Don’t call a computer a hard drive

Last week my sister pointed at a computer and called it a hard drive. The other one I’ve heard is calling a computer a CPU. I didn’t correct her, because no one really cares. No one, that is, except for techs. Techies are really annoyed when they hear this, because it’s just not right. It’s like pointing at a car and saying it’s a muffler. It doesn’t make any sense.

So, for the basics…most people know what a monitor, keyboard, and mouse are. They could even pick a printer and scanner out of a lineup. That leaves the computer. Most techies hate it when someone points at it and calls it a hard drive or CPU. It’s neither. The computer has those parts, but that’s just it — they’re parts. They’re components of the computer.

The part of the computer you see is the case. Sometimes referred to as a chassis, it’s where you put all the other internal stuff. A case alone is empty, and not very interesting. With stuff, it’s a computer. Not a hard drive, not a CPU. If you want to sound tech, you can even call it a beige box — just make sure it’s beige.

Let’s take a look inside. Inside the case, you’ll see a big silicon board on the bottom that everything hooks into — this is the motherboard. You don’t generally hear motherboards mentioned much in a computer’s quick description, because it’s something only techies would really care about.

On this motherboard you’ll probably see one or more green vertical silicon wafers about 1″ x 4″ in size. These are RAM. In a computer description, you might see something listed as “512 MB” — this is like short term memory for a computer. It’s a good idea to get plenty of this, because the more of it you have, the better your computer can run things at the same time. Do you multitask a lot? Better make sure you have a lot of this stuff. Think of this as like your quick memory, like when you go to the grocery store, and think to yourself, “I need a loaf of bread and a stick of butter.” You don’t write it down, and you’ll forget later that you had to remember this; it’s just useful to get what you need done right away, and then is discarded. Your computer empties this out every time you reboot, and this is normal.

Also on the motherboard, you may or may not see the CPU, which can take a few different forms, ranging from a long black cartridge, to a chip on the board. This thing does all your computer’s heavy lifting — all the calculations that happen behind the scene to do what you want to do. In either case, you’ll see attached to it a large ugly hunk of metal, which is known as a heat sink, which keeps your computer from catching fire from all the work it’s doing. On some machines (especially Dell machines), this is hidden behind a plastic awning. Rest assured, it’s there, because your computer would be a paperweight without one.

You may also see large silicon cards directly plugged into the motherboard. Your monitor may even be plugged into one of them (but not necessarily). These are add-on cards. If your monitor is plugged into one of these, it’s your graphics card. If your speakers are plugged into another one, it’s your sound card. If your network cable is connected to one, it’s your network card. If your phone line is connected to one, it’s your modem. These days, most computers have the graphics cards, sound cards, modems, and network cards actually integrated into the motherboard, so you might not see these.

Not directly attached to the motherboard, but connected via a cable, you should see a metallic rectangular box, about 4″ x 6″ x 1″ in size, with no access to it on the front of the computer. This is the mythical hard drive, where all your data actually gets stored. This is like writing down your grocery list, so you can pull it up and remember it later. This is where all your data is kept, so if you lose this, you lose all your files.

So let’s put it all together. Let’s say you see a computer description listed as such: “Intel Pentium M 2GHz, 1GB RAM, 80GB”. The CPU is the part that reads “Intel Pentium M 2 GHz.” The RAM is (obviously) “1 GB RAM”, and the hard disk size is “80 GB”. All of that, inside a case, makes a computer. Not a CPU. Not a hard drive. Those are just parts.

So stop calling computers hard drives and CPUs. It’ll make the techie’s work of fixing your broken PC a little easier, and won’t grate on their nerves. Do it, or I’ll drive my muffler over to your gutter and smack your hand with a ruler.

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