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Having worked in technical support for a number of years and also needing to get support with computer issues at times, I know that there are challenges when trying to communicate about computer components. It’s often frustrating for a user to explain what part is making what noise on their system. It’s equally frustrating for the support person to try to decipher what the customer is saying..

Here are a few terms about basic computers and what they actually are:

Commonly Misused Terms: CPU/Hard Drive/Modem

Translation: If you hear someone express that they’re having a problem with their CPU, usually they mean that their actual computer unit is having a problem. A CPU is actually a component within each computer unit. It handles the processing of instructions of computer programs and passes those instructions on to the hardware of the computer. Also, your hard drive is a component within a computer, unless it’s an external hard drive. This handles the storage of data. Finally, a modem is also a component for a computer, either internal or external. It handles communication with dial-up Internet service providers, such as AOL.

With that said, if you have a loud grinding noise coming from your system, you can simply say that it’s coming from the tower, computer case, or workstation. That will help the support person isolate it instead of trying to figure out what you mean by modem, CPU or hard drive.

Commonly Misused Terms: RAM/Memory

Translation: When I took support calls, I would have people tell me that their memory was full and they needed help. What they actually meant was that the hard drive was filling up with data and free space was running low. RAM (Random-Access Memory) and memory are pretty much the same things. RAM allows for your programs and data to be accessed in a constant time. You see how RAM works by starting to type a document. As you type information, that information is stored in the computer’s RAM. If you reboot your computer without saving the document to your hard drive, you will see that the document is now gone. That’s because it was stored in RAM is not permanent storage whereas a hard drive is permanent.

Commonly Misused Terms: Desktop/Tower

Translation: While this is less of an issue, sometimes people may not understand the difference between a desktop and a tower. They are both computers, but these terms relate to their form factor design. A tower computer generally is tall and stands vertically. A desktop computer is usually slim and lays flat on a horizontal surface. Desktop systems may not always accept all hardware components because of their slim design. So, if you’re buying parts upgrades for a desktop computer, such as a new video card, make sure that the part will fit into a desktop.

Commonly Misunderstood Terms: CD-ROM, CD-RW, DVD-ROM, DVDRW

Translation: Many misunderstand what these abbreviations actually mean. This table should help clarify a few of them, but there are many more variations:


Abbreviation Meaning
 CD-ROM  A CDROM drive can only read data and audio CDs.
 CD-RW  A CDRW drive can read data and audio CDs but can also write data to blank CDs.
 DVD-ROM  A DVDROM drive can read data and video DVDs. It usually can read data and audio from CDs.
 DVD-RW  A DVDRW drive can read data and video DVDs but it can also record data to blank DVDs. Most DVDRW drives can also record data and audio to blank CDs.

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