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Sunday, September 23, 2012

Basic Terminology (Jargon)

If you're anything like me, you get tired of people who term components of a computer incorrectly.  It's annoying, frustratingly confusing, and worst yet is when a consumer/customer gives you an incorrect term, it can lead you to the wrong conclusion, which leads to an incorrect solution, and therefore a very unhappy customer because now they feel they've not only been misled to believe you can help, but it also reflects badly on your organization.

This post is NOT for those of you who are like me.  No, this is a post for the average "joe" consumer who, over the past 25 years has heard the usage of terms through second- and third-hand accounts of computer trouble being handled improperly, mostly because a tech was given incorrect terms.

The purpose of this post is to (hopefully) educate the consumer public, the tech support caller, and the general computer operator / user on proper terminology when speaking tech to a tech.  Let's face it, when you use incorrect terms, it can mean the difference between getting your problem solved or mishandled, sometimes worse.

It's a lot like negotiations in business.  You can make or break a deal using either the right or wrong words or phrases.  Only instead of losing a million dollar contract, you might lose your data on your PC system including important spreadsheets for your job, important contacts, or in the case of the home user you might lose precious pictures that haven't been processed for actual photo prints, videos of your family's invaluable moments in your lives, your email, sometimes even your family medical and financial history.  We have to face the reality that in today's world, the PC system is much more than a business tool.  It has become a tool for the home user, and when it fails with no backup system in place (hard-copies, physical items in a safe, etc) we lose a piece of ourselves with it.

The following are a list of proper terms.  This is not an all-inclusive list, but it should illustrate some key differences in how we think about a computer system.

RAM - Random Access Memory.  This is a component of your computer with both physical and virtual parts to it.  The physical part is the memory module chip that is installed inside your PC system.  Sometimes it can be removed and replaced with an upgraded chip or set of chips.  Usually rectangular in design, small, and relatively inexpensive, though for higher memory upgrades, the prices do go up.  This part of the computer is what stores information (temporarily) when accessing data (files like spreadsheets, databases, word processing documents, pictures, music files, even the internet), and writes data to the hard drive after being temporarily stored for use.

ROM - Read-Only Memory.  Just like it describes, this is a type of memory that can only be read, and not written to.  Things like date/time, processor information, hard drive data, internal components are stored here, and are for general informational use.  It's not meant for modification or manipulation.

CD - ROM - Compact Disc Read Only Memory.  Just like ROM, the information stored on a CDROM Disc is meant for general use and cannot be modified or written to (with some exceptions).  Sometimes it can be software, firmware for a product, or filled with data files pertaining to a product or device.  There are different types of "CDROM" discs, but we'll cover that later.

CD - ROM / DVD - ROM Drive - This is a component of the computer system that reads discs.  Depending on how old the system is, it might ONLY read CDROM software discs and music CDs.  If it's a newer system, chances are it's a DVD-ROM drive where it can read most types of discs.  Some examples are CD-R, CD-RW, DVD-R/DVD+R*, and DVD-RW/DVD+RW* as well as music CDs, photo CDs, regular movie DVDs, etc.

*Note - There is a difference between the (-) disc and the (+) disc.  A good discussion on what the difference is, and what the benefits are of each can be found on C|Net's discussion forum here - LINK

A little side remark about CDROMs and CDROM/DVDROM drives, customers/consumers use these two terms interchangeably, so be careful in providing the right term when speaking to a technician.  It can mean the difference between you having to either buy a new disc or buying a new CDROM drive (which depending on your system specifications can get expensive, and we haven't even discussed labor costs).

CPU - Central Processing Unit.  This is a processor chip that drives your computer.  It's the brains of the whole operation.  This is what provides the billions of calculations per second, handles all components inside the system, and assigns tasks to said components while still controlling the flow of data between your hard drive (we'll discuss that term as well) and the installed RAM.  Some home users believe that their entire PC tower is the CPU.  We'll get to explaining that later.  Without the CPU chip, the computer system is nothing more than a dead and expensive paperweight.  A quick note here.  If the chip were to malfunction or all-of-a-sudden NOT WORK, the computer system will turn on, but nothing would boot.  The OS, the BIOS, NOTHING would go.  And yes, we'll discuss those terms, too!  Although unlikely to fail, when it does, you'll know it well before the tech does.

HDD - Hard Disk Drive.  This is an internal component in your PC system that handles the semi-permanent storage of your computer data, including your Operating System (OS).  In the early days of computers, Hard Drives didn't exist.  Data was stored on what were called "Floppy Disks" in FDDs (Floppy Disk Drives).  Because of the decline in the use of Floppy Disks, we won't even go over that topic (unless you're a hardcore computer technician that's worked on them for 30+ years).  Once again, should this component malfunction for whatever reason (corrupt drive, virus, missing OS), the computer will turn on, even boot the BIOS, but after that nothing will load.  Only a cursor that might say something like "Bad or missing data" or "No Operating System Found"!  Another quick note, be careful what you delete on your drive, and in fact, never delete any file you are unsure about.  It may mean the difference between being able to load your Operating System, and having to either have a tech reload software for your OS, or buy a new PC altogether.  Also, run virus checks as well as general maintenance checks (defrag, ScanDisk, backup, etc) regularly.

Once again, the average user will sometimes say "My hard drive failed, and I can't load anything!".  This is another example of incorrect usage, although sometimes they will be right on the money.  Consumers often mix-up CPU & Hard Drive to describe the fact that their computer has failed.  What they say, and what they mean are not necessarily incompatible, but often times they are.  So be sure to know your terms before you ask a tech for help.

Computer Monitor Screen - Whether it's the old CRT (Cathode-Ray Tube) big ass box with a screen, or the newer LCD displays, this is what displays all the information from your PC including the OS, your data files, music, video clips, your internet sites that you visit, that Facebook or Twitter account you frequently check for updates, your email, etc.  Consumers often mistake this for it being their whole computer, and often times it's just the display itself that has failed, although certain exceptions can occur.  A good rule of thumb is to make sure it's NOT the display by using another one in its place and running the computer.  If you are able to see the computer loading, then it's not something inside the PC.  If you cannot, it's a good bet something else is going wrong.

Computer Tower (Tower Chassis) - The box that houses all the above components (along with other key elements) of a computer.  It also has blinking lights, a power light, and often will include the ever-popular power button.  On newer systems, it may even include USB ports, memory card slots, and microphone / headphone jack ports.  This is where consumers mix this term up with CPU, HDD, and OS.  If something fails, they will usually use this term first before they get to the correct term.  Some of the components inside besides the RAM, HDD, CD/DVD ROM drives are:

1) Video Card - This is what connects your LCD or CRT display monitor and allows you to view your system data whether it's your internet sites, your data files, your pictures, etc.  The older systems might require these, but on newer systems, the video feed is "On-board" meaning it's integrated into the system.  This has been explained in another blog entry.

2) Sound Card - Ever wonder how you are able to hear music files, video clips, and other sounds from your PC?  It's usually from the sound card plugged into your speakers via a 3.5mm speaker jack port.  On older systems, it's not necessarily required, especially on business-class PC systems.  On newer systems, just like the video card, it can now be integrated into the system without you having to buy an unnecessary item.

3) LAN/NIC Card - LAN (Local Area Network) or NIC (Network Interface Controller) card is what connects you to your network whether its your ISP, your router, your Network Hub, etc.  It's what controls the traffic of data and information between your PC and the World Wide Web/Internet.  Once again, older systems might require a separate controller card to be installed in order to use the network.  On newer systems, like the video and sound, it's now being integrated into the PC so you don't have to take it apart to install.  The standard cable to use on this is the ethernet cable or RJ-45 cable jack.

4) Dial-Up Modem - Although now considered archaic, this was widely used on systems older than 2003.  It was considered the industry standard to have a 56k (that's 56 kilobits) modem connecting to a dial-up network (D-U-N) provider.  These types of modems usually use the RJ-11 jack cable, otherwise known as "telephone cable" like the one used when plugged into a wall to either a standard telephone, or the more widely used portable phone with a power base.  Some consumers use the term "Modem", and those of us techs old enough to know the difference between DSL, Cable, etc think of dial-up modems automatically.  Just be sure to let the tech know what type of connection you do have.  If you don't know, please call your ISP (Internet Service Provider) and find out.  Most of the time, if you get a bill from your provider, you should already know.

Some PCs are coming out with "Wireless" capability built-in, which replaces the need for ethernet wire or NIC cards.  Though be sure to let your tech know the difference by describing if you are using a wireless connection to your network, or if it's wired in.  The reason being is that we techs have to change our approach in dealing with network problems when it's one or the other.  Obviously we can't use tactics to fix a wired network problem on a wireless network, and vice-versa.

5) USB (Universal Serial Bus) port - This is a relatively newer type of port that can connect devices such as cameras, webcams, scanners, printers, and about a 100 other types of devices.  Some debate has been going on for some devices whether you can have the computer running and plug a device in.  Although it is considered "hot-swappable" (meaning the device can be plugged/unplugged while the computer is in operation), some devices require that you install software either before or after a device is plugged in.  Without getting into the technical detail, let's just say that the computer has to be aware of the device before or after software installation that controls your device.  I've yet to see a USB port "die" or fail, but when it does there's usually nothing you can do except maybe buy a USB hub or buy a new system.  It's cheaper to buy a USB hub and plug it into a working USB port.

6) Power Supply - DO NOT under any circumstance try to repair this item inside your PC.  You CAN, however, replace it yourself or have a tech do it.  It supplies power directly inside the PC to load your system and provide you with access to your PC relatively quickly.  Without it, your computer won't work.  The caveat to this is the fact that although the power supply can fail, the computer won't necessarily have to be replaced.  However, if the failure is severe enough, like say during a powerful thunderstorm with lightning, it can fail to such a degree that your computer is rendered useless, even after repair.  When users have come to me complaining their computer won't turn on, this is what I check first.  I check to see if A) the computer's power cord is plugged in to a working socket, and B) if it can display information on the monitor screen.  Although techs know when the power supply fails, it can sometimes be a challenge for the average consumer to know the difference between a hard drive failure and a power supply failure.  A good rule of thumb is simply if you can get power to the PC, it's NOT the power supply.  If you press the power button and absolutely nothing happens, it's a good bet your power supply is fried like chicken.

So next time you go to your PC systems administrator or a PC specialist tech, please be aware of these basic terms.  It can mean the difference between you getting your PC fixed, or being frustrated with the PC tech because there's been a misunderstanding between you both, and you both walk away feeling frustrated one way or another.

Have questions or need something explained?  Send me an email at, and I'll do my best to either answer your question or provide an explanation.  If I cannot, I'll point you in the right direction.  If you'd like your question or explanation featured in a blog, let me know too!  Thanks for reading.

Until then, keep your "cookies" tuned in!  :-D