Computer help: An Easy Explanation of Two Commonly Confused Terms - Memory and Hard Drive
By Worth Godwin

When it comes to a computer, there are so many terms like RAM, megahertz, gigabytes, etc. that people can find confusing. Having a better understanding of some of these terms can help you feel more comfortable using your computer, and ultimately get more out of it.

A lot of people I talk to seem to be apologetic about their lack of knowledge. It's too bad people feel that way; they really shouldn't.

What I tell them is that while they may not know as much as I do about computers, there's nothing wrong with that, and they probably know a lot of other things I don't know much about. All you need is someone who takes the time to explain things to you in a way that makes sense.

One term many people confuse is memory (also known as RAM), and hard drive storage space.

RAM stands for Random Access Memory (don't worry, you don't need to remember that!). It is a temporary working space the computer uses to get work done, which gets emptied when the computer is turned off. Think of it like a work bench or table. You have a project you're working on and you do your project on the bench and when you're done, you clear it off.

The hard drive is the main place your computer uses to store information. It looks like a rectangular metal box about 3.5" wide, which contains a non-removable disk. It is the disk inside the drive which stores everything.

Think of it as a set of shelves where you store the tools or materials for your project -- when you want to work on something you choose the things you need from the shelves, put them on the bench and work on the project. This is like when you run a program; the computer loads the program from the hard drive into memory.

So the larger the shelves, the more you can store -- i.e. the more programs you can have installed, the more songs or pictures or videos you can save on your computer.

Many people accidentally call their computer (the big box-like thing hooked up to the screen) a hard drive, but this is based on a misunderstanding. Both RAM and the hard drive are parts located inside of the computer, and most people never actually see these parts.

Most people with a computer made in the last few years have far bigger hard drives than they'll ever use. Few people ever fill them up, unless they are keeping a lot of large files such as music or pictures, or especially video files. Saving complete movies on your computer can really eat up space very quickly.

If someone tells you need more memory, or your computer gives you an error message about being low on memory, this usually means you don't have enough RAM. This can slow your computer down drastically.

Think of the bench idea again: if your bench is very small, you can't fit everything you need on it to get your work done, so you're constantly wasting time moving stuff off and back onto the bench to get your work done, if you can work at all.

Both RAM and hard drive space are measured with the same terms: kilobytes (KB), megabytes (MB), and gigabytes (GB). This may be one reason people confuse the two terms.

So why is it that you buy a computer one year that has a lot of RAM, and two or three years go by, why do people tell you it doesn't have enough memory? This is because each year the average size of software, and the amount of memory it needs, gets larger.

It's as if the tools you use on your workbench keep growing every year so you eventually have to get a larger bench.

If your computer seems to be running more slowly recently, or you've been having odd errors, it could be that you need to upgrade your memory, which doesn't cost much to do and can add life to your computer. It's not a cure-all for a slow computer, but it can help.

Another possibility is that you have hidden programs using up memory which can be removed -- some of these programs are actually dangerous. I highly recommend reading my article on adware and spyware to help protect yourself from the malicious programs that may already be lurking on your computer. You can read the article at:

And remember, computers don't have to be confusing, as long as the explanation makes sense!

Worth Godwin is a computer coach with a dozen years' experience helping computer users of all levels, and has also worked for many years "in the trenches" as a hardware and software tech, solving real-world computer problems.

Worth has also been studying the human mind, and how people learn, since the early 1990s. He draws upon all of this experience, as well as his English and writing degrees, to teach people in a unique way with explanations that really make sense.

In 2006, Worth began putting his easy lessons together as video lessons on CD, carefully designed to make it easy to learn at your own pace, for an affordable price. These lessons let you see each click of the mouse and every step of the lesson, while you hear Worth's clear explanations.

Individual CDs as well as entire courses are available for both Windows and Macs, and everything comes with a full 1-year no-hassle money back guarantee.

More information, and testimonials from happy clients, are available at or

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