Lost in Technobabylon

Computer consultants often speak in technobabble, and I’m as guilty as anyone else. When I’m at a client’s house, and they ask me why their computer is slow, I’ll say: “Your hard drive is too small for what you have on it.” “Your system has only 512MB of RAM.” “Your virtual memory allocation is too low.” Usually followed by a deer in the headlights look and “Huh?”

Not good. I like my clients to understand what is going on in their computer. Computers are not mysterious, scary black boxes that work by ancient mystical spells cast during the dark of night in the faraway land of Dell.

When I get that blank stare, I explain:

“You’re working at your desk. Do you go over to your filing cabinet, take out one piece of paper at a time and work on it, then return it and get another one? No! You remove the folders you need. You bring them to your desk, and work on them there. If your work is larger than the desk, you put the overflow on a side table. And when you’re done, you return all the folders to the filing cabinet.

“This is how your computer works. The filing cabinet, where the files are kept, is your hard drive. The desk, where you work on the folders, is your system RAM. And the side table is your virtual memory. When you call up a program, it copies it from the hard drive to your RAM. You work on it there. If it takes more space than you have available, the overflow is pushed into a section of the hard drive the computer sets aside, called the virtual memory. When you’re done, the result is saved back to the hard drive where it waits for your next command.”

They all work together. If your system RAM is not up to the task, the computer uses part of the hard drive to make up the difference, though this will be slower than RAM usage. The hard drive has to have sufficient space to contain the virtual memory needed as well as the program storage you require. The first things I look at on slow computers are the size of the hard drive and the amount of RAM, and those are usually the first things I recommend for upgrading.

Hard drives will not last forever. If your drive is grinding away, taking a long time to find programs and data, and is over five years old, it’s probably time for a new one. New drives are dirt cheap, with a 500GB drive averaging about $50.00. I always recommend a larger drive than is presently installed, so the system will have the room to expand the virtual memory as needed.

Next week, we’ll look at software solutions to speeding up your computer. There are many good freeware solutions to these problems, and we’ll look at several options.

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