How Do You Explain Computer Concepts To Non-Tech Types?

How Do You Explain Computer Concepts To Non-Tech Types?

If you’ve ever been called on to diagnose, fix, upgrade or shop for a new computer, you know that hardware and software features can be hard to convey in plain English. We’re searching for the best non-geek explanations you’ve heard.

Reader Allan sent in this explanation of computer basics he’d heard a sales person use while helping a couple pick out a computer for their grandchild:

He used the library analogy: The hard drive size was compared to the amount of shelving for books. The CPU speed was the librarian’s quickness on his/her feet (this was a full service library), and the RAM was the size of the table at which one sat. Larger table meant more books could be opened simultaneously. When the table had been covered with books, each time a new book was to be opened, one from the table would have to be closed (pagefile). The last part seemed superfluous in this scenario, but the overall description, with a few stated benchmarks and questions about the grandchild’s habits, seemed a much better than average sales transaction.

That’s pretty clean and simple, and a good variation on the “desk covered with folders and files” metaphor I can recall from my early school days.

Now it’s your turn: How would you explain why Firefox or Google Chrome are so much better than Internet Explorer, if you’d already covered the security angle? Why do 64-bit processors and operating systems matter to the average user? Let’s hear the best explanations you’ve used, or received from others, in the comments.


  • No matter how much I try to dumb down my explanations I still get blank looks from people (my wife, my bosses wife).
    Picture this. . .
    I did a few movies for my bosses wife, only to have her complain time and again they didnt work for her. So, I was pulling my hair our trying to work out why they werent working. Different brand discs, different encoders, burners, etc. . .
    Turns out (after much teeth pulling trying to get an explanation of what was actually going on) she wasnt pressing play on the remote.
    And this is the same woman who calls me every time she has an issue with her PC.
    Its so very painful.

    Some people you just cant explain computers to.

  • Back when I worked at retail selling computers to mostly first-time users, it was sort of an unofficial company policy to use car metaphors wherever possible to explain basic computer principles. The CPU is like the engine, for example, so a quad-core beast is like huge V8 while a netbook is like a little fuel-efficient hatchback that’s great for a quick trip to the shops but not for winning races or towing heavy loads. It actually worked pretty well, since it’s something most people understand and can seize on. Obviously the metaphor breaks down a bit once you start getting into actual technical details, but I’ve always found it to be a really good starting point.

    Once you’ve used that (or some other starting point) to establish building blocks of understanding, you can use those blocks to work up to more complex explanations. So once the person has a broad understanding of what RAM does and why more of it is good, you can explain why a 64-bit OS could be advantageous, for example. And obviously more questions spring from that, like why a non-64 bit system can’t address more RAM, which need to be built up to with more building blocks, but once you get to that point, it becomes technical to the point of being esoteric, and most people (quite rightly) don’t actually care or need to know.

    The most important thing is to keep it grounded on what the person actually needs to know, and not get bogged down in technical minutiae.

    P.S. As for Firefox vs IE, I’d push the features angle, and perhaps bring it back to the car metaphors again, with optional extras like power windows and a nice stereo (and if we’re talking about extentions, they literally are optional extras). As for Chrome, it’s kind of the opposite: stripped-down, streamlined and fast in that minimalist Google way (compare it to the white, stark Google home page, perhaps), without any fancy features someone might not need. Don’t get hung up on standards compliance or anything like that. Just tell them why it might be better to *use* (or drive, if you prefer) one or the other.

  • I used to sell Mac’s in a retail store in a busy shopping mall. One day a guy came in and said his Mac was faulty because he could not delete any file.

    I asked him for a bit more information and he said simply he would click on and item and there was no way to delete it, therefore he had a mass of folders and files.

    After running through many possible problems that could be causing this I asked him to show me what he was doing on one of the Macs in the store.

    He opened Microsoft Word, brought up the Save As.. dialog, clicked on an item and said “Look, it just doesn’t seem to delete anything”.

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