Tech myths debunked: PM dispels frustrating falsehoods of the digital age

Sorry, Minotaur, five bars of signal and your text to King Minos still won’t go through.
IIllustration by Yana Moskaluk
Date:21 August 2013 Tags:, , , , ,

Tech lore has it that Macs never get viruses, PCs are terribly fragmented, and if you jailbreak your phone, you’re going to jail. Though many common tech myths are harmless, others can waste your time and even leave you dealing with digital disasters. Here, we explore some of the most prevalent untruths to put them to rest. By Melanie Pinola

Jailbreaking and rooting are illegal
Smartphone owners can jailbreak their iOS devices and root their Android phones to get around the restrictions of manufacturers and carriers. But is this ominous-sounding practice legal? The word itself – jailbreaking – makes it sound like the process is illegal. In reality, it’s more complicated: the technique both is and isn’t illegal under copyright law, depending on where you are. For instance, last year, when the US Library of Congress updated its rules for 2013 through late 2015, it decided that Americans can legally jailbreak a smartphone (though they will void the Apple warranty) but not necessarily a tablet, because, the Library says, “tablets” is an ill-defined category. In South Africa, legislation expressly forbids service providers from “locking” devices to a specific network.

Legal questions aside, is jailbreaking worth the trouble? Nearly 7 million iOS users who cracked their devices using the latest jailbreak since it became available in February say yes.

More bars equals better mobile service
If your phone has five bars, you’ll get the best wireless service performance, right? Well, no. Those bars indicate your signal strength to the nearest cellular tower, but if many other people are also connected to that tower, you can still experience dropped calls and poor speed due to the congestion caused by networks’ limited capacities. For instance, in a crowded urban environment it might take about a square block of people to overload a single cell tower, whereas out in the Karoo, it would take a population spread over 40 square kilometres. And even if you capture some of that service, speed varies by network provider.

LED and LCD are different screen technologies
This is more of a technicality, but “LED” screen is a bit of a misnomer. It is not a new kind of display, as some retailers might assert, but rather a type of LCD television. The only difference between a so-called LED TV and a regular LCD TV is the type of backlighting: although both rely on LEDs (light-emitting diodes) to form the picture, LED displays also use LEDs to illuminate the display, whereas non-LED sets use fluorescent backlights.

So which is better? That depends. LED-backlit LCDs come in two configurations: some have a full array of LEDs behind the LCD, whereas others have LEDs just on the edges. Edge-lit TVs tend to be thinner; full LED-backlit screens can do tricks such as “local dimming” to increase contrast in dark sections of an image. Regardless, all LED sets have two distinct advantages over conventional fluorescent LCDs and plasmas: they are more energy-efficient, and they last longer. If you plan to keep your set for a while, go with LED.

It doesn’t  matter if you keep your laptop alwats plugged in
Speaking of lifespans, you might also have come across advice saying that if you have a lithium-ion battery in your laptop, you don’t ever have to completely drain it the way you needed to with older nickel-metalhydride laptop batteries.

This is false if you want to get the most out of your battery. For one thing, if your plugged-in laptop gets hot while you use it and the battery is charged fully, all you’re doing is exposing the battery to heat, which will make it age more quickly. Besides heat, the other extreme that shortens Li-ion battery life is high voltage – like the high voltage maintained by a charger after the battery is full. Keep the battery just below a full charge by keeping it active, and when you do charge it for a long time, do it when the computer is off to avoid blasting it with extra heat.

You need to be careful about charging only if your computer doesn’t include battery-management software, as many made by Lenovo, Sony and Samsung do. For computers that don’t automatically optimise charging, the advice on how often to charge and discharge their batteries varies. Apple recommends getting battery juices flowing by using the computer unplugged from time to time – though not too many times, since Li-ion batteries have limited charge cycles (each cycle is from complete charge to complete discharge). No matter what, though, Li-ion batteries will eventually lose capacity; expect to get about two to three years of good charges.

Macs don’t get viruses
In the raging Mac-versus-PC debate, you’ll usually find at least one Apple loyalist claiming Macs are immune to viruses. Apple itself has contributed to this myth (there’s an “I’m a Mac” ad in which the poor PC guy gets sick with a virus while Mac is unconcerned), but after the Flashback virus crisis last summer, which affected around 250 000 Macs, Apple quietly changed its “virusfree” sales pitch on its Mac page from “It doesn’t get PC viruses” to “It helps keep you safe”. It’s a subtle but significant change. Whereas it’s true PCs get more viruses and malware than Macs, that’s mostly because attackers target the more widely used Windows operating system. Now that Apple computers are growing rapidly in market share, however, Mac users may need to be more cautious.

So, do you need an antivirus program for OS X? Probably, though don’t assume it will keep you entirely safe. No antivirus program will catch 100 per cent of all viruses, and some antivirus software can cripple your system’s performance. The first and foremost defence against malware is safe browsing habits. Still, unobtrusive software such as the free Sophos Anti-Virus for Mac Home Edition can give you peace of mind by protecting your not-so-invincible system.

The more megapixels a camera has, the better the pictures
New 18-megapixel cameras might make your 6-megapixel seem obsolete, but the emphasis on megapixels in the camera world reflects marketing spin as much as technological superiority.

It’s true that more megapixels means more detail in larger photos. That detail, though, depends not just on pixel count, but also on the camera’s sensor: the larger it is, the more light data it can pick up, and the more detailed your images will be. If you add megapixels without increasing the overall size of the sensor, you reduce the amount of light reaching each pixel. Your point-and-shoot camera may have 20 megapixels, but if its sensor is the size of a pinhead, your photos won’t look so great.

According to camera reviewer and self-proclaimed “Forrest Gump of photography” Ken Rockwell, “10 megapixels is more than enough for anything”, and even just 6 will probably be good enough (most new cameras tend to come with at least 12). The goal, Rockwell says, is a sharp photo, not tons of pixels.

To get the best HD experience, you need expensive cables
You can spend R30 on an HDMI cable, or you can spend R20 000. But when it comes to these cables, the you-get-what-you-pay-for maxim doesn’t apply. Premium-cable manufacturers would have you believe gold-plated connectors and “high-density triple-layer metal-to-metal shielding” give you a better signal and, therefore, the ultimate picture and audio performance. But generic – and cheaper – cables will deliver the same picture and audio quality. Signal over an HDMI cable is digital; it either comes through or it doesn’t.

There are, however, some cases in which spending more is a good idea. For example, if you need a very long cable (more than 2 metres), skip the cheapest ones, since poorly made cables are more likely to impede the signal at longer distances. For the record, unless you don’t care at all where your money goes, no one should spend 20 grand on a cable.

Emptying the Trash or Recycle Bin permanently deletes files
It would make sense that deleting a file would actually delete it. But when you empty the Recycle Bin (Windows) or Trash (Mac), the data aren’t erased, only the links to the complete files are. A computer told to delete a file won’t actually remove it, but will instead de-allocate the space it takes up on the hard drive, opening that space up to be written again. That means bits of information still remain, and any snooping hacker could piece them together to rebuild what you thought was gone forever.

To truly and permanently delete files, you have to instruct your computer to go a step beyond emptying the Trash or Recycle Bin. On a Mac, choose “secure empty Trash”; on a PC, you have to work in the command-line interface of Sdelete, a free program that allows you to totally wipe either all free space or only specific files. There is an upside: if you accidentally delete something and must get it back, in theory, you can.

Private/incognito browsing protects your privacy
Here’s one last downer. The “private browsing” feature of your browser isn’t as private as it suggests. The setting tells your browser not to do its usual job of saving information about which pages you’ve visited or about what you’ve typed into forms. It does not, however, keep you anonymous. Web sites, ad trackers and your ISP can still record your visits, and files you download will still remain on your computer or mobile device. Even worse, a 2010 study by Stanford University found that some browser add-ons store information about your browsing even while in private mode.

If you’re wondering what you can do to stay anonymous online, you’ll need to use a proxy server, such as Tor, so you appear to be somewhere and someone else as you surf, or a VPN, which can secure and encrypt your information. Also, get in the habit of clearing your browser’s cookies cache and history every week or so. to get about two to three years of good charges.