The People who "know" about computers

The Quick Version

Be careful of who gives you advice. There are a lot of folks out there who speak with confidence, but whose information is very dated. They won't know about much of the technology being talked about here and will be stuck in the PC or Mac debate.

I do see a staggering amount of bad advice being given to normal folks by "people who know" about computers. Typically every family or group of friends has someone who gains some kudos from "knowing" about computers. Clearly you can tell from my tone, I'm not buying it.

I don't mind people having a go, but I do mind when it harms others and that's what I see. Their advice tends to be out of date. Computing is the fastest moving industry of them all. What was good advice yesterday may not be such good advice today. Unless you are totally immersed in this stuff it is easy to miss the fact that the world has moved on.

To give you some idea of what I mean by totally immersed, we have our own TV Channels (like and, our own radio (again and a staggering number of excellent news websites (The VergeArs TechnicaGigaom) (sorry to all the good ones I left out, I didn't want to create a catalogue, just give a flavour). I personally have to study at least 2 hours a day to have any chance of keeping up, plus I work most of the hours I am awake on this stuff. I don't say this to brag, but to give you an idea of what it takes to stay up to date (my proof reader says I should also mention that having a tolerant wife is important too).

The people who know are typically self taught by fiddling with stuff in front of them. They have learned all the shortcut keys in Excel, they know where all the settings are in the control panel. But that leaves them blind to the fact that there are other options emerging all the time.

Let's look at some examples of what I am talking about:

Backup to external drives or memory sticks

You used to have to backup to floppies, then the files got too big and we started to use CDs, then external hard drives and more recently memory sticks. The problem is, all of these have an incredibly high failure rate in the home, mostly because people forget to do it. We have been using automatic online backups for the last 10 years. The idea of a human having to remember to stick some kind of media into the computer (and not store it with the computer) became ridiculous a decade ago, but the people who know still keep telling people to do it the old way. A way that means people end up having no backup at all and lose vast numbers of files (this is the second most common call we get after infections on Windows).

Remove your photos to make it go faster

I get this one a lot. Your computer is running slow. The people who know tell you that you have too much stuff on it and you should remove all your photos. You do this and want it to make a difference, maybe it even seems like it's a tiny little bit better, maybe? Of course it made no difference at all, it's an old urban myth that stems from a misunderstanding. Remove installed programs that are running on the system and it will make a difference. But that does not translate into the notion that removing files that are just sitting there and not being accessed will make a difference).

It's a dangerous myth as people doing this will put their photos on some external media, so the files are not backed up any more and when the external media fails, they lose the family photo collection (happens all the time, had yet another one call in earlier today).

It has to be a laptop

I had a bit rant about this in What Shape? you might want to have a look if you have not already. Again, it's incredibly common nonsense.

Working in IT is not the same as working in home technology

I do see a surprising number of "people who know" who are employed in the computer industry. Some of them assume that because they are let loose on big and expensive pieces of equipment they know what they are doing in the home environment. It's not the same (I have worked extensively in both camps). They are not exposed to the type of technologies I am talking about in these pages. A little example: I had a call from some pensioners a few weeks back. Wacky things popping up on their screen. Found a big collection of Junk Software, traced the date it had been installed and they checked their diary. Yep, that was the day that their son (who works in IT for a large international bank) had come and done some work on the PC. I encouraged them to use their iPad as he can't screw that up.


I'm not going to list all their bad advice. I just want to make you aware that you have to probe the advice you're given. This crowd will not know what a Chromebook is, they will be stuck in the "It has to be a Mac or PC" vibe. They don't know anything else. It will take them another 10 years to catch up.

But this is all Nonsense!

The slaying of myths and misunderstandings

There's a staggering amount of misinformation and urban myth doing the rounds on the subject of home computers, often nonsense that is most definitely against your best interests. So let's prepare you for when someone "who knows about computers" comes knocking by covering the popular hogwash in advance.

But my brother-in-law works in computers!

Having hired a vast number of IT types over many years I can tell you there are 2 basic types: The ones who treat it just like any job, turn up, do what you ask of them and never give it a second thought when they walk out the door and the proper geeks who live and breathe the stuff, on duty and off. The geeks would do this stuff as a hobby if they couldn't get employment in it.

The problem with taking advice from a "do it as a job" type is that they have little knowledge outside of what they do during the day, which excludes most of the things on this website, as they have little or no place in large companies. Such a person might be responsible for 5,000 PCs, but they are 5,000 PCs that are all the same. They run the same limited collection of software and work on the same network. There are huge variations in the home market. So far this week, apart from the normal twin plagues of infections and lost data, I have installed software for a diving watch, done several slide shows on TVs and fixed a collection of problems on a PC running German Windows (and no, I don't speak German, which made it interesting) and it's only Tuesday. The "do it as a job" types know about what they work on each day and what they are taught on company training courses. Outside of that, their knowledge is very limited. Unfortunately the confident can be out of step with this.

Advice from the geeks is normally correct, with one slight problem: they tend to suggest you get the machines they like for themselves. It's harder for them to believe that anyone could want to do a few things with their computer (even if that means doing them safely. Geeks have far fewer problems with security themselves because they know what to do. It is not always obvious to them that other people don't).  For geeks, trying to use an iPad or a Chromebook as their only computer would be too restrictive, but it might just be the perfect safe solution for their non-geek friends. So if you find yourself sitting next to a computer that draws so much power the lights in the building dim when you switch it on. You probably took purchasing advice from a geek.

I'm a geek, but with a twist: I work with normal people getting this stuff working for them. They shout at me if I get too geeky.

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