What's in a (Sony vs. Apple) name?

You're ready to ditch your old pre-digital TV. You've decided to go for a Sony LCD television (a good choice, although I now favor Samsung myself). After much angst, you've accepted that fact that 40 inches is the biggest size screen that fits both your room and your wallet.

Great! Your work is done. All that's left is to go to your dealer and tell him you want the Sony 40" LCD TV. One problem. Sony makes nine (9!) such televisions, with retail prices ranging from $1200 to $2700. You can see them all at Sony's Web site.

So how do you figure out the differences among the models and which is the right one for you? Not easily. Checking the model numbers will be of little or no help. They read more like a cipher than a useful description: KDL-40S4100, KDL-40XBR7.

A few years ago, Sony introduced the word "Bravia" to signal their top-of-the-line models. Now it's meaningless. Bravia is used for virtually every model in their catalog.

Making matters worse, if you should decide to expand your search to include 37" models, you'll find pairs of matching names, such as KDL-40XBR6 and KDL-37XBR6. You might think that paired models are identical except for screen size. You'd be wrong. The 40 inch BR6 model has a superior contrast ratio and includes several features absent from the 37" model (most notably MotionFlow 120Hz). This turns an already confusing situation into a nearly incomprehensible one.

True, the Sony web site offers an option to set up comparisons of different models. But it doesn't help all that much. Realistically, figuring out which model is the best one for you could take hours or even days of research.

Is all of this really necessary? Not in my opinion. Sometimes, I feel Sony deliberately creates this confusion, so that only salespeople really know what's going on, making it easier for them to steer you to the model they most want to sell you. But maybe I am being too cynical.

And not to pick on Sony, most other television manufacturers, indeed most manufacturers of any sort of electronic devices, including computers, use a similar approach.

In contrast, Apple has gone down markedly different road. Of course, there was a time when Apple's line-up was as jumbled as Sony's. But then Steve Jobs returned to Apple and famously commented (I am paraphrasing here): "Even I can't figure out the differences among all the Apple models and I'm the CEO." As we now know, Jobs simplified the product line into a 2 X 2 grid: low and high end notebooks, low and high end desktops. Despite some minor exceptions (the Cube, the Mac mini, the MacBook Air), this basic outline persists today.

Each box in the grid contains only one product: MacBooks, MacBook Pros, iMacs and Mac Pros. Yes, there are some variations possible within each product. However, except for the fully and extensively customizable Mac Pro, the variations tend to be few, minor, and easy to understand. And the names are easy to remember. You won't see Apple release a Mac X47BV205.

Overall, Apple has followed more in the tradition of car manufacturers. The Toyota Camry name, for example, remains the same each year. There are a few basic variations in the Camry line (LE, SE, XLE, and Hybrid), but not so many that they become unmangeable. The main way each new model is distinguished is by adding the year to the name: the 2008 Camry, the 2009 Camry.

Differentiating older vs. newer models can be a bit stickier for Apple. And it's not a trivial matter. There may be a hardware glitch that affects one Mac Pro variation but not others. In such cases, the customer needs to be able to determine exactly which model they have. Apple's solution is either to identify a model by its specific hardware ("Dual 2.5 GHz PowerPC G5") or by date ("MacBook (Late 2007)"). This can admittedly get a bit awkward at times. Still, compared to Sony, I much prefer Apple's simpler, cleaner, easier-to-follow, not more choices than I need, approach.

Overall, Apple's approach to models and model names is consistent with everything else that Apple does: the clean simple design of its Stores, its product packaging and even the products themselves. As other companies seek to do battle with Apple, coming out with competing products, they would do well to pay attention to this difference. Too often, they ignore it. Not a great idea.