15 Tech Myths: Busted and Confirmed

15 Tech Myths
Artwork: Chip Taylor

We hate to break it to you, but Bill Gates is not going to give you money just for forwarding an e-mail. Eating Pop Rocks and drinking soda at the same time won't cause your head to explode (though we don't recommend mixing Mentos and Diet Coke). The Harry Potter books are not a secret plot to promote witchcraft and satanism. And that story about Richard Gere and his pets? We don't even want to go there.

These are, of course, urban legends that have been circulating on and off the Internet for ages. For more, see "The Top 25 Web Hoaxes and Pranks." But they're not the only misconceptions out there: Many intelligent, experienced computer users believe things about technology that simply aren't true.

We came up with 15 common myths in the tech world and did some digging to reveal the real story. Some rumors are wholly bogus. Others turned out to have more than a grain of truth in them. To give you a sense of how real these myths are, we've created a little 1 to 5 scale with 5 being totally bogus and 1 signifying that the rumor is true.

We hope this research will make you a little wiser when you encounter future tales of technology--whether they're fact, fiction, or something in between.

Myth 1: If you download files from a peer-to-peer network, the MPAA or RIAA will know who you are.

Bogus Meter 2.5

It all sounds like George Orwell's 1984: "If you are downloading movies, television shows, music, or video games using a P2P network, the files that you have downloaded can be traced back to your IP address," says MPAA spokesperson Elizabeth Kaltman.

But BayTSP, which keeps watch on file-sharing networks like BitTorrent and eDonkey, is a tad less self-assured. When the company monitors these services for various clients, it can indeed capture a file swapper's IP address, the date and time of the download, the name of the file, and information on the individual's Internet service provider--but only for large downloads.

"If the file is big enough--a movie or software application (as opposed to a single song)--it is highly likely that BayTSP can identify an individual before that person has completed the entire file download," says Jim Graham, spokesperson for BayTSP. "Not 100 percent likely, but pretty close. We never claim to have complete insight into every downloader."

Connecting an IP address to an actual name or physical address isn't a sure thing either. Typically, attorneys for the record and movie industries approach ISPs or universities with evidence of alleged copyright infringements. It is up to that organization to identify its customers based on their IP address--and not all of them comply.

There are other challenges as well. Peter Eckersley, staff technologist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says that using anonymous IP networks, anonymizing proxies (sites or servers that let you keep your IP address hidden while surfing the Web), or open Wi-Fi connections can make it much harder to trace your identity. Note, though, that using a dynamic IP address via DHCP will not protect you. ISPs keep track of who was using a certain IP address at a particular time, and if they're willing to cough up that information, you could be hosed.

Myth 2: Using third-party ink in your printer voids the warranty.

Bogus Meter 5.0
Graphic: Chip Taylor

Photograph: Image Courtesy of Canon
This one has bogus written all over it--in any kind of ink. According to Canon, Epson, and Lexmark, using another company's ink cartridge or refills does not automatically nix your warranty. (However, PC World tests have shown that using third-party inks may not yield the best results.)

The exception to this rule is if the ink itself causes a problem with the printer. Epson spokesperson Cheryl Taylor likens it to the 50,000-mile warranty on your new radial tires. "Your car tire has a warranty on its tread life," she says. "If the tread wears out before it's supposed to, it's covered by the warranty. If you go out and slash your tire, well, something's wrong with your tire, but that's not damage covered by the warranty."

Myth 3: If you type a URL into your browser, you're safe from phishing attacks.

Bogus Meter 3.0

The surest route to having your identity stolen is to click a link inside a phishing e-mail and naively hand over your personal information. But typing www.yourbank.com into a browser is no guarantee that you'll foil the phishers.

There are at least two dangers still lurking, says Dave Jevans, chairman of the Anti-Phishing Working Group.

The first is "pharming" or "domain name poisoning" attacks, which intercept legitimate URLs en route to their destination and redirect the requests to bogus sites. So far, a handful of pharming attacks have struck domain name servers on the Internet, including one in February that targeted the Web sites of at least 50 financial institutions. Jevans says the only defense against pharming is to type or bookmark the address of the site's secure log-on page (it should begin with https:), since pharming attacks tend to target the top-level page of financial sites. However, you also should be on the lookout for warnings from your browser that the page's security certificate is invalid, in case the pharming attack has gone deeper.

The second danger is malware, which can achieve the same effect as phishing by rewriting your PC's Hosts file or otherwise hijacking your browser. But there are ways to protect yourself from that threat, says Fred Felman, chief marketing officer for MarkMonitor, which provides brand and fraud protection for Fortune 500 firms. According to Felman, if you keep your system patched, your firewall running, and your spyware and virus scanners up to date, you'll greatly reduce the odds of becoming yet another victim. Programs like the free Spybot Search & Destroy or WinPatrol can help protect your Hosts file.

Myth 4: Google finds everything on the Web, and once it has your information, it can't be removed.

Bogus Meter 4.0

Though it sometimes feels like the invisible fingers of Google touch everything, it's really not so. Google will find something on the Web only if another site links to that page, notes Danny Sullivan, editor in chief of Search Engine Land. "If you don't want information found, then don't put it on the Web at all, or ensure it can only be viewed with a password," he says. "Google doesn't do passwords."

You can also keep Google's searchbot from indexing your site--or get it to remove pages it's already found--by following the instructions at Google Webmaster Central. If the site has already been spidered, however, it will take time before the results are flushed from Google's cache.

The trickier question is how to remove personal information from Google if it's on a site that's not under your control. You can politely ask the site owner to remove the page or block Google from spidering it. If the owner refuses, and the site contains sensitive information like your Social Security number or copyrighted material, you can ask Google to delete it from its index. Otherwise you may need the services of a site like ReputationDefender, which attempts to eliminate inaccurate, embarrassing, or offensive material about you for a $30 fee--but offers no guarantees.

Myth 5. You're fully protected when you buy something on eBay.

Bogus Meter 3.5

The world's biggest auction site and its online payment division PayPal offer an arsenal of tools to guard against fraudsters, con artists, and the criminally stupid. But the protection falls short of 100 percent.

"When buyers use PayPal to purchase a physical item on eBay.com, they are automatically provided with $200 of coverage on the transaction," says eBay spokesperson Catherine England. "If the buyer uses PayPal to purchase an item from an eBay seller who is PayPal Verified, then the transaction automatically has up to $2000 of coverage."

Unfortunately, if you pay by some other method--personal check, money order, or wire transfer--all bets are off. These protections also don't apply to nonphysical items, such as software or electronic documents. And if you're fooled by a misleading or confusing item description, you may be out of luck.

For example, PR professional Greg P. thought he got a great deal when his $300 auction bid scored him a Microsoft Xbox. If he had merely received a broken Xbox, Greg P. would have been covered. But what he actually bought was a Word document listing places where he could buy Xboxes at a discount. Because (a) the item he purchased was electronic, not physical, and (b) the item for sale was accurately described, even though it displayed a photo of an Xbox, PayPal's Buyer Protection did not apply.

Myth 6: Static images on a plasma TV will burn in, so you can't leave them on for too long.

Bogus Meter 2.0

Photograph: Image Courtesy of Pioneer Electronics
Plasma burn-in is not a myth, but it's something that most people need not worry about. According to CrutchfieldAdvisor.com, plasmas and some CRTs can suffer from burn-in when "a static image such as a video game, stock or news ticker, or station logo remains on-screen for an extended period. Over time, these images can become etched into the phosphor coating, leaving faint but permanent impressions on-screen."

Crutchfield product advisor Dallas Simon says this is extremely rare, since the image refreshes itself during commercial breaks and when you change channels. But it can be a problem for hard-core gamers, who may be playing the same first-person shooter for hours at a stretch, notes Andre Sam, a sales specialist for Best Buy in New York City. For instance, many titles display a static set of in-game statistics, such as scores, medals, energy bars, and radar.

Still, thanks to advances in plasma technology, newer flat panels are less likely to suffer from burn-in. "Like anything, if you abuse it you will probably break it," says Paul Meyhoefer, VP of Marketing and Product Planning for Pioneer Electronics. "With that said, new generations of plasma TVs have made significant improvements with things like the phosphors, cell structure, and filters to alleviate this issue."

Myth 7: You have to partition a large hard drive and/or defrag it often to get the best performance.

Bogus Meter 2.0

Photograph: Image Courtesy of Seagate
This is one of those myths that can start a bar fight at geekier watering holes. According to Mario Apicella, technology analyst and storage guru for PC World sister site Infoworld.com, defragging a large hard disk will boost performance on a Windows machine. Exactly how much of a boost depends on the number of files you change or delete each day.

"The OS has a silly habit of trying to reuse every free cluster, even if it's in the middle of a large occupied area and there's a lot of free space at the end of the volume," says Apicella. "So new files end up being scattered all over the drive, which means having to do several seek operations to bring them all together."

But in PC World tests, we found no noticeable performance lift after using a host of defraggers. Diskeeper Corporation, which makes a defragging utility, claims the practice can improve performance, but only if you have at least 20 percent free hard disk space. In short: Your mileage may vary.

Partitioning your hard disk into two or more logical drives won't necessarily speed up your system either, but it has a host of other benefits. For instance, it allows you to create a dual-boot system or separate files that don't change much (like your OS and apps) from those that do (your data and Internet cache). That will reduce fragmentation problems and make it easier to back up your system and/or replace the OS without endangering your data. (Check out our step-by-step instructions on partitioning your drive.)

Myth 8: Using high-speed flash cards in your digital camera lets you take photos faster.

Bogus Meter 3.5

Photograph: Image Courtesy of Lexar
High-speed memory cards allow a digital camera to save files faster, but that doesn't necessarily mean you can snap photos more quickly. "When you take a picture, the camera has to capture and process the image, then save it to the card," says Mike Wong, PR manager for memory-card maker SanDisk. "A faster card will only improve the latter part of the process--the save-file-to-card part."

If you use a speedy camera with slower memory, you may notice a lag on the memory side. But using a fast memory card with a slow camera is like putting race car tires on a Yugo--you'll mostly end up spinning your wheels, says Wong. "[The difference] can be significant in digital SLRs but less noticeable in many of the point-and-shoot types."

However, Wong says faster cards can reduce the amount of time it takes to upload photos to your computer, provided you also have a fast card reader. This may become more important as megapixels increase and card capacities grow.

Myth 9: Rechargeable batteries are more cost effective than disposable ones.

Bogus Meter 2.0

Photograph: Image Courtesy of Duracell
This one's not a myth, at least in most cases, but the cost effectiveness of rechargeable batteries depends upon the type of battery you choose and how often you use your gadgets.

Rechargeable nickel cadmium and nickel metal hydride batteries lose their charge quickly when stored, says Chris Calwell, VP of policy and research at Ecos Consulting, which publishes reports on the energy efficiency of consumer products. These batteries are a bad call for devices you use infrequently--such as a flashlight for emergencies. Rechargeable lithium ion batteries keep their charge much longer, but may not be available in the size you need. If lithium ion batteries are not available for your device and you don't use it frequently, it may save you money in the long run to go with disposables.

Duracell spokesperson Blayne Murphy agrees that usage is a key factor: "For heavy users of high-drain devices, such as digital cameras, rechargeables are definitely the most cost-effective solution. But if you are an occasional user who doesn't take a lot of pictures, rechargeables are not going to be convenient because they may not be ready when you need them."

Not only do rechargeable batteries cost more than disposables, but you also have to factor in the price of the charger, the electricity it consumes, and how many recharges the batteries can take before you have to replace them. "Our general advice," says Calwell, "is to buy lithium ion-based rechargeable products or nickel metal hydride products with as high of a rated capacity and as small of a charger as possible."

Myth 10: 'Unlimited' 3G broadband access really is unlimited.

Bogus Meter 3.5

Photograph: Image Courtesy of Verizon Wireless
When carriers tout their unlimited high-speed data plans, rarely do they give you free rein over what you can do with that bandwidth. But some carriers are worse than others.

Until recently, Verizon Wireless advertised an "unlimited" broadband plan that really wasn't. Although EVDO subscribers could surf the Web and send and receive e-mail, Verizon's terms of service forbade them from uploading or downloading files, viewing Webcams, or using Voice over IP services. The company also placed an undisclosed 5GB cap on each account; if it detected that you had sent or received more than that in a given month, it would terminate your contract. After months of denials, the company quietly added information about the cap to its service agreements and stopped promoting its broadband access package as unlimited.

In Cingular's (now AT&T) terms of service, you'll find that its unlimited 3G plans "cannot be used for uploading, downloading, or streaming of video content (e.g., movies, TV), music, or games." Unlike Verizon Wireless, though, it does not impose a hard data cap. It may still monitor you, though, to make sure your data usage is not too high.

Sprint's unlimited EVDO plans don't place specific restrictions on how much data you can shuttle, nor do they prohibit downloading or streaming. However, Sprint does "reserve the right to limit or suspend any heavy, continuous data usage that adversely impacts our network performance or hinders access to our network."

According to Michael Ginsberg, president of 3G portal EVDOinfo, Sprint has yet to send any termination notices over excessive bandwidth usage to his customers. And we've also found few complaints and no reports of people getting cut off by Sprint due to excessive bandwidth use. "But that doesn't mean they won't have to change their policies at some point. Their own bandwidth isn't unlimited," Ginsberg says.

Myth 11: Airport X-ray machines can damage or erase your digital camera's memory card.

Bogus Meter 5.0
Graphic: Chip Taylor

Photograph: Image Courtesy of SanDisk
The Transportation Security Administration puts it succinctly: "Our screening equipment will not affect digital cameras and electronic image storage cards."

In fact, that CompactFlash card, Secure Digital card, or Sony Memory Stick may be tougher than you think. In tests conducted by Digital Camera Shopper magazine, memory cards proved to be quite resilient, surviving a soda pop bath, a trip through a washing machine, being run over by a skateboard, and the evil machinations of a six-year-old child. (However, they didn't fare as well when smashed with a sledgehammer or nailed to a tree.)

If you do damage your memory card, you may be able to use a program like WinRecovery's $30 CardRecovery or Ontrack's $89 EasyRecovery Lite to restore your lost photos.

Now, about getting your name off that No Fly list....

Myth 12: Excessive cell phone use can cause cancer or other health problems.

Bogus Meter 2.5

Photograph: Image Courtesy of Motorola
According to both the World Health Organization and the Food and Drug Administration, using a cell phone does not cause any known health problems--unless you're using it while driving, in which case you're an accident waiting to happen. But it can interfere with your pacemaker, hearing aid, or defibrillator.

End of story? Not exactly. Most studies on the health effects of cell phone radiation are inconclusive or contradictory, leaving both organizations to state that further research may be needed. A Finnish study published last August in the journal Proteomics found that some people may have cells that are genetically predisposed to respond to wireless phone radiation. This may explain why the studies performed thus far have come out with different conclusions.

By the way, there's no evidence that talking on a cell phone while filling your gas tank can cause explosions. However, the Federal Communications Commission does warn: "While any potential threat by wireless devices is very remote, there are potential ignition sources at gas stations like automobiles and static electricity." So why risk it? Save your gabbing for when you're done at the pump.

Myth 13: Macs are safe from malware attacks.

Bogus Meter 5.0
Graphic: Chip Taylor

Photograph: Image Courtesy of Apple
True believers in the Mac's inherent impregnability found their faith sorely tested recently, when security researcher Dino Dai Zovi took home a $10,000 prize for remotely hijacking a MacBook Pro running Mac OS 10.4. It took Dai Zovi less than 10 hours to uncover a vulnerability within Apple QuickTime and set up a Web page to exploit it. (Windows versions of QuickTime are also vulnerable to the hack.) Later, in an interview with Computerworld magazine, Dai Zovi declared the Mac OS to be less secure than Vista. (That grinding you hear is the sound of Steve Jobs gnashing his teeth.)

This is hardly the only known Mac exploit. In January, security researcher Kevin Finisterre and a hacker known only as LMH completed the Month of Apple Bugs project, which revealed a new Mac security vulnerability every day. And in February the first Mac OS 10 worm was identified. Considered relatively harmless, the OSX/Leap-A worm spread via Apple's iChat instant messaging application by forwarding itself to the user's buddy list.

Still, Mac users are far less likely to encounter viruses and exploits than Windows users, if only because Windows malware exists in far greater numbers.

Myth 14: Color inkjets that use combination ink cartridges cost more to run than those that use separate cartridges.

Bogus Meter 1.0

Photograph: Image Courtesy of HP
Here's a bit of common wisdom that actually appears to be true. "With a combination color cartridge, the yellow ink could run out, and you would need to replace the remaining cartridges as well if you wanted to print with yellow," says Epson's Cheryl Taylor. She says that individual ink cartridges maximize efficiency and lower your costs over time.

Basically, that's true, confirms Charlie Brewer, who writes the Hard Copy Supplies Journal, a monthly newsletter about digital imaging supplies. "It costs more to print with most tricolor cartridges than with individual tanks," he says. "Now, there could be instances where the individual tanks are way more expensive than a low-cost tricolor tank, but I can't think of any."

If your printer uses individual cartridges, it pays to make them last as long as possible. To find out how to eke the most out of each cartridge, check out "Six Savvy Ways to Get More Prints for Less Money" for tips on extending the life of your ink cartridges. You'll also want to take a look at ink-saving tips from online store PrintCountry.com.

Myth 15: If someone has hacked your PC or turned it into a zombie, you'd know about it.

Bogus Meter 4.0

Not necessarily, says Lawrence Baldwin of MyNetWatchman, which tracks bot networks. If hackers have turned your computer into a spambot, for example, your system tray might warn you that your computer is sending hundreds of e-mails--but only if you've got security software scanning your outgoing e-mail. Malware often shuts down your antivirus software, firewall, or Windows Update service so it can operate unfettered on your system.

In fact, says Baldwin, many users are oblivious until their ISP informs them that a bot has been detected at their IP address, or their e-mail starts getting rejected because their address is on a spam blocklist--or the Federal Bureau of Investigation knocks on their door asking why they've been launching denial-of-service attacks. According to Baldwin, it's foolish to rely entirely on security software to protect your computer.

So how can you tell if your PC's been compromised? If your machine suddenly becomes sluggish or takes too long to start up or shut down, it may be infected. "But," he points out, "these could also be symptoms of lots of different things that are potentially unrelated to malware." In most cases, users are to blame for allowing rogue software--such as files downloaded from a peer-to-peer network--to execute on their systems. As Baldwin puts it, "you need to either get smart or get off the Net."

Contrary to popular belief, contributing editor Dan Tynan is not a mythical creature, churning out endless lists for PC World. He is, however, a legend in his own mind.
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