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Until 5 minutes ago, I thought the purpose of using Identify would be to detect curses or similar effects that aren't revealed by spending a short rest experimenting with the item.

However, that's when I stumbled over the following paragraph in the DMG (p. 138/139, emphasis mine):

Cursed Items:
Some magic items bear curses that bedevil their users, sometimes long after a user has stopped using an item. A magic item's description specifies whether the item is cursed.
Most methods of identifying items, including the identify spell, fail to reveal such a curse, although lore might hint at it.
A curse should be a surprise to the item's user when the curse's effects are revealed.
Attunement to a cursed item can't be ended voluntarily unless the curse is broken first, such as with the remove curse spell.

So, turns out Identify won't actually detect curses on magic items (which is also not directly hinted by the description of the spell. Not sure how I came to that misunderstanding).

What's the purpose of even bothering with Identify, then? Unless your DM disallows identifying items during a short rest ("Variant: More Difficult Identification", DMG p. 136), I can't imagine many situations where figuring out an item's properties would be so urgent that you can't wait for a short rest - or at least not if curses aren't even revealed.

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Identifying spell effects currently affecting an item/creature or spell origins of an item, learning the number of charges of a magic item, and dramatically reducing the time expense.

You can use the identify spell to identify any spell effects an item or creature is currently being affected by or the spell used to create an item (see the spell description from the SRD or PHB).

You learn whether any spells are affecting the item [you touch throughout the casting] and what they are. If the item was created by a spell, you learn which spell created it.

If you instead touch a creature throughout the casting, you learn what spells, if any, are currently affecting it.

The short rest option for identifying the behavior of magic items does not replicate the options above, since the short rest option only applies to magic items (and, depending on how the rules are interpreted, maybe even only those that require attunement).

In addition, you learn how many charges a magic item has.

If [the item you touch throughout the casting] is a magic item or some other magic-imbued object, you learn its properties and how to use them, whether it requires attunement to use, and how many charges it has, if any.

The short rest option makes no mention of learning the number of charges, although it is common for a DM to rule otherwise (see the description of this activity in the Magic Items, Attunement section of the rules from the SRD or DMG).

[A]t the end of the short rest, the creature gains an intuitive understanding of how to activate any magical properties of the item, including any necessary command words.

Finally, the above advantages are in addition to the reduced expense of time. In order to use the short rest option to learn a magic item's properties and also become attuned to it, you actually have to spend 1 short rest learning its properties and then another becoming attuned.

Attuning to an item requires a creature to spend a short rest focused on only that item while being in physical contact with it (this can't be the same short rest used to learn the item's properties).

That's a total of 1 hour of resting to learn some of its properties (or 2 hours if you also want to become attuned), as opposed to a 1 minute casting time to learn all of its properties (or 1 hour and 1 minute if you also want to become attuned). Since identify is a ritual, it can also be cast in 11 minutes without expending a spell slot.

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You learn more with Identify

Both the short rest method and the spell identify say:

the character learns the item’s properties, as well as how to use them

However, identify also lets you learn:

whether it requires Attunement to use, and how many Charges it has, if any. You learn whether any Spells are affecting the item and what they are. If the item was created by a spell, you learn which spell created it.

Additionally, it lets you learn things about creatures, not just objects:

If you instead touch a creature throughout the casting, you learn what Spells, if any, are currently affecting it.

Identify is faster

As you said, identify is faster than short rest (10 minutes vs 1 hour). However, this is not an insignificant advantage. There are many times in dungeons and other dangerous situations where spending an hour may not be an option. Often magic items can be plot devices or traps so time is often of the essence.

Additionally, items must be in physical contact for both methods of identification. It is quite possible that an item could be dangerous or inconvenient to touch for an hour. In which case, 10 minutes would be significantly better.

Attunement

Further increasing the time benefit to using identify is that one must spend 1 hour during a short rest learning the properties of the item. Then, they must spend an additional 1 hour attuning to that item. So it ends up being 2 hours for the short rest identification vs 61/70 minutes for identify.

It enables the variant identification rule thus providing more rule options for the DM

If you prefer magic items to have a greater mystique, consider removing the ability to identify the properties of a magic item during a short rest, and require the identify spell, experimentation, or both to reveal what a magic item does.

The DMG, as you also point out, contains variant rules. However, if the variant rules only work if there are other options available to accomplish the same thing. Thus, identify fills that role as well, allowing DMs greater options and flexibility when choosing the roles that work best for them.

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Even without the variant rules, time could be important

Identify takes 1 minute to cast. Identification through experimentation in a short rest takes one hour. This means that if you collect a magic item with some unique properties that you may want to use within the next minute, the identify spell is critical. For example, if a weapon gives you a bonus against dragons but only through use of its command word, the identify spell would be required to learn that command word before the fight with the dragon flying in.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm not saying that there are no cases where timing will be urgent. But, unless your DM specifically wants to give the Identify spell a purpose, how often will you need to identify an item within 1 minute instead of an hour? \$\endgroup\$ – PixelMaster Feb 2 '18 at 21:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ @PixelMaster it's not like the situation where you'd need it would necessarily pop up in any campaign you play, but that's not really unusual for 5e utility spells in general. \$\endgroup\$ – kviiri Feb 2 '18 at 21:32

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