David Maycock BSc (Hons) Computer Science

Basic Guide to Computer Terminology


The "brain" of the computer, this is where all operations, calculations or "processing" occurs. Although this is a good indication of how fast your computer is just having a good processor is not enough to stop it from being slow, it needs the service of Memory and other components to be capable of supporting the flow of data to and from the processor. Some new processors come as dual core or quad core, this is simply two or four processors working together, although this improves speed a 2 x 1GHz processor machine would not necessarily be as fast as a single core 2GHz. The total speed rating of the processor is a usually a good indicator as to its power. But some ratings are often confusing so the easiest thing to do is ask!

What is good? Old machines running windows 98 can function comfortably on about 500MHz 1GHz (1000MHz) of processor power depending on the workload, someone using the internet, email and word processor would get away with the lower end of the scale, whereas more powerful programs and games or large use of media will require more.

Windows XP will function comfortably on 1GHz - 3GHz, again the more media hungry the software you use the more power you will need. With windows Vista needing even more resources to run comfortably 2GHz + would do the trick.


The memory of the computer is the temporary store where everything the machine is using at that time is stored. Often referred to as the RAM it is often overlooked as an important component of the machine as the processor's main supplier and receiver of data despite the fact it is one of the cheapest and easiest upgrades available for computers and your performance can be considerably improved from as little as 20 doing this. It is far too common that people experiencing a slow running computer due to not having enough memory. The problem comes when the machine is currently running server programs at once, e.g. a few instances of their internet browser, their email client, and their word processor. If this is using all the available memory and the user tries to load another program or a virus scan begins. It can no longer store this data in the main memory so it has to use space on the Hard Disk Drive to store this data. Although the response time of the Hard Drive is still milliseconds this can be thousands of times slower than the main memory, and because data that should be stored in the main memory is constantly being accessed and modified these milliseconds can soon add up when it has to happen with every 0 or 1 which is the basic unit that forms everything you see in front of you.

How much is enough? Older Windows 98 machines can function comfortably on anything between 256MB and 512MB. Windows XP is comfortable running on between 512MB and 1GB. For Windows Vista to avoid problems it's probably best to have 1GB+ RAM. If you need help to find out how much memory you have you can visit www.crucial.co.uk who will run a free scan of your computer to let you know how much RAM you have and how much you can have. Always remember a computer's motherboard (the central component that connects and manages all components of your computer) will have a limit as to how much RAM you can install.

Hard Drive

Hard Drive size is often confused with main memory, as both are a form of memory. Whereas the main memory or RAM store the data currently in use by the machine for efficient access and modification, the Hard Drive is where everything that is on your computer is stored including programs you do not use very often, games, music pictures and video. The hard drive is better described as storage than memory. Media such as pictures and video use the most memory.

How much is good?

Older versions of Windows could run on less than a Gigabyte (1GB), but ideally your system certainly a Windows Vista would require about 10GB. Most computers now come with at least 60-80GB and Windows will soon let you know if you run low. A good way of protecting your data is to partition your Hard Drive and keep all data such as documents and pictures on a separate section of your Hard Drive then let Windows have its drive (C: default) to itself. Then if anything goes wrong with your system the chances will be your data will be safe. You can then back this up regularly onto CD/DVD or a USB pen to be extra safe.

One way to think of your computer is to think of it as a person (bear with me here this isn't a moral lecture on respecting the feelings and welfare of the Pentium processor) You can think of the processor and memory as the brain, and the Hard Drive as a book with information used by the person.

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