How Computers Work: What’s Cookin’?

Over the years I’ve helped a lot of people with their computer issues. Friends, family, strangers on the Internet.  The problems have been big and small and everything in between.  I’ve always been big on helping them understand the how and why, so if they have the problem again they can solve it themselves.  I don’t get paid to help people, so I don’t have an interest in repeat business.  I’m more about “here’s what you do if this happens again” guy, instead of “I used my computing superpowers to exorcise the demons from your magic number box.”

Understanding the basics of how computers work is an important starting point to helping people “get” how to fix things.  I tend to describe things using analogies, and one that I’ve developed over the years to explain the “mystery” of computers is “The Kitchen.”  Here’s how it goes:

Think of your computer as a kitchen. In your kitchen, you have a cook named CPU.  CPU is a great cook and he’s really smart, but he needs a few things to make you dinner.  First, he needs a place to cook the food; a stove top. We’ll call the stove top RAM.  He’ll also need a place to keep the food when he’s not cooking it, like a refrigerator. Let’s call that the hard drive.

The reason I like this analogy is it gives someone who knows nothing about computers an easy way to visualize things like upgrades.  For example, I’ve helped lots of people who think that when their computer starts to slow down they need to add a bigger hard drive.  I use the kitchen analogy to explain why that wouldn’t work.

CPU is a great cook, I tell them, but buying him a bigger refrigerator won’t help him cook any faster. What he really needs is more space on the stove so he can cook more things at once. So he needs more RAM.

The flip side is also true.  I’ve helped folks who ran out of space to keep all their pictures. They came to me and said they needed to “add more rams”.  No, I explained, CPU has plenty of space to work, he just needs more room in the fridge. What you need is a bigger hard drive.

Or you can just go with a full upgrade

This way of looking at it can help with other areas too: peripherals become blenders and food processors. Ports become extra counter space. Programs and applications are cookbooks he uses to learn new dishes. SSDs are just refrigerators with conveyor belts that throw the food out to the cook at super speed.  DVDs are shiny cookbooks, and flash drives are coolers you can take with you.

“How do you want your noodles? Intel or AMD?”

My most recent addition is graphics.  I explain the GPU as the glasses YOU wear when you eat the food. The better the glasses, the more colorful and attractive the food is to you. Hey, it’s not perfect, but it’s mine.

I don’t use this analogy to say “you’re so stupid this is all you can understand.”  Quite the contrary, I use it when we’ve talked about their computer for a while and it’s clear they’re not getting the concepts. This works best with older folks who’ve never really used computers beyond “the Interwebs.”  I actually enjoy helping people understand things…why do you think I blog?  It’s a great feeling when you get to be there for that “aha!” moment when they get how it all fits together.

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