In one respect, technology and cosmetics are indistinguishable: we're bombarded with detailed marketing information that makes it difficult to come to any sane, rational judgement on most products, and the likelihood of us spending over the odds for something that doesn't do what we want is pretty high. It's suggested that advances in science will cause our skin to be magically regenerated by peptohydrides (or something) and that image stabilisers and anti-blur features on our compact cameras will have us exhibiting alongside Annie Leibovitz. Neither is true, but makes for a reliable sales technique. Far be it from me to accuse anyone of lying, but we're certainly bamboozled and confused into making purchases in a way that we aren't by a cheesemonger or shoe retailer. This makes a shopping trip for electronics an unforgiving experience; you return, glumly carrying enormous bags, with the same uneasy feeling you had that time you were fleeced at the souk in Marrakesh.
Granted, assessing gadgets is, by its very nature, skewed by concepts such as speaker wattage and battery performance that aren't always easy to quantify. But as an article in the current issue of Which? magazine points out, obfuscation by technology companies is making it difficult for us to compare between products. Laptops are pretty easy; we're used to the numbers – processor speed in Ghz, memory and hard disk space in GB, the bigger the number the better. But cameras are more awkward; buying a 10 or 12 megapixel camera is pointless if you're only going to be making 6x4in prints, for example. Camera buffs will be aware of this; they'll also know that optical zoom is better quality than digital zoom, but those of us browsing electrical stores might just look at the magnification number and think: "Hey, 4x bigger, brilliant."
To which you could say, well, do your research before going shopping. But we're also derailed by shop assistants playing upon our technological insecurities. Few are as contemptuous as the ones in the famous Not The Nine O'Clock News skit where Mel Smith comes in to buy a "gramophone", and out of desperation ends up agreeing to the question "Do you want a bag on your head?" – in fact, Which? single out John Lewis and Richer Sounds for praise. But others were criticised for unhelpfully emphasising the quality of television screens that are proudly labelled with 100Hz, 200Hz or 600Hz logos (they're not necessarily any better) or that high contrast ratios will improve your viewing (notionally, perhaps, but we're frequently asked to pay handsomely for features that the human senses can't necessarily appreciate – see my previous gripes about news channels in HD, or £200 audio cables).
Some creative sales techniques are being stamped out. The habit broadband providers have of collectively describing their plans as "unlimited", and then burying details of the actual limit on page 17 of a Magna Carta-esque list of terms and conditions, is being formally reviewed by the Advertising Standards Authority.
Indeed, three British mobile networks – Vodafone, Orange and O2 – have already stopped using the term "unlimited" in reference to their data plans. But as ever, the best strategy might be to take all marketing information with a pinch of salt, and rely instead on the brutal honesty of people you trust who've actually used the product.
When I was young, my dad spent hours showing me the best way to hold a cricket bat. "If you hold it like that," he'd say, gruffly, "you'll hit it in the air. So don't." So I didn't. Steve Jobs offered similarly gruff advice last week to a small number of new iPhone 4 owners who complained of dropped 3G reception when they held their phone in their left hand in a particular way. "Avoid holding it in this way," said Jobs, to widespread derision. I'm no slavish Apple loyalist, and I'm even someone who holds phones using my left hand. But if something works better by slightly altering your behaviour, I'd choose to slightly alter my behaviour rather than write deeply offended blog posts about how Apple have failed to cater for my particular style of phone gripping. Sweaty-palmed owners are slightly more susceptible, apparently; those experiencing fury over not being able to experience fury over the 3G issue could follow the example of website Ars Technica, who managed to duplicate the problem after carefully watching instructional videos posted on YouTube, and licking their palm before placing a call. Happy licking, and happy complaining.