Does your head start to hurt when some technogeek comes around to fix your
computer and starts rambling off technical terms that make your ears bleed?
In this article, I'll explain some of the basic operations of computers, in
a way, I hope, will make the concepts easier to understand than through a mouthful
The web is full of wonderful places to learn more about technical terminology.
My favorite, quick site to get an answer is www.webopedia.com.
If you ever are hit with a technical term that you don't understand, go to Webopedia,
type in the term and you'll get details of it's meaning.
If you look up RAM at Webopedia, you'll find the information below.
Now wait! Before you read this, remember this is the techno-babble explanation!
It's a good explanation, if you can understand it. But if you have trouble
understanding what the explanation below means, don't run away yet!
RAM = Pronounced ramm, acronym for random access memory, a type of computer
memory that can be accessed randomly; that is, any byte of memory can be
accessed without touching the preceding bytes. RAM is the most common type
of memory found in computers and other devices, such as printers.
There are two basic types of RAM:
dynamic RAM (DRAM)
static RAM (SRAM)
The two types differ in the technology they use to hold data, dynamic RAM
being the more common type. Dynamic RAM needs to be refreshed thousands
of times per second. Static RAM does not need to be refreshed, which makes
it faster; but it is also more expensive than dynamic RAM. Both types of
RAM are volatile, meaning that they lose their contents when the power is
In common usage, the term RAM is synonymous with main memory, the memory
available to programs. For example, a computer with 8M RAM has approximately
8 million bytes of memory that programs can use. In contrast, ROM (read-only
memory) refers to special memory used to store programs that boot the computer
and perform diagnostics. Most personal computers have a small amount of
ROM (a few thousand bytes). In fact, both types of memory (ROM and RAM)
allow random access. To be precise, therefore, RAM should be referred to
as read/write RAM and ROM as read-only RAM.
Ok, so what does all that gibberish mean! Let me give you a comparison explanation
that I've used many times over the years to explain what all that means.
If someone asks you how much space you have on your computer, they're asking
you how much room you have to store things on your computerthe size of
your hard drive. Time to visualize. Think of your computer as your dining room.
In there you have a large table. You also have a cabinet. Think of the cabinet
as the hard drive on your computer. In it, you can stuff things like a bunch
of software boxes, photo albums, tapes with music, or folders with letters.
Your hard drive also can contain these types of things. Both can store your
When the cabinet gets full, it's time to buy a larger cabinet or get a second
one. If you can't afford to buy a new one, it's time to sit down and clean out
that cabinet. Take out the old junk that you no longer need. You can either
put that stuff in a box to shove in the basement, in case you may need it again
in the future. Or you can toss it in the trash. And if you take the time to
organize that cabinet, you'll discover you can find stuff in there faster.
The same is true with your computer. If you realize you're running low on hard
drive space and you can't install more programs, it's time to start cleaning
out the old junk to make more room. Copy old files onto floppy disks or burn
onto CDs (if you have a CD burner) so you can store the files away in case you
need them later. Or you can delete files you no longer need.
However, don't delete files unless you're sure you know what they are!
I can't tell you how many computers I've had to put back together because some
genius friend decided to make room on their system and started just hitting
delete on all the files he didn't recognize! <sigh> If you think you
don't need the file, rather than deleting, move it into some holding folder
and wait to see if moving the file messes up anything. If you get an error that
the file is missing and needed, you can always move the file back where it belongs.
You can also remove old software programs you don't use anymore. But don't
just go into the folder and hit delete! Click Start/Settings and go to
the Control Panel. There you'll find the Add/Remove icon. Open
that icon and look for the program(s) you want to remove. From that dialog,
you can properly uninstall programs you no longer need. This helps remove
the extra system files you wouldn't be removing if you just ripped out the program's
folder. Plus, removing the program through this dialog or through the programs
official uninstall icon (if it has one) will help the system entries in your
computer be removed and/or updated. This will remove all references to the program,
so you won't get errors because your computer starts looking for a program that
it thinks is still installed.
If someone asks you how much memory your computer has, they're not talking
about hard drive space. They're asking you how much RAM your computer
has. Break out those visualization skills again and this time we'll associate
the Random Access Memory (RAM) in your computer with your dining room table.
You sit down at your dining room table, break out paper and pen because you're
going to write a letter or work on some project. You spread out your papers.
Depending on how difficult the project is, you may need a lot of space on that
table to organize all the tools you need to get the job done.
Just as with your computer, when you want to write a letter or work on some
project, you need to open programs and spread them out within your computer's
memoryit's RAM. If you have a simple note to write, you might use a little
program like Notepad. If it's a more involved project, maybe you'll open Word
or some special stationary program. The bigger the program, the more RAM will
be needed and subsequently used.
If you have a large dining room table, just like a lot of RAM, you'll find
you don't have much difficulty getting the job done because you have lots of
room on that table to work. Just as your computer has lots of RAM to allow programs
to work quickly.
Let's assume that while you're working on that project you have on the table,
you realize you need to draw a few illustrations to go with the text portion
you were writing. So you leave your project where it is and you move to the
other side of the table and bring out some colored pencils and big sheets of
paper. On your computer, you might leave Word open with your writing project,
which is still in memory (RAM), and you open Power Point to put together some
quick drawings. Just as your table is getting more crowded, there's now also
less available RAM on your computer because much of it is now being taken up
by the programs you now have open.
Say you're tired of working on your project and decide to take a break. But
you don't want to take the time to put away the other projects, because you'll
need them again, soon. So you leave everything as it is on your table and pull
out a puzzle to work on for a little mental relaxation. Now your table is really
getting short of space and it's a bit difficult to get the puzzle spread out
properly. Just as the memory on your computer would now get a little slow if
you were to open a game program while you still have the other programs open.
It might even freeze up or crash if you continue to push it to it's limits!
Suddenly your child runs in with his homework and asks for help. There's very
little room left on the table in which to work. It's going to take time to shove
all those other papers over to make room so you and your child will have room
to sit down and work. In the computer scenario, you have Word and PowerPoint
open, you just opened a game and now you realize you also have to open your
email program to send a quick note. But your computer is now working slowly
or stalls. Your computer is having difficulty getting itself organized to work
in the little amount of space that's now available, just as you and your child
are now having difficulty making room within the little free space now available
on that table.
If another project comes up, you'll realize you're hitting the limits of what
your table can handle. Just as your computer can run out of RAM if you have
too many programs open. You may think you don't have much open, but just opening
Word takes up some space. That screen saver you have sitting in the background
just waiting to run when you leave your computer is also taking up resources.
Not much yet, because it's not running, but it's a resident program,
meaning it's open and waiting in the background. It is taking up some
RAM. So are all those other items sitting down there waiting in your SysTray.
Maybe you're connected to a network; you have your Internet connection open;
or you have a fancy keyboard that uses special keyboard drivers that are also
waiting. All those waiting programs are taking up RAM.
You can turn off some of those extra programs by right clicking them
and investigating their purpose. Closing them will give you a little more
room. However, if you need a lot more room, you'll have to close some
of the big programs that are still open. Just as you'll have to put some of
those projects, that are taking up all that space on your table, back into the
cabinet. However, just as you can add an extra leaf into your dining room table
to give you more room, you can go out and purchase more RAM chips to install
in your computer to give you more space in which to work within your computer,
as well as allow the programs to run faster.
Clearing Off the Table
One thing you have to realize when you're doing this comparison, is that although
you can clear off your dining room table completely by removing everything on
it; when it comes to computers, just closing a program isn't always enough to
make it go away. When you open a computer program, there are many application
system files that go into memory (RAM) so that they're waiting and available
for you. As with Word, you have the spell checker, graphics libraries, printer
drivers, and so on, that come to attention when they see an associated program
being opened. They will start taking up space in RAM waiting for you to call
on them. Some of these tools only go into memory the first time you use them,
but then many of them will stay in memory waiting for you to ask for
their help again. When you close a program, all those tools don't always go
away. Some of them kinda get stuck in your memory. Maybe the programmers didn't
remember to free up the memory properly. Maybe the operating system forgot they
were hiding out there. So to really clear off your computer's table (its RAM),
you'll need to close Windows. This action will force any excess tools,
that may still be hanging around, to go home.
Another issue that you should be aware of, which is related to the Clearing
off the Table scenario above, is that it's common that your computer can
experience an afternoon drag on it's system. How many times have you
noticed that your computer seems to slow down and/or start freezing or acting
wacky late in the day? This is caused because of the all those extra tools that
have not been removed when program close are starting to accumulate.
You enter the office in the morning, turn on your computer and it's working
pretty fast. As you're working away, you open and close lots of different programs.
Each time you open a program, files go into memory. But when you close the programs,
those extra system files and drivers don't always go away. If you open the same
program again, usually it'll open a new set of system files, rather than knowing
to use the ones that are already in memory. So as the day progresses, more and
more clutter gets into your memory, but not all comes out. These start to accumulate.
That means that by the time the day starts rolling to a close, your computer
can really start acting up on you.
A great way to avoid this problem is to give your computer a lunch break, too!
When you come back from lunch, restart your computer. This will help force the
morning's accumulation out of memory and give you a refreshed start on the afternoon.
Now granted, newer operating systems are better at reallocating memory, meaning
they're better at forcing those tools to go home and free up that used memory
when programs close. And with reduced costs of RAM, computers have a lot more
RAM than they used to have. But then again, the fancier programs today also
take up more memory to run. If you have a good system, there may be no need
to shut down the system during the day to help clear it. But if it's not the
greatest system and you do notice lags after using the system for several hours,
then a way around the problem is to give your PC a little breather by restarting
As I love to say, "when in doubt, reboot!"
To learn more about things you can do to improve how efficiently your computer
works and to help solve some computer problems, check out this article, too: