- Chuck Gray
About a year-and-a-half ago, I wrote a blog post entitled "Common Computer Myths" that sought to debunk some of the misinformation I hear frequently regarding computers. Well, I'm always running into new techno-falsehoods, so for your consideration: "Even More Common Computer and Tech Myths" and their realities!
Mobile Tech Myths
"I need a screen protector."
Not necessarily. Screen protectors are a good idea if you store your phone in a purse or bag with your keys and other potentially scratching objects. But in my experience helping people at the library, screen protectors are almost always badly applied leaving air bubbles, dust, and dirt trapped underneath. This is especially bad news if you’ve got one of those extra-strength screen protectors that are meant to be permanently applied. They can also make interacting with the touchscreen more difficult. If you take care to store your phone in an area isolated from other objects in your purse or bag, keep it in your pocket by itself or in a hip holster then I wouldn’t bother with a protector. If you’re accident-prone, get yourself a case (something you definitely need, regardless) that has a lip around the front of the phone so that the case makes contact with surfaces when laid flat or dropped rather than the screen. I’m a fan of the Otterbox “Commuter” line of cases.
"iOS is better than Android." Or vice-versa.
This is a fairly pointless debate. The most up-to-date versions of both iOS and Android are very powerful mobile operating systems. The sort of granular details that distinguish the two are only going to really matter to power users. I’ve written about this quite a bit already, and while I’ve probably made my preference for Android known, there are quite a few iOS features that I would welcome. Here's a rough comparison of each OS' pros and cons:
"iPads are the best tablets."
That’s a matter of taste and of need. iPads are certainly among the best tablets out there; no one can argue with that. But tablets of all kinds have come a long way since the first iPad’s release in 2010, and we’ve now got many options for many needs. iPads are great for people who love simplicity and artfully-crafted hardware and who want access to the largest number of tablet-optimized apps. High-end Android tablets provide a greater degree of user interface customization and control over the operating system while maintaining the relative ease-of-use associated with tablet computing. Kindle Fires plug Amazon.com customers into an unparalleled and simple media consumption experience. And, well-designed Windows tablets running a full version of Windows 8 (not the less powerful Windows RT which lacks a desktop environment) may be the most expensive tablets, but they are the best solution for true power-users. Pick your poison.
"My Android device needs a task killer."
This might be true if you own an older device running some version of Android 2.x, though in some cases task killers can actually slow your device down. If you’re running a device with Android 4.x, simply hold down the home button and a list of the currently running apps will appear. Swipe the apps you want to close to the left or right—doesn’t matter. That’s all you need to do!
"My tablet is all I need."
I hope you don't mean that all you need in life is your tablet, period. Because me, personally? I find smartphones better fill the pit of despair that a lack of humanity has left in my soul.
In terms of day-to-day productivity and technical need, we can get by pretty well with our mobile devices. In truth, though, there are still so many things that regular computers are needed for and which I don’t see tablets ever being able to pull off as well: word processing, media editing, gaming, and file storage, just to name a few. I refer you to my article on the topic.
"More megapixels means better pictures."
Yes and no. Speaking technically, more megapixels allows for the capture of greater detail, or perhaps more accurately, the capture of more information from any image. If your goal is the gathering of information, let’s say for surveillance purposes, then, yes, more megapixels are going to give you more detailed images. As to whether more megapixels produce better photographs for personal or artistic use, the answer is mostly, “no.” There is an upward limit on how much pixel density can improve such images. Photographic quality is derived first and foremost by the skill of the photographer. Good equipment doesn’t hurt either, but people shopping for a new camera should not confuse pixel density with quality.
Your shiny, new camera isn’t going to -not- break down within a week of purchase simply because it has 20 (or whatever is considered “a lot”) megapixels. Compare this feature from LIFE on 37 Years in Pictures with your average Facebook or Instagram picture. The latter were taken with cameras with far greater pixel density than the former, but the former are true works of journalism and art captured with cameras that, technologically speaking, are dinosaurs. If you truly want your photographs to improve, read a book, take a class, or best of all, get a degree in photography, but don’t go spending pennies per pixel expecting your pictures to get better all by themselves. They won’t.
"I should completely discharge and then recharge my laptop battery to maximize its life."
Lies! Well, mostly. Some non-removable laptop batteries, such as those found in MacBooks, occasionally need to be “calibrated,” a process which involves completely discharging then recharging the battery. The rationale behind that is not to directly improve the life of the battery, but to make sure that the computer’s reading of the power level is accurate, which can indirectly improve battery life since you’ll be better armed to care for it.
But the notion that a battery should always be completely discharged before being recharged is not only incorrect, but will actually harm battery life. Don’t feel bad if you’ve fallen for this line. I believed it for years! If you primarily use the laptop at home, you can even remove the battery entirely, but do bring it out occasionally to charge and use it, just to keep it fit. You also should keep the battery away from heat—make sure that the heat exhaust ports have plenty of room to dispel hot air. If you’re using your pillows to prop up your laptop for use in bed, stop!
"When I uninstall a program from my PC or Mac, it is completely erased."
Oh, how I wish. This is a pet peeve of mine. The truth is that most programs leave behind trace files and in the case of WIndows computers, entries in the system registry. This is mostly benign, but if you’re like me and are irritated that uninstalled programs feel they have the right to leave stuff behind, you can take action. For PCs, download the utility Revo Uninstaller (direct download link for freeware version) and use its advanced uninstall option to erase every trace of a program. Completely erasing a program on a Mac is a rather more involved process. Most users simply drag the program into the trash and wash their hands of the matter. Follow this guide to learn how to more thoroughly erase programs from a Mac.
"Windows 8 stinks."
I can understand why you’d think that. I don’t entirely disagree. From a technical perspective Windows 8 is an improvement, particularly as regards Internet security. From a usability perspective, not so much. I’ve written about how Microsoft is forcing a single-user experience on us for every device running Windows 8, a strategy which has certain advantages, but it’s clear that the public does, in fact, think that this stinks. Fortunately, I’ve also written about how to turn your Windows 8 computer into something more closely resembling Windows 7.
Online Privacy and Security Myths
"I set my Facebook posts to private so no one else can see them."
It's ridiculous how easy it is to get around Facebook’s privacy controls. But even if it's a post that you have "deleted," you simply cannot assume that anything you’ve written anywhere online is ever private. Privacy controls on any system are an illusion, a mere veil between the Web at large and what you’ve willingly shared. If you don’t want it known, don’t write it anywhere. You can’t hide secrets from the future.
"The FBI has locked my computer and I need to pay them to get it unlocked."
If the FBI or any other alphabet agency wants anything from your computer, they will not hold it hostage. They will come to your home and take it from you in person. On occasion they’ll provide you guest quarters while they’re looking through your files. They’re considerate like that. No, you’ve been the victim of ransomware, a flavor of malware that will disable your computer under the guise of a government agency you’re scared of and then demand money to make you machine work again. A lot of ransomware is actually relatively easy to disable. I’ve even written a blog post about it.
I’m afraid, however, there is some new ransomware in the wild that is far more malicious than anything we’ve seen before. Rather than simply blocking you from using the most obvious methods of circumventing it, this new ransomware, called “Cryptolocker,” will thoroughly encrypt all your files and if you don’t pay up in three days, they will throw away the decryption key, and you can forget about ever getting at your files again. Period. Scary, right? I actually had a nightmare about it after I read this article. It seems that it’s almost impossible to remove, and the best way to stop it is to prevent the circumstances that led to being infected by it, which the article also details. One key thing I took away from the article: Keep your back-up drives disconnected from your computer when they’re not in use.
"The Government is spying on me online. I need to either encrypt everything and start channeling all my Internet traffic through TOR or grow a beard and head for the hills!"
Yes, the U.S. government is spying on us online, though not necessarily on you specifically. For the moment. What strikes me as especially vicious about the current state of online privacy is that we, the average users, are susceptible to invasion on at least two fronts: on the one side by the run of the mill computer criminals and on the other by the NSA. It doesn’t seem like there is a safe harbor other than to just not use a computer, but in the second decade of the twenty-first century, that is no longer conceivable.
The other extreme is to encrypt all your files and then store them in an encrypted disk partition, use the Internet exclusively through TOR, and throw out your smartphone, etc. Neither direction is appealing or even effective. Both the lack of your online presence and the overuse of privacy tools actually makes you more noticeable. To my way of thinking, little has changed in any practical sense. It was always a reasonable assumption that we were being surveilled by the government, and computer criminals have existed for decades. The only thing that has changed is that we are now much better informed of just how little privacy we can actually expect online. This development should motivate you to take steps to protect yourself that, frankly, you should have been taking anyway, but don’t let me chide you. I haven’t been especially proactive on this front myself. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a very nicely detailed list of twelve steps you can follow to protect yourself.
"Biometric security is stronger than passwords."
We’re led to believe that because our fingerprints or our faces are uniquely our own they are the ultimate form of security that we carry with us no matter where we go. But biometric security is much easier to trick than you’d think. Though biometrics’ convenience is uncontested, a strong, complex password comprised of eight or more random characters not derived by any method of real-word obfuscation is still the best way to protect yourself. If your device or computer allows for it, you might make authenticating your identity a two-step process, but if you are really serious about protecting your identity, don’t rely on biometrics alone.
"My big, expensive, annual subscription-based Internet security program is all I need to keep me safe online."
Good Internet security software is without a doubt important. Even the most seasoned computer users find themselves in compromising situations from time-to-time and require the safety net such software provides. The issue is not the necessity of security software. It’s the absolute reliance on it. Novice users are led to believe, usually by retail employees, that their safety is dependent on the number of features crammed into a security suite. It’s a reasonable misunderstanding, but let me compare Internet security software to cars: Your new car can have the greatest collision rating in the industry, it can parallel park itself, it can sound a proximity alarm when you’re about to back into a group of children on a field trip, and so forth, but if you’re consistently driving twenty miles over the speed limit, swerving in and out of traffic, and texting while you drive, you’re still going put yourself in the hospital eventually.
The same is true for Internet security: If you’re not paying attention to the sites you visit or the people you’re friending, if you’re not carefully reading the contents of a Web page or email before clicking on a link that might direct you somewhere that might harm your computer, if you’re downloading any old piece of software a Web page insists you need or using file sharing programs to illegally download pirated media that might actually be malware in disguise, my friend, I don’t care how complex your Internet security software is, it can’t protect you from yourself. We cannot rely on technology to protect us from other technology.
Your attention and common sense are a better safeguard against digital bad guys than almost any program you pay $50 a year to keep using. And in the process of lulling us into a false sense of security as we abdicate our responsibility to just pay attention, those big, fat, resource-intensive security suites tend to slow computers down and confuse users with cryptic messages written in vocabulary they probably don’t understand. So, do your research before you invest in such programs. Ask any computer professionals you might know what they recommend, or look at software reviews on sites like CNET.com or Consumer Reports, to which the library provides free in-house access. Just don’t think Internet security software alone is good enough to protect you.