Windows n00b needs help explaining how computer is formed.
November 29, 2008 9:49 AM   Subscribe

Windows Illiteracy Filter. Help me help my mother via long-distance to understand the difference between memory and hard disk storage, and how to access information on her Windows XP machine that will tell her how much memory she has, if there are any empty slots, what type of memory her computer requires, and how large her hard drive is, including used/available space stats.

I'm a long-time Mac user that could probably find all this given long enough in front of said computer, but she lives 1800 miles away, and I don't know where to tell her to click.

I could also use guidance in how to explain these complexities in pedestrian language, so as to not lose my temper with a person who has a tendency to interrupt, in conversation. I will be handling this via email, so as to be able to complete a sentence. I got utterly frustrated with her on the phone the other day trying to explain the difference, as I wanted to send her some files, but she said she didn't have enough memory to store them. I tried to explain the difference between memory and storage, but got interrupted to the point where I gave up. Today I get an email from her telling me her computer "has 3 mb of memory."

Hope me.
posted by Devils Rancher to Computers & Internet (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Have her download and install Belarc. It will completely profile her system and present all the specs and stats in an easy to understand format.
It will also list the hard drive and RAM in two different sections, as an added bonus.
posted by ApathyGirl at 9:56 AM on November 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


Use the following analogy:

Memory is like her purse.She always has it with her, it can only hold so much stuff and it's pretty easy to find things in there. Disk storage is like her closet. It can hold a lot of stuff, but it's a hassle to always be going inside it to get things and when it gets full, it takes a long time to sort through it's contents to find the one thing you are looking for.
posted by MCTDavid at 10:01 AM on November 29, 2008 [3 favorites]


This sounds like a job for Fog Creek Copilot. It's basically a VNC app that does the spadework with home broadband NAT. (Crossloop is free, but Windows only.)

From transatlantic family tech support experience, some kind of screen-sharing app is a life-saver. Remote diagnosis, or demonstrate what to do while Family Member watches the cursor move. Combine it with Skype, and you're sorted.
posted by holgate at 10:06 AM on November 29, 2008


Hi Mom,

Actually your computer probably has mor memory than that. Memory is a tricky word because some people use it interchangeably to refer to how much hard drive space a computer has or how much RAM [think of it as short term memory] a computer has. So, you probably have more than 3MB of memory but let me tell you how to check.

If you right-click on the My Computer icon on the desktop and pick "properties" from the menu. You'll get a window that looks like this

http://www.bc.edu/offices/help/meta-elements/gif/xp_sysprops.gif

it will tell you in the lower right what sort of computer hardware you have and how much RAM you have. Remember this is short term memory and only matters if you're realy trying to use a program that needs a lot of memory for working with.

If you double click on the my computer icon you'll see your hard drive (it usually has a dumb name like "Local Disk C:") if you right click on THIS and choose proerpties, you'll se a pie chart showing you how much space you have on your hard drive and also how much is available, it will look something like this

http://h10025.www1.hp.com/ewfrf-JAVA/Doc/images/c00841654.gif

It's possible that your hard drive is almost full, but unlikely. Let me know if this doesn't make sense or if you have more questions

Your sin,

Devils Rancher
posted by jessamyn at 10:08 AM on November 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


All best answers! Jessamyn, if sin wasn't a typo, it's at least right on. :-)
posted by Devils Rancher at 10:16 AM on November 29, 2008


Oh my GOD I feel for you! I used to have similar discussions with my mum (luckily my uncle has taken over now).

I used "real world" analogies when she couldn't understand the difference between the OS and different programs - along the lines of: Windows is the desk you work on, and Word is your notepad you write your letters on, and Solitaire is your deck of cards you have lying on the side of the desk... (Word and Solitaire were the only applications she used).

But I struggle to find analogies for hard drive storage vs memory. Something like: hard drive storage is the size of your drawers, memory is... um, what's currently on your desk for quick grabbing? (yes I know that is lame)

If I may give you advice (that is not an answer to your question though)... if you are at the above stage (exactly the way I was at one point) then maybe you are simply not the right person to explain this to her so find someone else. My uncle and I are pretty much on the same level wrt computer knowlegde, but he must have something I don't - not being her progeny (which probably makes her interrupt less), quite possibly more patience, or a different approach.

The I got utterly frustrated with her thing is exactly what I used to do, shouting at her "come on, you are an intelligent woman, you used to explain maths to me, how can you not get this??" This was probably (ahem) the wrong approach.

Good luck!

[on preview, yes what everyone else said, much better than me]
posted by ClarissaWAM at 10:19 AM on November 29, 2008


I think we should minimize suggestions that require the mother to download and/or install anything. Devils Rancher has told us that her inability to receive new files is what started all this trouble.

to discover how much RAM the system has, have her right-click on the "My Computer" icon on her desktop, and then click on "Properties" within the menu that appears. The "System Properties" window will appear, with 6 tabs along the top. The "General" tab should be the one displayed by default. There should be information under three headings, "System", "Registered to" and "Computer". Under "Computer", one of the lines (typically the 3rd and last) lists the speed of the processor and the ammt of RAM, in such a format: 1.27 GHz, 512 MB of RAM

To discover the HDD stats, have her opening "My Computer" by double-clicking. She should see a number of items under different headings like "Hard Disk Drives" and "Devices with Removable Storage". Under "Hard Disk Drives", there will be one icon/text listing for each physical HDD or partition. Have her right-click on the entry for her drive, then click on "Properties" within the menu that appears. The "Local Disk Properties" window will appear, with 4 tabs along the top. The "General" tab should be the one displayed by default. There should be 3 lines near the middle of this window that read "Used Space", "Free Space" and "Capacity', and the final piece of info on each line is a GB or MB value like 23.4 GB or 105 MB.

I don't know a fool-proof way to discover if there are free RAM slots on her motherboard, but I suppose it is possible to use the Device Manager to identify the motherboard and tell you how many modules of RAM are in use, so you could look up the motherboard online and sort of guess how things are likely to be configured... I'm having trouble using the device manager to confirm this, because I run XP in Parallels on a Mac.
posted by chudmonkey at 10:26 AM on November 29, 2008


You can remote control her computer with something like crossloop and you can view the ram, motherboard, slots available, with an application called CPU-Z.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:51 AM on November 29, 2008


RAM is notes stuck to the door of your refrigerator with magnets.

HD is books in your library.
posted by Class Goat at 11:16 AM on November 29, 2008


I always like the analogy: RAM is like a chalk-board; HD is like a filing cabinet.
posted by Eddie Mars at 11:22 AM on November 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


Lordy. Even without interruptions and your word as gospel that is a task... (Mine just decides it's too hard and she'll wait for me to come over. I'm really starting to think it's all just a trick though? ..Perhaps something to keep in mind? :)

I actually said to her "If you get a Mac - you're on your own." - because I know nothing at all about them... So, how old is your Mum's computer? Maybe she needs a new one? A freakin' Mac so you can goddamn help her with it. (Ugh!!) Oh, but in the mean time, it might help to find out *what* she has. That'll likely hold the clues to all your ram questions and ect. - with the least amount of wanting to shoot yourself anyway.
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 2:25 PM on November 29, 2008


Another possible analogy that has worked for me in the past:

Computer is the kitchen.
RAM is countertops (for stuff you use a lot or are using right now)
HD is cabinets (for long term storage)
posted by jindc at 4:44 PM on November 29, 2008


Okay, here goes -- email sent. Wish me luck:

I've been digging about a bit on the internet, trying to learn some things about Windows, so I could help you a bit with your computer.

Here's what I was trying to get at on the phone the other day -- "memory," or RAM (acronym for Random Access Memory, but who cares) is the short-term quick-access chip that your computer loads the operating system into when you turn it on, and programs, like Word or iTunes, when you launch them, and any unsaved files you've created while using them. The amount of "available" RAM will vary from minute to minute, depending on what programs you're running and how much RAM they use. Some programs, like Firefox, use a lot of RAM when they're open. If you're looking at a lot a big photos on your web browser, while listening to music, and writing a 15-page Word file, you'll have very little "available" RAM, because you're using most of it, at the moment. You can free up RAM by quitting programs and closing files -- if that doesn't do much, re-starting your machine will free up all RAM you have, except for what it needs for the operating system -- in your case, I suspect you're using Windows XP.

RAM does not maintain data when the electricity is turned off, or when you close a program. Those are stored on your hard drive. The hard drive is a spinning magnetic disk that sores information long-term. When you save a file, say you've just written a letter in Word, then you hit the "Save..." dialog in the file menu, the file is written from RAM to your hard drive. The hard drive, often referred to as the "C drive" in the Windows world) stores all the information on your computer, even when the power is off. The operating system files, your program or "application" (nomenclature -- it wanders from year to year) files, your .mp3 files (music), your jpeg files, (photos), and your documents, word files, what have you, are stored on this disk, to be called up into RAM as you request them. (think of your hard drive as a book shelf, and opening a program or file as taking a book down off a shelf to read. -- You've got lots of room on the shelf for books, but can only read/hold so many at one time)

That said, there's no way you have just 3 megabytes of storage available on your computer -- it couldn't function under those circumstances. Here's what I've gleaned about Windows and how to learn about how much RAM you have, and how much hard drive space you have. (I wish you had a Mac -- I could just access it with your IP address and look at these stats for myself -- with your permission, of course)

1. For RAM, or "memory,"

If you right-click on the My Computer icon on the desktop and pick "properties" from the menu. You'll get a window that looks like this:

http://www.bc.edu/offices/help/meta-elements/gif/xp_sysprops.gif

It will tell you in the lower right what sort of computer hardware you have and how much RAM you have. This will be the total installed. Let me know what all this says, and I can figure out about how to get you more RAM, if you need it -- it's cheap these days, and can be installed by anyone who can operate a screwdriver. No need to pay someone more than the RAM is worth to come stick it into a an empty slot. Let me know what type & model of computer you have, and I'll figure out how many slots it has & what type of RAM it takes.

----------

2. For hard drive, if you double click on the "My Computer" icon you'll see your hard drive (it usually has a dumb name like "Local Disk C:") if you right click on THIS and choose proerpties, you'll se a pie chart showing you how much space you have on your hard drive and also how much is available, it will look something like this

http://h10025.www1.hp.com/ewfrf-JAVA/Doc/images/c00841654.gif

Let me know what those total, used and available numbers say.

These days, hard drives are measured in gigabytes (1000 megabytes) and average from 40 to 500 gigabytes, depending on how new & expensive your computer is/was. Let me know how much free space you have --I suspect it'll be enough to store quite a few files.

If I send them to you on a DVD, all you'll have to do is drag and drop them from the DVD to your hard drive, and they'll be on your hard drive from then on, until you delete them.


Lastly,
If you're up to it, you could try downloading this program someone recommended, and copy/paste the results of its profile into an email to me. There's instructions on the download site here:

http://www.belarc.com/free_download.html

Love,
DR

posted by Devils Rancher at 2:49 PM on November 30, 2008


Follow-up to follow-up: she downloaded Belarc, and it did a fantastic job of spitting out an html document, which she emailed to me. Results: her computer is a dog. 448 mb RAM 700-something mhz AMD processor, 10 GB hard drive. (2 GB left open) Windows 2000. I think I'll save up and buy her a used iMac G5 for Xmas. I could stuff it with RAM, make her a user, turn on ARD, and be done with it.
posted by Devils Rancher at 10:05 AM on December 1, 2008


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