The mythical “musts” of computing

I’m regularly asked for advice, and do very much love helping people out in choosing the right computing solution for them. One of the greatest joys in such a role is not only showing people how easy it really is to make their computer do what they want, but that they don’t have to hold to old, outdated, or even purely mythical conventions that they had accepted as fact.

In this article, I’d love to share some that I have come across.

Myth #1 – The only operating system that is viable is Windows

This one is thrown around a lot. People cite all sorts of wacky reasons which basically boils down to “everyone else uses Windows” which is not only untrue, but their basis for everyone else being stuck on that platform is from the same reasoning. Kind of sounds like a good old-fashioned game of lemmings to me.

Unless you need use of a specific application for which there is no viable alternative, say in the case of a custom application for work, or if you are a super hardcore gaming enthusiast – you are by no means stuck with windows.Even still, there’s nothing stopping you from using OSX or Linux as your primary desktop for every day, and simply starting up a windows virtual machine or dual boot for the specific application you need once in a blue moon.

Myth #2 – I absolutely NEED Microsoft Office

No, you don’t. This is definitely a case of “everyone uses it so I have to too” and it is not even true practically. There are a variety of free and commercial alternatives to Microsoft Office that are not only pretty much feature complete, but can actually read and write to MS Office document formats for ease of sharing.

Chief among them is LibreOffice, which actually works quite well and is less bloaty and buggy than MS Office. This means my productivity is actually increased by not using MS Office. The only area I would say it is lacking is in rendering certain complex layout word files and let’s face it – if you are using MS Word for layout design, you are most definitely doing something wrong. It is the wrong tool for the job.

I actually own MS Office, and use LibreOffice exclusively. I’ve perhaps had to use MS Office maybe twice in the last year just to check if Libre Office correctly renders a file someone sent me. LibreOffice is faster, less buggy, and did I mention? It’s FREE. It also runs on pretty much any platform you can imagine. So for 99% the functionality, and 100% off on the price tag, the question is – why are you still using MS Office at all?

Myth #3 – Graphic designers need to use a Mac

Though I most definitely prefer this, this is untrue. The Adobe Creative Suite, which unfortunately every graphic designer in the world is stuck with, runs happily under Windows, though sadly not Linux. Even still you could theoretically run Windows in virtual machine and Adobe CS inside it.

Myth #4 – Virtual machines are emulators

This is incorrect on so many levels. Emulation implies that we are translating CPU instruction calls to an otherwise incompatible processor architecture. OSX, Windows, and Linux all are written for x86 CPU architecture. It doesn’t matter if you own a mac or a pc, Intel or AMD, the processors are the same. So when you fire up a virtual machine, you are running the OS natively and it will run exactly as intended.

Myth #5 – I need multiple operating systems, so I must make double/triple/quadruple boot schemes

Why, oh why? I’ve seen so many do insanely crazy things with partitioning their startup disk, messing with their BIOS, and usually trashing the whole disk and boot scheme in the process. To start with, Windows, OSX and Linux all use different file systems, so they cannot co-exist on the same partition, and (especially Windows) don’t play nice with each other. This usually results in limited space for each OS, complicated boot procedures that usually fail, and in a lot of cases an unbootable machine necessitating a complete wipe and start over.

Do you really need that headache? No. It’s entirely unnecessary. It’s important first evaluate if you even need more than one operating system, and from there, determine how much you need the secondary (or tertiary) operating system. Can your specific need be replaced by a solution available for your primary OS? Can you get away with running the OS in virtual machine once in a while? In the vast majority of cases, yes you can to both.

Pick one primary operating system that you will use 90%+ of the time, and put any others you need into virtual machines you can use when you need to.

Keeping things simple means a stable machine.

Myth #6 – Everything has to be wireless

Wireless technology has come a long, long way. We’ve seen vastly increased reliability, coverage, and transfer speeds of wifi and bluetooth – but I’m sure all of you have noticed at one time or another, it is far from perfect. What is worse is everyone seems to be pushing wireless everything despite it possibly not being the best solution for a given task.

In general, wireless can be slow, inconsistent, randomly disconnect, laggy, cause interference with other wireless devices and even simple household appliances. Not to mention we have to now regularly change out batteries or recharge everything, what a nuisance!

There’s no real substitute for plugging something in. I’ve had clients complain that although their wifi is working and they can browse the web, certain web services like AirPlay and other inter-device communications routinely fail or work intermittently. I then suggest they switch to a wired connection and … problem gone.

If you want speed, reliability and robustness – use a cable. Gamers know that wireless mice can spell death in their favourite video game due to bluetooth lag. Bluetooth speakers sometimes cannot be found or lose connection or buffer endlessly. Moving the laptop from one place in the house to another can cause one to lose a steady wifi signal due to dead spots and interference. Induction noise from appliances can dampen and interfere with wireless signals.

If you want something to work 100% of the time at the speed you expect, use a cable. When you’re getting your house repainted, why not fish some network cable through the walls to your desk. It isn’t hard to do and not cursing that your wireless network that has disconnected again and fiddling with it when you could actually be working and meeting is priceless.

Although wireless devices have increasing utility and presence in this world and in things we use all the time, sometimes there’s no substitute for a physical connection without all the things that can go wrong with it just getting your data from A to B.

Myth #6 – Everything is better if it is computer controlled

Remember that toaster that lasted twenty years? or that range that lasted 50? I barely do, because they’ve been replaced with computer controlled junk. One could blame the old truth that “they don’t make it like they used to”, and while it’s true that hardy metal has been replaced with brittle plastic, the single greatest point of failure is that microcontroller they stuck in there as a selling point.

There have been innumerable cases of large, expensive appliances dying prematurely because the motherboard has fried itself, usually due to a power surge or simple faulty engineering, building it to a price. Then a repair person is called and they conclude the motherboard needs replacing – often at a cost that is a large percentage of the original cost of the unit. Sticking a computer in something that doesn’t need it just adds extra opportunities to fail, and extra opportunities for manufacturers to make an extra buck off your back by designing in planned obsolescence.

I have a client who after 30 years decided to replace her (working) range. She got a nice shiny new range with all sorts of bells and whistles by virtue of a computer being shoved inside it. After a power outage, she suddenly discovered her stove was 100% inoperable. After months of wrangling over warranty and pestering to get a repair call out, it was fixed and the motherboard was replaced – all because said manufacturer didn’t design in surge protection for said computer. A part that costs mere cents in volume called a MOV, an electronic component common as dirt that is designed to deal with over voltage conditions and prevent just this sort of thing was not even thought to be included. Or was it deliberately omitted? Aha! Had she stuck with her old range, which is immune to such failures by design, it might have lasted another 30 years.

Myth #6 – Macs can’t play games

This is false off the bat. Sort of. I use Macs, I play games, every day. There are thousands of titles available for OSX on Steam right now. The myth that Macs can’t play games goes back a long time, back to when Macs used a different processor architecture and couldn’t have games made for them without expensive porting that developers simply didn’t wish to do to please 1% of the desktop marketshare. I can’t say I blame them either. Times have changed. Since 2005, Macs have used Intel processors and porting games is a snap and Macs in general have creeped up to near 10% of the market share.

So why is there still a bias against this? Part of it is just habitual assumption on the part of gamers and devs as noted above, and part of it is actually true. The one place Macs fall far short is hardware.

Apple, in its idiocy, keeps deciding not to put decent GPUs in their machines. They are obsessed with making everything smaller, cooler, less power hungry and more visually appealing that they sacrifice performance particularly in graphics processing. Furthermore, their designs prevent or preclude the user customizing their machine to improve it. An iMac ships with a mobile GPU despite being a desktop machine. The iMac doesn’t have a PCI-E slot that is usable by us, nor does it have the power supply to support the latest and greatest by NVIDIA and AMD. Indeed, you have to pay EXTRA to get a laptop or desktop from Apple that doesn’t have the ever shitty Intel graphics processors. Seriously?

So while Macs can play a lot of games, and a certain percentage of the ones we can’t are due to developers not wanting to port them, 99% of the fact of this is squarely due to Apple not giving us the hardware to play the best games at the best quality. It’s Apple’s fault. Oculus famous told them to get a decent GPU before even a hint of Rift support. If they were smart, they’d give us decent GPUs, and might actually bust this myth and gain a really strong gamer community and following. It’s pure idiocy on Apple’s part. I’m going to write a whole article on this one as it affects me personally.

Myth #7 – I need the flash plugin to view videos and interactive online content

Sheer bullshit. Flash at one time was the only effective way to stream video and make animated, interactive web content. 12 year ago, the best of the web’s content was all flash and shockwave driven and it was hugely creative and wonderful. However, since the iPhone first came out and boldly declared they will not or ever support flash in iOS, it has been dying a very slow, painful, pathetic death.

Flash ever since has been increasingly neglected by Adobe (I don’t blame them one bit), and shown for what it is – buggy, bloated, slow, riddled with security holes, and now not even universally supported. It’s going away, and very fast. I myself used to be a Flash developer, and now I block it by default in my browser as a needless annoyance.

Youtube and other streaming services have jumped to other and better platforms. HTML5 video is now the standard and runs natively, no plugin required, in all modern browsers. The combination of HTML5, CSS3, Javascript, WebGL, and a ton of incredibly useful and powerful libraries have not only made interactive web design and use not only possible, but faster and cleaner than it ever was when Flash was king.

Ditch the flash plugin, you don’t need it.

Myth #8 – Linux is a complicated desktop for computer experts and is too fiddly and complex for casual users

Linux has worked hard over the years to try and gain a toe hold on the desktop marketshare of the average joe, touting it’s $0 price tag, ethical freedom, and immensely powerful and modular architecture suitable for the casual as well as professional user.

While Linux still is not quite up to the task of finely polished desktops as OSX and Windows, it has come a long way. Unless one actually requires use of applications that are unavailable under linux with no alternatives, Linux is a viable choice for consideration of one’s operating system.

Let’s take Ubuntu as an example, being the most popular one. A rather simple installation process will net you a perfectly usable desktop environment with a browser, office suite, email client and media players already installed and ready for you to use. If your computer life is watching youtube, writing emails, word processing, listening to music and browsing the internet – you are already set out of the box with no hassles and zero cost.

Ubuntu’s installer even has a tick box which will pre-install a whole bunch of useful plugins and codecs for MP3 support, video support, PDF support and more.

The volume of software ported to Linux is steadily growing also. In addition to a whole range of free and open source alternatives to popular software being available, many developers are now seriously making Linux releases. Steam even made a whole distribution of Linux specifically for gaming called SteamOS and quite a number of games I own I note are also available for Linux.

I’d say the only things holding casual users back from adopting Linux is stigma that it’s too complex or their software needs won’t be met, and if you need to go fiddling and fixing you may have a harder time as it usually involves diving into the terminal.

Myth #9 – OSX is all shiny appearances and no power, an OS for kids and the computer-stupid

This is utter horseshit, obviously spouted by folk who really do not know their stuff. It is said that any true techie uses Linux, for its power and hackability – rightly so. OSX is based on a layer of BDS-like unix called Darwin. It is robust, powerful, and stable. I can boast uptimes in weeks. I’d happily use it as a server, and have done. The equivalent of the BSoD on a Mac is the kernel panic screen which I have seen maybe three times in the last ten years. The only time I had to do restores (reinstalls) in that amount of time was due to a failed hard drive. In most cases, I can simply clone an installation to another drive and it works perfectly. I professionally support a number of people who use OSX both personally and professionally and service calls are extremely rare.

Comparing that to the sheer amounts of hell I hear Windows users going though, and the needlessly complicated hacks and fixes they need to perform just to get a working machine and do what OSX does out of the box… I’ll stick with OSX.

Myth #10 – I NEED a laptop

Chances are, you don’t. Do have a laptop but find it spends 99% of its time on your desk plugged in? Unless you do a lot of travelling for business, it is quite likely you simply have your laptop on your desk. You squint and hunch over your tiny screen, have a million cables coming out the side and maybe once in a blue moon take it to the couch with you.

Using a laptop at a desk continually is terrible from an ergonomics standpoint. You’ll hurt your back, your neck, strain your eyes and very likely ruin your battery by keeping it constantly fully charged. Taking the laptop to the couch or bed simply invites it to get dropped, spilled on, overhead by blocking the vents with your lap and all of that miniaturization and portability will cost you quite a bit extra.

Get a desktop for your next machine. Since you’re always at your desk anyway. Enjoy a larger display at the right angle, a full sized keyboard, everything permanently plugged in, more power, and less cost.

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