I’d like to share some answers to a variety of common questions and facts and myths about your consumer tech devices.
If there is one technology that is hindering the rapid growth in processing power and user-friendly built-in features of smartphones, tablets and laptops it is in batteries, the so-called orphan science lagging behind the increasing power demands of our devices. In the larger world, the relative inefficiency of batteries places severe limits on the collection and storage of solar power as well. A breakthrough in battery efficiency would greatly increase the potentially huge amount of energy deriving from sunlight; current batteries can hold a mere four percent of the power delivered earthside from the sun.
In fact a major improvement in battery performance could leapfrog solar power over other current, clean and renewable sources of energy all the way to the top of the heap. We are literally awash in a sea of free unlimited energy from the sun, we have highly developed means of collecting that energy through relatively recent advances in solar panel collectors, but most of that is lost to us due to the fact that we have very inefficient means of containing and storing all the energy that is collected.
Scientists are hard at work trying to solve this problem but battery inefficiency remains an intractable problem, and no new approaches or breakthroughs appear on the horizon.
Closer to home
This failing is noticeable not only in the world at large, but even, or especially, in the battery-powered devices we use every day. It is common to charge one’s cell or laptop nightly. It is even common to require a jolt during the day after heavy use.
You know the tricks of preserving battery life on your phone: turn off all unnecessary services when not in use–screen, GPS, Wifi, Bluetooth, even your OTA phone signal receiver. But there is so much hocus-pocus surrounding how to “condition” one’s battery; some claim the answer to longer battery life draining it and then fully charging it; others dismiss this procedure and propose the opposite approach of never draining or topping off the battery, rather trickle feed it and keep it just about half charged at all times; others warn that keeping it plugged in all night to recharge while one sleeps shortens the battery life by creating a charge- level “memory” that will degrade over time.
Truth is nobody really knows. The steps above are the only sure way to extend the useful amount of charge your battery holds, and if you need more power there are bigger, after- market batteries you can buy for many of your devices. The only thing this writer knows for sure is that so- called battery- life extender apps are a useless expense if you have to pay for them; they do nothing more than automate the manual steps outlined above, and in fact may actually shorten battery life due to using precious charge to constantly monitor your battery. Always on means always drawing power.
Today’s lithium ion battery, the standard for electronic devices, is best preserved by shallow draining and frequent recharges. That’s the final, authorative answer. From me. If you don’t believe me try reading through all the theories and wive’s tales, as I have done. I’m confident my answer is as good as any, better, more informed than most, and if you don’t believe me just ask me.
Useless yet telling fact: Sixty percent of cellphone users sleep with their devices.
Dealing with disaster
Twenty five percent of people will fall victim to identity theft every year, mostly through hacking into your computer. That means a thief will gain access to your Social Security number, your electronic banking passwords, your credit card numbers. It’s a billion-dollar a year criminal industry. So if your bank offers insurance covering identity theft, buy it. An accomplished thief can drain your accounts in a matter of days or hours, and recovering those funds can take weeks or months.
Few of us can afford the wait while the bank works with law enforcement to catch the thief, and bank policies on such losses vary widely. It is at the very least a nightmare where the burden lies on you to prove that it was not you who made the withdrawals At its worst it can spell financial ruin.
Most credit card companies will not hold you liable for unauthorized purchases, but check their policies the better to protect yourself.
The best way to prevent identity theft is to avoid giving the thief access to your personal data, which is now more available to thieves than ever, since we carry our most sensitive personal information around with us on our person in our phones.
It is ridiculously easy for the identity thief to gain access to the private information on your computer or device. Here are some don’ts that will help protect you.
Do not ever open an attachment to an email or text message unless you are 100 percent sure you can trust the sender. This is the major way identity thieves gain access to your information. The attachment you download is actually a Trojan program that is a keystroke reader. The thief sits back and watches everything you type on your screen, including passwords, Social Security numbers and everything he needs to drain your accounts. Avoid attachments, not just from strangers but from well meaning but clueless friends who are forwarding the latest cute cat viral video, which is actually a Trojan in disquise. He can infect you both.
Rather than announcing their presence by draining your accounts all at once, some clever thieves obtain info on dozens of victims and literally nickel and dime you to death. They make micropurchases or bank transfers of say ten dollars at a time every few days. Small enough to stay under your radar. After all, who scans their monthly bank statement line item by line item every month? How many of us actually receive printed statements anymore?
What these criminals fail to gain in huge one time hauls they make up for in volume of little hauls. Scams such as these can last months or years before detection. Examine your account charges carefully. Did you really order $20 of adult pay-per view last month? Did you withdraw ten or $20 two or three times? Keep your own records and compare them to the bank’s.
Greed and love bombs
When a truck delivering new computers to Internet cafés in Ghana passes through a village, the residents cheer. What they are celebrating is nothing less than what they see as restitution from the colonial exploitation by the West of their wealth before that system ended and the formerly occupied nations gained indepedence. It is a clear sign that one of their major sources of foreign currency is still thriving. What they call personal engineering scams are a major industry. These are especially insidious because once one falls victim to one of these scams most are reluctant to report them, for fear of appearing stupid and greedy, or lonely and desperate, and besides there is no way you are getting your money back.
You’ve probably seen emails from alleged government officials in unnamed countries claiming access to millions of untraceable dollars, but they need $10,000 to bribe officials to transfer said funds out of the country, from you of course. Then they will split the fortune with you. Yes it’s audaciously outlandish but hundreds of people in the US fall for it every year.
Another Ghana specialty is the love bomb, where you, a single man, receive a sincere sounding email from a woman of dubious geographic location saying she read your profile on some social site and has decided you’re the man for her. She then follows up with pictures and declarations of love and then… a polite demand for $10,000 to either pay her way over to live a blissful life with her love or to prove to her mother that you have the means to care for her precious flower once she leaves home. She usually claims that her mother is European and attached to the Embassy in Ghana. I have received many such letters and have got the devil in me to play along, seeing how far “she” will go before she gives it up as a bad business.
The single best reply I received was from a woman claiming to be an American overseas. I told her that she didn’t write as if English were her native language. “Oh, I didn’t mention that I grew up in Canada and thus Spanish is my native language,” she replied.
Again. You are thinking these approaches are so obviously fraudulent who could fall for them but hundreds of men fall victim to them every year. Why Ghana? I don’t know for certain. It used to be Nigeria but has moved.
If it’s too good to be true, it’s not. Simple as that.
PCs and Android are susceptible to viruses and malware, and these are so well known that most new devices come equipped with protection. Not all phones come with such software, and I recommend AVG Anti-virus Free. Apple’s iPhone however is rarely targeted by viruses, though they are not completely unknown: same is true for Macs. It can’t hurt to protect yourself if you own an Apple product. For a PC or Android it is absolutely essential.
Theft of device
The fastest growing crime in the country is the theft of handheld devices. People are often so buried in their phones in public places that snatch and grab robberies are increasingly common. The New York Police Department has a special unit dedicated solely to Apple device theft.
Keep alert to your surroundings, keep a tight grip on your device and equip yourself for the worst should it strike. For iPhones and iPads there is no need for a third party app to accomplish this. The iOS includes an app called Find My Phone, which with the new iOS Activation Lock, keyed to your thumbprint, makes it practically unusable to thieves.
It likely won’t get you your phone back, but you have theft insurance don’t you? Don’t you?
What the software does is protect your valuable user information by providing the so-called nuclear option. Actually there are two modes, Lost and Erase. With Lost you can text your phone or tablet and appeal to the thief’s better nature to return the device or to turn himself over to the police. If said thief has no better nature to which you can appeal, use the Erase function to completely wipe the contents of the storage of your unit. If you recover your stolen device–don’t count on it–you can restore its contents from the backup you created of it on iCloud. More likely you’ll be restoring the contents of your stolen device onto its replacement.
Android has just released its free anti-theft app, the Android Device Manager. It’s simple to use, and I just installed it on my tablet. You can also install it on your computer. First and most useful to me is that when I misplace my phone I can ring it remotely from my tablet. This happens more than I care to admit. More to the point, it allows remote locking and factory reset remotely. It also displays on Google Maps where the device is, approximately, so you can mount a vigilante raid to recover your rightful property.
Androids are not nearly as popular to thieves as iPhones, but you should still remain vigilant in public places lest you offer too tempting a target of opportunity.
Buying a phone
This advice applies more to Android users than Apple iPhone prospective customers, but I have several times urged that you research the phone you’re interested in by reading customer testimonials. Upon reflection, I would amend that to make that merely a part of your research.
Professional reviews really can’t be beat, and I have just noticed a phenomenon common to customer reviews. There are an inordinate number of people with disastrous experiences with the phone you’re interested in. I’ve owned seven Androids and have had to replace only one. The replacement worked fine. Customer reviews are filled with horror stories of epic fails and repeated problems with replacements.
I’ve come to believe that the only people who take the time to review their phones are those with terrible experiences.
Those for whom the phone works as expected are much less likely to take the time to set down in a user forum that their phone is working just fine. It’s simple human nature. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, just as the frustrated buyer vents his anger in a public forum. Read these with a jaundiced eye. Rely on professional reviews in dedicated tech websites and even YouTube video reviews. These tech journalists get test units, have no personal financial stake in their experiences, and are much more accurate reporting the specs of the device and its possible weaknesses.
(Any device manufacturers representative reading this is encouraged to provide test units for this reviewer.)
Buy as much phone as you can
It’s end of contract time for the majority of you who sign two-year contracts, and it’s time to trade in your old clunker for the wonderful new, fast, thin, waterproof, crystal clear screen, quad core screamer. But wait. Wasn’t your current phone a state of the art, dual core, clear screen powerful device two years ago? Course it was, and it still performs just as it did the day you bought it. It only seems slow and inadequate in comparison to the new units your friends and colleagues are sporting as their contracts come up for renewal along with upgrades to the newest phones.
One danger I didn’t mention when you’re researching phones on tech sites such as CNET and Phonedog is the hubris these reviewers develop being courted by manufacturers. They always have the latest and greatest phone or tablet to use, and I have noticed a distinct snobbery toward the masses who still are using two year old kit.
Top of the line becomes midrange after just a few months, such is the pace of progress in phone and tablet production. After two years, your phone is low end. So you can’t beat the pace of progress, but you can lock in the latest features and sheer horsepower of the newest phones by buying as much as you can afford during trade up time. After all, the carrier is subsidizing the cost of your phone by several hundred dollars, and phones now come with so many features unthinkable just two years ago, that you won’t likely suffer tech envy for at least another year.
The best time to buy is after the major trade shows, where manufacturers show off their latest offerings, and the devices themselves begin to appear on sale a couple of months afterwards. These shows, especially the CES, the Consumer Electronics Show, sponsored by the Consumer Electronics Association, held every spring, are much anticipated and widely reported. The CEA represents almost the entire consumer electronics industry, minus one key player, Apple, which holds its own curtain raising ceremonies in the fall. And it attracts just as much attention singly focused on their devices as is divided, quite unevenly, among 3,200 exhibitors at CES.
There’s a reason I’m advocating buying as much phone as you can afford. More and more people are using their phones as their major Internet access device, and to get serious work done on the fly. Tablet and phone Internet traffic has exceeded that from stand-alone computers several months ago.
As the phone in particular is becoming a crucial work tool, so the more capable it is, the more work you can do away from your desk. You should thus regard it as more than a communication and personal information manager and more as a tool to succeed in the workplace.
Change is the constant
As I’ve mentioned in this column the era of augmented reality, ubiquitous computing, and the Internet of Things is upon us. In five years we will be interacting with one another and both the virtual world of the Internet and the real world through miniature smart devices, always-on voice control, smart wallpaper in our homes that serve as data displays, and many other changes unthinkable now except in science fiction, which has proven a more reliable predictor of the path technology is taking than so-called futurists and representatives of tech manufacturers.
So buy the phone of your dreams. It might just be the last such minicomputer paradigm device you purchase before you don your lenses and experience the world, as enhanced by the vast resources of the Internet, through your distributed array of smart nano machines permeating your living and working environment, not to mention public spaces.
I have addressed some common questions and issues raised by users of consumer tech. I encourage you to let me know what questions you may have, or topics you would like to see covered in more depth. Drop me a line at the address in my bio box at the end of this column, and I will try to respond, either personally or in a future article. All inquiries will receive a reply.
Paul Croke, former newspaper editor and longtime Washington DC area freelance writer, has loved gadgets and consumer electronics since he saw his first Dick Tracy watch. He writes about consumer technology.