Computer myths: legends or truth?


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Created: 19 Jun 2008 ::: Last updated: 19 Jun 2008

Applies to:   Win95   Win98   WinMe   Win 2000/NT   WinXP   WinVista   MacOS

Keywords: computer, security, antivirus, wear-and-tear, defragmentation, static, energy, sleep-mode

By Peter Ehm

Owning a computer can be an amazing experience. These tools that have by now become commonplace are opening the world up, and only a user’s imagination is the limit.

But, as with many complicated tools, not many of us are familiar with the workings of their computers. This can lead to misunderstandings and cause minor panic when things go wrong. It can also often lead to myths arising regarding the use of a computer. The purpose of this article is to examine several of the most common myths and explain the how, as well as the why, of their origin.

  1. First, the most common computer myths have to do with viruses. As anyone who has ever had to sort through the torrents of e-mail the ‘net generates, dire warnings about as to ‘deadly’ computer viruses lurk in innocent-looking e-mails. For the average user, these are hollow threats, as most modern antivirus software can deal with e-mail threats with ease. For those users less familiar with their machines, viruses are the evil gremlins of the internet, waiting to pounce from every unfamiliar e-mail. For the most part, warnings about e-mails that will ‘erase your hard drive’ have been around since the early days of the internet. If you receive a ‘friendly warning’ from someone you know about a virus that is ‘going around’, take a step back and verify it. Go to www.snopes.com and see if it’s just another variant on an old theme, or better yet, check out a site of one of the major antivirus companies such as Norton from Symantec or McAfee. You might just find the ‘warning’ turns out to be another ‘computer urban myth’. You can tell the friend who sent it to you it not to worry. And to make sure they’ve recently updated their antivirus while they’re at it.
  2. Another myth has to do with the endless debate over whether or not to leave your computer running. A bit of background: as recently as five years ago, computer hardware had few of the ‘green’ features that all modern computers today enjoy. Hard drives had to be ‘parked’ and care taken not to damage internal components when upgrading. Modern computer hardware is robust and has many features designed to keep it working despite user error. Especially useful are the ‘Energy Star’ power-saving features, which allow any user to configure easily their computer to ‘go to sleep’ to save power when not in use, yet be available in seconds when needed. This is quite unlike previous years when it took quite some time for a computer to ‘boot’ to a usable state from a cold start - hence the practice of leaving the computer running all the time. Now, the only reason to leave a computer on 24/7 without some form of ‘sleep mode’ is if you are running programs such as BOINC, which use ‘spare’ CPU cycles when your computer is sitting idle. BOINC is a program that lets you donate your idle computer time to science projects like SETI@home, Climateprediction.net, Rosetta@home, World Community Grid, and many others. The old debate whether it’s better for PC hardware to be left on or not, doesn’t apply any more. The mean time between failures, a.k.a. MTBF of modern drives and hardware is so high that combined with ‘Sleep Mode’ it should mean your computer will be obsolete long before parts begin to fail from simple wear and tear.
  3. Speaking of wear and tear, our third point has to do with defragmentation, another carryover from times past. When computer files were first being written to consumer hard drives, those drives were agonizingly slow compared to their modern Serial Advanced Technology Attachment a.k.a. SATA descendants, so sorting the files into neat bundles gave a measurable improvement in speed. With the advent of faster hard drives and more efficient operating systems, the need to defragment a drive has fallen by the wayside. Purists or power users who wish to eke a few more percentage points of performance from their highly-tuned setups can still defragment every few months, but the majority of users will not see any marked speed improvements if they do it more than a few times a year.
  4. Finally, let us look at the ever-mysterious ‘danger’ to electronics: static electricity. Many a tech worker has shuddered when looking at a deep-pile carpeted floor, on which rests a glitchy computer. Yet, in itself, static electricity has little power to do harm to computers ... but their internal components are another matter. If you live in an area with low humidity, or have heavily carpeted rooms, it’s best to exercise some caution when dealing with electronics. Simply touching one of the faceplate screws on any light switch will ground you of any accumulated static electricity – a good idea if you use electronic gear, but not totally necessary. However, be advised that static electricity CAN harm the internal components of your computer if the charge is large enough. Humans cannot detect a charge of less than 3,000 volts, yet only a few hundred volts might possibly damage a bare CPU. So, it is best to be safe. Any computer shop can sell you a grounding strap for a few dollars to use while upgrading your PC, and it goes without saying that you simply must unplug your computer from the wall before messing around inside. For most other electronics, the occasional light static charge will not harm them, though you might not want to cross a carpeted room in socks before picking up your expensive MP3 player.

Those are just some of the common computer myths. As with all things, new ones will emerge and old ones will acquire new twists. It is always better to sit back and think about something that doesn’t seem quite sensible to you. It’s even more important if the myth contains a kernel of the truth - these are the ones to be most wary of and they are the reason that many persist long after the original details have been lost.