Q: What is the difference between my hard drive and memory?:  An analogous explanation of your computer components.

When talking with clients, one of the problems we often have as techs is explaining arcane technical details in a way that the client understands them. That’s because we speak in a different language; geek!  When we are trying to explain to a customer that they need more memory, they may not fully understand what difference that will make.  Most of the time they just accept our work and leave it at that; but others sometimes want an explanation of why they need the memory.  It was during one of these conversations that I came up with my analogy for computers.

Imagine , if you will, that your computer is an office.  An office may have decorations to make it more personal, but for the most part, most things in an office are there to facilitate some form of productivity.  It’s no different inside a computer.  The processor, the memory, the video card, and so on, are there to get something accomplished; to create a word document, to edit a photo, etc.

It all starts with the one component that actually processes data, the processor.  The central processing unit (CPU), is like the person who sits in an office, working.  In order for things to get done, all data is processed by the CPU.  A faster processor is like a more efficient employee.

At some point, all data is also processed in the memory, or RAM.  This component is like a desk in an office.  Let’s say you are an accountant and you are working on a client’s books, dealing with receipts, tax forms, and other papers to make the numbers add up.  If you only have one square foot, how much work can you actually do?  You wouldn’t have enough room to work on multiple pieces of the account all at once.  You would be constantly swapping what was on your desk for something else you need to look at or make a change to.  What you need is a bigger desk, something like four times as big as your original.  You now have quadrupled the desktop space on which you can work.  You can spread out and do the task much faster, without having to swap off as much as before.  Since the swapping takes time and slows you down, you’re able to be much quicker and more productive with the larger desk.  That’s how memory works, you add more to give the process a larger workspace.  The more memory a computer has, the less it has to swap to virtual space.  It is noteworthy to mention that RAM is volatile; that is to say that when you turn off a computer, what is in memory is deleted.  For permanent storage you need to look at the hard drive.

A computer can store information in many places, but the fastest and most accessible is the hard drive.  This part of a computer is analogous to a filing cabinet.  After you have worked on your project, you need to store it so you can work on another, as well as be able to find past projects you need to maintain.  A hard drive does the same thing for documents, pictures, and other data that you need to keep to work with later.  This data is not erased when you turn the computer off, just like turning the lights off in your office doesn’t empty your filing cabinets.  However, turning the lights off will keep you from seeing your desk.

Seeing the desktop of your computer would be impossible without the video card and monitor.  These are like the lights over your head, illuminating your desk and the documents on which you need to work.  Without these components, you would literally be in the dark as to what you were clicking on or typing.

There are other components in a computer, but the ones discussed here are the major ones necessary for a PC to be a productive part of your work environment.  Hopefully these analogies will aid you in discussing your computer’s issues when you need a technician to help you troubleshoot a problem.