power, it stands to reason—at least until a proper teardown—that the iPad 2 and Xoom are about equally capable. The Xoom is verrrry fast, and that seems to be what people thought about the iPad 2 yesterday. Speed and its proper application matters as much as, if not more than, anything else.

The iPad 2's memory situation is still officially a mystery, which is deeply unfortunate. RAM isn't an idle spec: It's deeply indicative of how well it'll multitask, and—this is a huge deal—how well things like Safari will work. If it's got 512MB, it should be okay. The Xoom's got 1GB. The Xoom multitasks, flipping between apps and running tons of tabs in the browser, like a champ. And the multitasking interface for Android 3.0 makes it feel faster still.

A lot of the Xoom's other numbers are bigger than the iPad 2's. The screen is larger, with more pixels. It's 10.1 inches, with the 1280x800 resolution delivering 150ppi, to the iPad 2's 1024x768 screen, which offers 136ppi. So text on the Xoom can be slightly crisper. The Xoom's cameras are better too, at least on paper. The rear camera shoots 5-megapixel photos, while the front is 2MP. (Neither are particularly impressive in practice, though.) The iPad 2's rear camera shoots 720p video like the Xoom, but the stills are lower resolution. The front camera is only VGA (640x480). (Does that mean they'll be less impressive? The iPod touch's very similar-sounding camera was no showstopper, but the iPhone 4's 5-megapixel camera outshot 8-megapixel cameras in other phones.) The Xoom will have more Gees too, when it's upgraded to 4G on Verizon. The iPad 2 is theoretically faster for now on AT&T with 3G. Does all that make the Xoom automatically better than the iPad 2?

To a certain set of people, yes. What's key, though, is that the Xoom—along with any other tablet—doesn't outclass the iPad on any of the specs that Apple clearly thinks are most important. Processing power is (probably just about) even. The screen resolution is smaller, but the iPad display's proportions make it more flexible than the Xoom—it's truly designed to be used in portrait or landscape orientation, while the Xoom is almost 100 percent a landscape-oriented device. Battery life is better. Most important of all to Apple (and it's betting, to consumers), the iPad is cheaper. Everything else, beyond the screen and speed—like the cameras—are just good enough. Not amazing.

Oddly, part of the reason specs still matter to the extent that they do is because we're at a point where we can still feel their limitations. Like, the reason it was painful that the first iPad only had 256MB of RAM is that Safari would constantly dump the content in your open tabs because it was always running out of memory. The number doesn't matter, except that it does have a very real consequence on the way people browse the web on the iPad. More powerful hardware allows more powerful software, with more features and better performance that translate into things that make people happier. When we get to a point hardware isn't a limit on software, then it'll cease to matter completely. That doesn't seem likely anytime soon: Software and features somehow always manage to keep up with the hardware.

Hardware without software is meaningless. But software can't exist without hardware.

Illustration by Contributing Illustrator Sam Spratt. Become a fan of his Facebook Artist's Page and follow Sam on Twitter