Busting the Biggest PC Myths

Only a pricey surge protector can keep your devices safe.

"I don't see a direct relationship between the cost of a surge protector and the protection it provides," says Joe Wilson, a senior electrical engineer with Eugene Water and Electric Board, the utility company that serves Eugene, Oregon. "Most surge protectors are based on the same sort of technology, and the response time (how fast they switch on) is similar across the board.

"Often, the more expensive protectors add some simple bells and whistles, such as status lights to indicate that the device is working," says Wilson. "But that doesn't mean they're going to protect your computer any better."

And don't get caught up in the energy dissipation (most often expressed in joules) and response time features that some surge protectors tout, Wilson advises; they're not a reliable indication of quality. Instead, just make sure that the surge protector is UL 1449 rated, which means that it meets the Underwriter Laboratory's tested standard.

There's no question that surge protectors are necessary to protect sensitive computer gear from surges or spikes in the power supply. Although most of us think of outside surges and spikes as the prime suspects, homegrown problems, like those created by appliance motors cycling on and off (think fridge, washer and dryer, and air conditioner), are more common.

Surge-protected power strips won't protect your data during blackouts or brownouts, but an uninterruptible power supply will. UPSs include a battery for maintaining power and enabling you to save data before your PC shuts down. Newer UPSs have a software component that lets you automate backup and set up shutdown procedures. (For a review of UPSs, see "Power Protection.") A brownout (flickering lights or a snap-off/snap-on of the power) won't trip a protector, but a lightning strike will.

Warning: The newer the microprocessor, the more susceptible it is to power spikes. The greater the number of transistors packed into a chip, the less tolerant it is of excess voltage, says Wilson. If you use an aging computer without a surge protector, it may survive a spike. A newer PC, on the other hand, will fry.

If you don't periodically run your laptop batteries down to zero, you'll lose battery life.

This belief stems from a syndrome that plagued old-fashioned laptop batteries--the bulky nickel cadmium variety. With those batteries, performance degraded if the battery wasn't periodically discharged fully. (If you use a NiCd-powered laptop, discharge the battery every three months.)

Newer laptops use lithium ion batteries that have no memory, says Isidor Buchmann, the founder of Cadex, a Canadian manufacturer of battery chargers and analyzers. They don't need to be discharged to maintain their life, he says. Lithium ion batteries prefer a partial rather than a full discharge. Nonetheless, every 30 charges or so, you should run them down to zero. This measure isn't to preserve the battery but to recalibrate the fuel gauge--the indicator on the laptop screen that shows how much battery juice and time remain.

If you don't use an antistatic wrist strap while tinkering with a PC, you'll ruin hardware.

We've advised using antistatic wrist straps, but some technicians say they're unnecessary. "I've never worn a strap, our shop's floor is carpeted, and I've never shocked out a machine," says Jake Strouckel, a computer repair tech. "I've even grabbed hard drives and gotten a shock, but nothing happened to the drive." Hold cards by their edges, instead of touching the gold-plated circuits, he says, and you'll be fine.

Not that there isn't some danger of frying electronics with static (the proper term is net electric charge). Though people don't detect a static charge of less than 3000 volts (by the way, it's amps that kill, not volts), sensitive components, such as a CPU, can be laid low with as little as a few hundred volts.

Advice for discharging built-up static ranges from the humorous-but-effective (put a metal sewing thimble over a finger, then touch the thimble to the metal object) to the ludicrous: Wrap aluminum foil over the soles of your shoes. We tried the foil method, and ended up falling on our you-know-what while trying to walk across carpet.

To be safe, wear a strap, or before you tinker inside a PC, ground yourself by touching the PC's frame with the cord plugged into a grounded outlet or by touching something metal that's grounded, such as a plumbing fixture.

Writer and PC mythbuster Gregg Keizer lives in Eugene, Oregon.

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