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Making Sense of Techie Computer Descriptions

Last week I promised to explain computer concepts in kitchen English. Today we’ll start by talking about basic computer parts.

Here’s the scenario: Little Johnny goes down for a nap, giving you some precious computer time. You happily respond to emails, read blogs, and look for new summer shoes on Zappos.com (I like these) after watching one of their funny commercials. Little Johnny wakes up much too soon, so you set your open laptop aside to tend to your little angel before his screams cause permanent damage to your ear drums.

Fast forward thirty minutes. Little Johnny notices a shiny new toy on the couch, a toy that mommy likes to play with but doesn’t let him near. So while you talk to your mother on the phone about your little angel’s new obsession with cheese, that little angel tries to make the new toy light up by beating it with the remote control.

So now you have a broken laptop and very possibly a damaged remote control. You can always get a new remote from Comcast or AT&T or Walmart, but purchasing a new laptop is a bit more of a project. That night, after putting Little Johnny to bed and whispering, “It’s a good thing you’re cute,” in his ear, you tell your husband that he’ll have to miss playing World of Warcraft for one night so that you can get on his PC and research laptops.

You go to bestbuy.com and see something like this (this description is from a Compaq Presario laptop, model CQ60-422DX):

And all you can think is that this is one of those things that makes you go, “Hmmmm.”

That’s a whole lot of buzz words. Rather than giving you a definition of each item, which would contain even more buzz words, let’s try an analogy.

The Analogy

Imagine that a computer is represented by your house/apartment. Some of us live in 900 square feet. Others are livin’ large in 4000 square feet (not me…but if you do, can I come live with you? Just give me a little corner in the west wing.).

No matter the size, all of our homes have some things in common. Door. Stove. Bed. Toilet. (If you don’t have a toilet in your home, please email me and tell me how you do without. I’M DYING TO KNOW.)

In the same way, computers come in many different sizes. Some are the size of a notebook. Others take up space under your desk. But, just like the contents of your house, they all have some parts in common. The parts may be the most basic available or top-of-the-line (compare a bath/shower combo to a jacuzzi tub), but they have similar functionality. We’ll look briefly at the parts described above and compare them to a bulletin board, cd/dvd player, TV, bookshelf, cable TV line, mailbox, cell phone, phone line, and you!

The Parts

  • You – The Processor
    If you’re not home, nothing gets done. The dishes stay dirty, the laundry doesn’t get folded, and all those shows on the DVR can’t watch themselves. The processor performs a similar function in the computer – it does all the work. It’s the brains of the computer and can’t work without it.
  • Bulletin Board – Memory
    The bulletin board is the place where you put up notes to remind yourself of this or that – a shopping list, the recipe you’re going to try tonight, that picture you printed and need to put in a frame. What they all have in common is that the bulletin board is only a temporary place to be. Memory is used in a similar way. It’s where computer programs put information that it’s using and needs to get to quickly. The bigger the bulletin board (memory), the more information can be stored for easy access. Having a big bulletin board (memory) can really speed things up in your house (computer). But here’s the thing – everything on the bulletin board disappears whenever you turn the lights off, meaning that memory gets cleared out when the computer is turned off. (Side note: There is a max to how much memory your computer can use, depending on the type of processor you have. We’ll talk about that another time.)
  • Combo CD/DVD Player – CD/DVD Drive
    This one probably doesn’t require a lot of explanation, so I’ll just say that this is how you can get to information stored on a CD or DVD. The information can be music, movies, or any type of file.
  • TV – Display
    I love me some TV and am not ashamed to say it. My TV doesn’t care what I watch – In Plain Sight, House, Real Housewives of New York City. It will also show me what’s in the DVD player and on my video camera if I tell it to. The computer display (laptop screen/monitor) shows whatever other parts of the computer tell it to show.
  • Bookshelf – Hard Drive
    Bookshelves are where you store all of your information – books, CD’s, DVD’s, notebooks, picture albums, college textbooks, etc. You may have only a shelf in the pantry to store cook books, or maybe you’re lucky enough to have an entire study lined with bookshelves from floor to ceiling. The more bookshelves you have, the more information you can store. It’s the same with the hard drive. The hard drive is where you store all of the information on your computer – your iTunes library, all those pictures you scanned, your resume. The bigger the hard drive, the more information you can store. (In the example above, the hard drive is 160GB. We’ll talk about GB’s and MB’s and all those other B’s another time.)

    I’ve seen a lot of people confuse the hard drive and memory. It’s important to remember that memory holds information only temporarily and gets cleared out when the power is turned off, but the hard drive keeps the information even when the computer is turned off.

  • Cable TV Line – Graphics Card/Accelerator
    A TV can be pretty and shiny, but if there’s no input it’s going to stay pretty and shiny and just plain useless. It’s not enough to have a display like a laptop screen or monitor on your computer. The screen doesn’t have the ability to show anything on it unless the computer has some sort of video card or media accelerator.
  • Mailbox – USB/Firewire Ports
    Am I alone in being excited about checking the mail? Yeah, it’s usually only bills or junk mail, but hey, there might be an invitation or Bed, Bath, & Beyond coupon or that makeup I had overnighted because only my husband should have to deal with a makeup-less Leslie. In the same way that a mailbox is a way to deliver to a house, USB and Firewire ports are a way to deliver information to a computer. Except the delivery is really fast, even better than being overnighted. But what happens when you go on vacation and your mailbox gets filled up? Don’t you wish you could have more than one mailbox? Well, guess what? You can have more than one USB port. IMHO, the more USB ports, the better.
  • Cell Phone – Wireless LAN
    I was a latecomer to mobile phones and didn’t get one until about ten years ago. Now I have a panic attack if I even walk out the door without it. iPhone ownership has only escalated the obsession. What would I do if I couldn’t call my husband or check my email or play Words with Friends at any given moment? Wireless LAN is your computer’s way of getting on the internet without being connected to a wall. But, just like you need a cell phone tower somewhere nearby to get a cell signal, you need to have computer equipment nearby sending out a signal in order to use your wireless LAN.
  • Phone Line – Ethernet LAN
    This is the phone that plugs into the wall. You know, the one that gets calls from telemarketers and pizza delivery men and all those other people that you wouldn’t give your cell number to. The Ethernet LAN port on your computer also needs to be plugged into the wall. As a matter of fact, the port looks a lot like a phone line port, but it needs a network cable and not a phone cable. Getting on the internet over the Ethernet LAN port is faster than wireless, but definitely less convenient.


A computer is a lot more complicated then I’ve described here, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t have a general understanding of the major pieces in order to make intelligent purchases. I hope that this helps explain some of the major computer parts that you’ll read about when replacing the computer your precious angel destroyed. And after you purchase your new computer, go ahead and get Little Johnny a shiny new toy that’s cheaper to replace.

5 thoughts on “Making Sense of Techie Computer Descriptions”

  1. Wow, technical info that is fun to read! Good job – how about a segment on how to organize files (like pics / documents.
    .-= Carmen´s last blog ..Ocean View =-.

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