Welcome back to another episode of Everyday Tech Myths, your one-stop slice of oddness for answers to the technology questions that continue to plague mankind. First off, many thanks to all of the Tom’s Guide readers who posted comments and suggestions after our prior installment. We’re glad to see you’re enjoying our no-budget approach to enlightening the masses. With that in mind, please feel free to post or email us with your own tech questions you’d like explored. Chances are many other people are wondering about the same thing, but you’ll be the one clever enough actually to have said something.
And hey! Remember the Case of the Cooked Keyboard from last time? The one that kept generating motherboard beeps and wouldn’t let my test system boot? Turns out that, after sitting idle for a week, the lemony fresh thing works now. Apparently, an hour in the oven wasn’t sufficient to dry the circuitry out after cycling through the dishwasher. The keyboard now works perfectly save for three keys on the numeric keypad that didn’t survive the test and are permanently hosed. But all other keys are fine and don’t stick like they used to. It’s a little Easter-time miracle, the resurrected keyboard.
Enough talk. Let’s explore! In Episode #2, we’re going to find out if cell phones will unlock cars, whether toothpaste can repair an optical disc, and if you can supercharge your WiFi for under five bucks.
Question: Is it true that you can unlock a car door over a cell phone?
Okay, before you think I’m an idiot for doing this piece, check out this video. Convincing, no? Search the Web and you’ll find a lot of posts from people swearing that this works. And believe it or not, I had an “OMG! moment” when I thought it might work, too.
To begin, I backed the trusty Sequoia down to the curb, just like in the last Everyday Tech Myths test of the “chin boost” effect on car alarm remotes. Chirp-chirp. A push of the button confirms that the alarm and remote both work fine.
The point of this exercise is to have a rescue plan available if you lose your car alarm remote or accidentally lock it inside the car. (Given that most people put their alarm on their key chains, I’m not sure how this would happen, but whatever.) So let’s say my wife lost her remote. There I am working across town or at least a block and a half away, which would be the same thing for our purposes here. The point is that I’m beyond my car remote’s range. According to this video and other sources, I should be able to call my wife on her cell phone and, when she holds the phone near the alarm sensor and I hold the remote up to my phone and press the unlock button, the car will unlock.
Car remotes operate in the 300 MHz to 400 MHz radio range. Cell phones in the United States concentrate around the 990 MHz and 1,900 MHz ranges. So we’re dealing with devices operating on widely divergent frequencies. On top of this, a cell phone converts radio signals back into audio signals, which are sound pressure waves, not radio waves. Cell phones are not radio frequency repeaters. That was my thinking, anyway, as I stood there well outside of the remote’s range a block and a half away.
I called my wife, who was standing next to the car. We both have BlackBerry 8310 phones. “Hello?” I said. “Now what?” she asked. “Put your phone next to the remote sensor,” I said. She did. I held the remote up to my phone with a self-assured smirk, pressed the unlock button, and about fell over when I saw the car’s lights flash and heard the tell-tale chirp-chirp in the distance.
Not so fast. I stood there in the street for a moment, dumbfounded, and then it hit me–as I detailed in my previous Everyday Tech Myths story, touching your head with the remote extends its signal. I realized that I had just lifted the remote to my head since the phone was pressed against my ear. The back of my hand holding the remote had been touching my head as I’d pressed the button. I then raised the remote to my phone as I’d done before, touching my chin. Chirp-chirp. Then I held out the phone at arm’s length and put the remote next to it. Nothing. I tried again—nothing. I put both back up near my head. Chirp-chirp. Ah-ha! Another tech myth bites the dust. Cue the theme music, and let’s move on.
Question: Can you repair a damaged CD or DVD with toothpaste?
Answer: Maybe, but ours didn’t.
Here’s another one you’ll find aplenty on the Web. The assertion is that you can use plain toothpaste—not gel and not paste with a bunch of funny extras in it—to repair disc scratches and restore a faulty disc to operational condition. To test this one out, I hit my entertainment center and unearthed my original copy of Lego Star Wars for the Xbox 360. Someone in the family had bumped the Xbox while the game was in use, which is a well-known mortal blow thanks to Microsoft’s inferior optical drive choice. The disc was knocked off-kilter and a deep gouge was ploughed into its surface. Several times through a disc resurfacer failed to let the platter get beyond the title at the game’s start. You might also note the small crack near the center hole. It was unknown whether this crack had extended far enough to damage any data, but it was worth a last-ditch attempt to recover the disc. I then grabbed a travel tube of Crest and got to work.
With an optical disc, such as the dual-layer DVD shown here, a laser beam comes up through a layer of protective, transparent polycarbonate and focuses on a subsequent dye layer. The pits and lands that cause the laser light to reflect back in a way that the drive can record as meaningful data are then written into the dye layer, which if damaged, means your disc might as well be a rearview mirror ornament. Similarly, if the polycarbonate layer is scratched such that the laser light gets deflected rather than passing straight through to the dye layer tracks and back out, the sensor won’t receive any information. The point of the toothpaste is to fill in those scratches—not “remove” them as many sites assert. The toothpaste fills in the scratches, dries clear, and allows the laser to pass through the protective layer normally.
As one of the top hits for “CD toothpaste,” I took this video as a procedure model. I did as directed, applying a ring of paste around the center of the disc, then gently rubbing it from center to edge and back, not in a circular motion. Once the surface was covered, I let the disc sit for three minutes, then used a couple of clean kitchen rags to wipe away the paste, again using center-to-edge wiping motions. I continued until all residue had been removed. When I popped the disc into the Xbox, it wouldn’t even load. The Xbox user interface simply instructed me to load a disc. Steee-riiiike! Loading my replacement copy of Lego Star Wars worked normally. Maybe that crack had doomed us to failure. Best to try a fresh disc.