Technology's Biggest Myths

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The Claim: People With More Monitor Space Are More Productive

Begging your boss for an extra display at work? You might sell her on the idea if you tell her that you'd be 30 to 50 percent more productive than you are on your single 18-inch display. At least, that's what a 2008 study from the University of Utah (commissioned by NEC, mind you) found for text and spreadsheet tasks.

NEC, naturally, was quick to trumpet the results as a way to move more of its widescreen displays. However, the study also found a point of diminishing returns. Productivity gains fall in a bell-curve distribution once you hit a certain amount of screen space. For a single-monitor setup, over 26 inches is too much, while dual-display gains top out at 22 inches.

In addition, the pattern of the results implies that while a second monitor can make you a wunderkind at work, don't even think about adding a third. Interestingly, users' reported preference did not predict their performance-that is, the setup they liked wasn't necessarily the one they worked best with.

So think about what you'd be using that second display for. The University of Utah study took place in a controlled environment, where the subjects did nothing but the text and spreadsheet tasks they were assigned. If that sounds like your office, you'll prob­­ably do great with a second monitor.

If you're planning on using that second display for e-mail, Twitter, or other Internet-related distractions, however, you're probably going to end up being less productive overall. (I certainly am.)

The Claim: Refilled Ink Cartridges Will Ruin Your Printer

Taking your printer's ink cartridge to a refill service can save you a few bucks. But because cartridges aren't designed to be reused, refilling has risks: Nozzles could clog, or the ink tank could spring a leak. A good rule of thumb is to monitor the cartridge closely so you can prevent damage to it--or to your printer--if something goes awry. That way, though the cartridge or printhead might be a goner, you are unlikely to cause any permanent damage to the printer itself, unless the cartridge leaked and you didn't clean it up.

Note that refills done by a third party typically come with a guarantee that covers the cartridge (which may cost anywhere from $10 to $20)--but not necessarily the printer. The Cartridge World ink refill chain, for example, guarantees to repair a faulty cartridge or credit the cost against a new cartridge, but if your printer bites the bullet, the company can only "provide advice or a qualified service technician to address any issues."

Refill companies also like to remind you that it is illegal for your printer manufacturer to void the warranty on your printer for using third-party cartridges. True enough, but warranty agreements we've seen suggest that if a re­­fill cartridge breaks your printer, you shouldn't expect a free fix. For example, the HP warranty agreement explicitly states:

"For HP printer products, the use of a non-HP ink cartridge or a refilled ink cartridge does not affect either the warranty to the customer or any HP support contract with the customer. However, if printer failure or damage is attributable to the use of a non-HP or refilled ink cartridge, HP will charge its standard time and materials charges to service the printer for the particular failure or damage."

If you're worried about leaks, pull the cartridge out of the printer occasionally to see if any excess ink is pooling near where the cartridge rests in the printer.

(Read more on people who do their own refilling.)

The Claim: Internet Explorer Is Less Secure Than Other Browsers

You can disable most of the ActiveX functions in Internet Explorer by going to Tools•Internet Options•Security and resetting your browser’s Security Level to High.
Everyone "knows" that Chrome, Firefox, and Safari are all way more secure than Internet Explorer. But what's the real story?

To find out, I first looked up Symantec's twice-yearly Internet Security Threat Report, which yielded the total numbers of reported vulnerabilities for 2009: Firefox had the most at 169, followed by 94 for Safari, 45 for IE, and 41 for Google Chrome. For more-recent data, I turned to the United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT), which hosts the National Vulnerability Database, a searchable index of reported computer vulnerabilities. A search of data for a recent three-month period yielded 51 such vulnerabilities for Safari (including both mobile and desktop versions), 40 for Chrome, 20 for Firefox, and 17 for IE.

Such counts alone aren't the best way to measure a browser's security, however. A browser with 100 security flaws that are patched a day after being discovered is safer than a browser with only one exploit that hasn't been patched for months.

According to Symantec's report, the average window of vulnerability (the time be­­tween when the flaw is reported and when it's patched) in 2009 was less than a day for IE and Firefox, 2 days for Google Chrome, and a whopping 13 days for Safari. Clearly, Internet Explorer is doing fairly well. Nevertheless, you should still consider a few important factors before deciding to jump ship back to IE.

Stay updated. The second most common Web-based attack in 2009 exploited an IE security flaw patched way back in 2004 (the 2009 attack targeted unupdated PCs). The latest version of IE 8 may be pretty safe, but ditch any earlier version you have.

Your browser is only as secure as your plug-ins. Symantec found that Microsoft's Ac­­tiveX plug-in (enabled by default in IE) was the least secure with 134 vulnerabilities, followed by Java SE with 84, Adobe Reader with 49, Apple QuickTime with 27, and Adobe Flash Player with 23. The moral: Be careful at sites that use browser plug-ins.

It's tough to be on top. IE still has the biggest piece of the browser pie, meaning that cybercriminals are more likely to target IE than other browsers.

The Claim: You're Safe If You Visit Only G-Rated Sites

If your PC has ever had a virus, you probably know about the raised-eyebrow, mock-judgmental looks you get when you tell that to other people. After all, if you had been a good little PC user and stayed in the G-rated Web, you would have been safe, right?

Not so, says Avast Software, makers of Avast, a popular antivirus suite. "For every infected adult domain we identify, there are 99 others with perfectly legitimate content that are also infected," its chief technology officer, Ondrej Vlcek, reports. In the United Kingdom, for ex­­ample, users are far more likely to see infected domains with London in the name than sex.

So porn alone doesn't necessarily mean you're opening yourself up for infection. Which makes sense--porn-site operators depend on subscriptions and repeat visitors to do business, and infecting your customers with spyware isn't the best way to do it.

If you find yourself on a generic-looking Website with popular search keywords in the title, or a site that's rearranging your browser window, you're likely to end up stuck with some malware--whether it's about porn or about hotels in London.

The Claim: You Should Regularly Defragment Your Hard Drive

Windows 7's Disk Defragmenter.
Your hard drive has to decide where to write your files on the drive platter, and as you fill up the drive, your files will be scattered more and more widely across the platter. This means that the drive's read/ write heads take longer to find the whole file, since they take more time skipping around the platter to find the different parts of the fragmented file. However, this state of affairs isn't an issue these days, for several reasons:

Hard drives are bigger. When your hard drive capacity was measured in megabytes, fragmentation was a big deal. Not only did the drive's read/write heads have to move all over the platter, but the space freed up by deleting old files was also scattered, and new files could be dispersed across the small gaps between larger files.

People now generally have more hard drive space and use a smaller overall percentage of their drive, so the read/write heads don't have to move as much.

More RAM and optimized OSs help. Newer iterations of Windows have done a lot to reduce the impact that a fragmented hard drive can have on a PC's performance. According to the engineers who worked on Windows 7's updated Disk Defragmenter tool (see the screenshot above), Windows' file system allocation strategies, its caching and prefetching algorithms, and today's relative abundance of RAM (which permits the PC to cache the data actively in use rather than having to write repeatedly to the drive) minimizes fragmentation delay.

Solid-state drives don't need to be defragmented. SSDs don't have a drive platter or read/write heads that need to go searching around the drive. In fact, defragmenting is generally not recommended for SSDs because it wears down the hard drive's data cells, shortening the drive's overall lifespan.

You don't need to go out of your way to defrag. In Windows Vista and Windows 7, the system automatically handles defragging. By default, defragging happens at 1:00 a.m. every Wednesday, but if your PC isn't on or is in use, the process will occur in the background the next time the machine is idle. It will stop and start automatically, too, so don't worry about interrupting it.

We didn't notice a difference. When we last tested disk defragmentation, we took a heavily used, never-defragmented system from the PCWorld Labs, ran speed tests before and after defragging, and found no significant difference.

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