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Common Computing Misconceptions

The computing industry has some of the most impressive misconceptions we’ve ever come across. We’ve heard everything from ‘cat hair can damage mechanical keyboards’, to ‘optical disks that spin over 45x can fly out of the drive and cut your legs off!’. Indeed, the computing industry seems to be brimming with urban myths, twisted tales, and the common misuse of terms.

Therefore, we thought we’d lay to rest some of the more common computing misconceptions. To put your mind at rest, and help you filter through the ridiculous claims and poor use of terminology. And no, a rogue optical disk won’t cut off your limbs, and there’s no need to shave the cat.

Of bits and bytes

Let’s start with one of the most common misconceptions in computing talk: megabytes and megabits.

Both are units of computer data, but in terms of the capacities of hard drives and the amount of memory in our PCs we are referring to bytes; whereas in terms of the speed of our network, or Internet access, then we are talking about bits.

Bytes

Basically, there are 8 bits to a byte, and a million of these bytes make up a megabyte, or 1 MB which is used when we talk about hard drive storage or an amount of memory. Furthermore, a thousand megabytes (1000 MB) is 1 GB, or gigabyte and a thousand gigabytes makes a terabyte (1 TB). So when we say ‘that hard drive has a huge capacity of 3TB’, we mean it can hold three thousand gigabytes, or three million megabytes.

More accurately speaking, there are actually 1024 bytes in a kilobyte and 1,048,576 (1024 x 1024) bytes in a megabyte (1 MB, again). However, hard drive manufactures these days generally only refer to the single unit equivalent of GB or TB. With that mind, it’s interesting to note that the example we used earlier, of 3TB (three terabytes) is actually 3,145,728 megabytes or 3072 gigabytes. So as you can see, using the simplified version makes life a little easier; although the purist may disagree.

If you like big numbers, then here’s a quick conversion:

1 kilobyte (KB) 1,024 bytes

1 megabyte (MB) 1,048,576 bytes

1 gigabyte (GB) 1,073,741,824 bytes

1 terabyte (TB) 1,099,511,627,776 bytes

1 petabyte (PB) 1,125,899,906,842,624 bytes

And beyond the petabyte:

1024 PB = 1 EB (Exa Byte)

1024 EB = 1 ZB (Zetta Byte)

1024 ZB = 1 YB (Yotta Byte)

1024 YB = 1 (Bronto Byte)

1024 Brontobyte = 1 (Geop Byte)

Interestingly, and quite off-topic, it’s estimated that the human brain can hold a digital equivalent capacity of 2.5PB (petabytes). Although scientists have also put that value to 100TB (terabytes), as it depends greatly on the experiences of the individual.

Bits

Megabits, when we talk about data transfer rates, the speed of your Internet connection and so on are represented as Mb; note the lower case ‘b’. To make things a little easier, in the world of telecommunications the Mb equals 1,000,000 bits. So 1 Mbps, which is a single megabit per second, is the same as 1,000,000 bits per second.

If you use the common byte size of 8 bits, then 1 Mb (megabit) is roughly equal to 0.125 MB (megabytes). So, if you’re not foaming at the mouth by now, a decent broadband line advertised at 75 Mbps can actually transfer data to your PC at around 9.375 MB/sec (megabytes per second). And, your home network with a 100 Mbps switch will send data from one PC to another at around 12.5 MB/sec, whereas with a gigabit Ethernet switch and network ports in the PC will transfer the data to and from one computer to the next at around 125 MB/sec.

However, these are only the theoretical numbers and there are external factors which will determine the actual, real-world speeds of communications. A good general rule of thumb when dealing with any type of digital communication, is that the data will only transfer at the speed of the slowest component in the circuit. So where you may enjoy having a fiber connection to Communications House in the middle of London, the speed of which you will transfer data will only be as fast as the network port in your computer.

The thing to remember is that when talking about transfer speeds, the relation to the Internet and network, then the result will be in megabits per second, or Mbps. And when talking about the amount of storage, memory, or an amount of data, then the result will be in megabytes, MB, or megabytes per second, or MB/s if you’re transferring data.

It doesn’t help that people often refer to everything computer specific these days in terms of ‘Megs’, or ‘Gigs’, which just adds to the confusion. ‘This PC has 8 gigs’, ‘my broadband is now at 35 megs’, ‘my WiFi is at 54 megs’, ‘my phone has 16 gigs’.

Speed up my PC! Or not

Believe it or not, there are still some folk out there who fall for the old, ‘download me and I’ll make your PC superfast’ trick. Sorry to burst your bubble, but speed up your PC software doesn’t really work.

To be fair, in some cases it can appear to make things go a little quicker, by shifting out dead links in the registry and disabling startup programs, but the long and the short of it is simple: they often create more issues than fixing them.

Most PC speed up tools will offer a range of utilities that claim to increase the performance of your PC by so many percent. These tools will rearrange a few elements of the PC, and run through a quick tidy up routine. If you’ve never bothered to keep your system reasonably trim, then yes, they will provide an increase in performance, albeit a brief one. Because these programs are continually monitoring your system, though, they tend to autoload themselves into memory and create daily schedules for themselves. This will then use up a portion of your system resources, which may be small, but it’s an unnecessary use of resources. There are also some speed-up tools that simply aren’t safe. Of the many that are good quality programs, there’s a small element that contain malicious content that will have the opposite effect.

If you really want to speed things up, back to when you first owned the PC, you can try and clean up the loose ends yourself (un-installing unwanted programs, and so on), or you can simple back up everything you have that’s important, make a note of the programs you frequently use, wipe your hard drive and re-install Windows.

You don’t need to defrag every week

Most of us have a modern PC with a relatively modern operating system installed on it, regardless of whether that’s Windows, macOS or Linux. These systems have been updated and tweaked in accordance with the advanced hardware technology that’s now available, and will more than likely see you through a good couple of years or so without you ever having to even look at a defrag tool.

Defragging is one of those utilities that exist to cause arguments: the for camp declare it the best thing you can do with a PC, and therefore it must be done every week. The against camp laugh heartily at the for camp at the amount of time they waste watching little blocks being moved around the screen while your hard drive has the computing equivalent of an intense workout.

Although there are studies that show defragging every so often can help out older operating systems and hardware, there’s nothing concrete that suggests a weekly defrag will help out a modern operating system and hardware. In fact, if you’ve got a solid state drive installed you shouldn’t be defragging at all, especially if the SSD is one of the first or second generation models. SSDs have a limited read and write lifespan, and running a defrag will significantly shorten that lifespan.

16GB of memory will help me browse faster than 8GB

More is sometimes better, and having more memory available to your system can’t be a bad thing. But, it all depends on what you use your system for.

Recently, we were witness to a statement that made us laugh out loud. The sales person at a reputable high street electrical retailer was convincing the folks buying a laptop that the more expensive 16GB memory model of laptop will ‘allow you browse the web faster’, than the 8GB memory model.

Naturally, it won’t. You can browse perfectly fine using 4GB, 2GB, 1GB or even 256KB in some extreme cases. Having more memory will allow you to open more programs simultaneously, and allow you to play some of the more modern games (if the rest of the system is up to it), but faster browsing is determined by the speed in which you have access to the internet (see the above Mbps) and not the amount of memory (or RAM, if you prefer) you have.

Essentially, 16GB is a great choice if you’re running a lot of programs simultaneously, or you’re using a heavyweight graphics editing program, or you’re wanting to get the best from your gaming experience. With regards to the gaming, however, you will also need to have an equally good graphics card and processor, but the amount of memory also helps as Windows 10 can utilise the extra RAM and use it for caching and other such features. 16GB is also great if you run virtual machines. Create two virtual Linux machines, each with 4GB of memory allocated (which is taken from your own system memory) and you’ll soon appreciate the extra 8GB for normal system use.

However, for the rest of us, 8GB is more than enough. You can game perfectly well with 8GB, have multiple programs open at once, and run virtual machines (you’ll just need to lessen the amount of memory available to those virtual machines).

4GB is also fine for a lot of people who just want to browse the Internet, use a word processor, play Solitaire and view their photos and videos.

Don’t be fooled into thinking you need a huge amount of gigabytes of memory to run everyday apps and programs.

The CPU isn’t the box on the floor

While some people, who are understandably oblivious to computers (they turn it on, it works, fair enough) often get this term wrong, there are some who should know better and continually refer to the case of the PC as the CPU.

The case, the box on the floor (or wherever you’ve put it) is the thing that houses the motherboard, hard drives, fans and so on. The motherboard is the printed circuit board that holds the memory, graphics card(s), the connections to the hard drives, and the processor or CPU.

The CPU is just a very tiny component of the overall system, although it’s the brains of the outfit and without it you’ve got a nice lump of useless metal and plastic.

Household magnets will wipe my data

There’s an age old myth that states that a household magnet will wipe all the data off your hard drive. Maybe once, long ago, with five and a quarter inch floppy disks, this may have been the case, but not today, not by a long shot.

Back in the day, our computer science teacher would go berserk if you approached his prized BBC Micro with one of the school magnets in your grubby mitts. He’d state that the entire system would be wiped, and catastrophe would rain down upon you for ever more (“It’ll be a black mark against your name!” was often said) should you ever introduce a magnet to a computer.

This is something we lived in fear of for many years, until of course we started to take computers apart and noticed the not-so-subtle, blooming big magnet that made up the PC speaker sitting right next to the hard drive.

In short: no, a household magnet will not wipe your data or put a black mark against your name. To do such a thing and wipe a drive would take a very powerful electromagnetic device in a special enclosure along with the hard drive itself.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you should go and get a magnet and run it over your motherboard. There are other components in a computer that can be damaged by concentrated exposure to a magnet.

Conclusion

There are of course plenty more common misconceptions in the computing industry, and there will no doubt be many more by the time the semi-mythical quantum computing has hit the home and even more exotic storage and data transfer measurements are introduced.

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