Bob from Ontario writes:

“I have Windows XP and use Firefox.  When I am surfing the web I like to listen to music or a hockey game, etc. but the sound keeps skipping when I scroll or open a new window.  Is there a way of preventing this?  It happens regardless of the source, eg. Windows Media Player, online radio.  It is very annoying.  Thank you for your time.”

Hi, Bob.  Thanks for the great question!

I’ve got to tell you right off the bat that I don’t think that it has anything to do with XP or Firefox, at least directly.  You didn’t mention how old your computer is, but I bet you a chocolate ice cream cone that it’s more than five years.  Here’s why I say that… there’s an old joke in the computer world that, if you buy a new computer it’s obsolete by the time you get home and unbox it.  This is not entirely true, but what it means is that computer technology never stands still.  This is what’s upsetting a lot of people when it comes to Windows XP (which, by the way, I would upgrade if I were you).  The question has been asked so many times why Microsoft couldn’t just keep upgrading XP to keep up with modern technology.  You might as well ask why your 1976 Mustang can’t be upgraded to get the same gas mileage as a modern car.  The answer is that it just can’t.  There comes a time when these things just have to give way for better, stronger and faster.  Every year even simple web pages use more and more technology, the html gets more and more complicated, requiring more and more of your computer resources to run well.  Programs use more and more system resources to run smoothly.  I’m guessing that you’re not a big online gamer (and I mean World of Warcraft not Words with Friends), but the graphics on modern games have gotten so intense and realistic that if you don’t have a video card with a good amount of RAM on it, you’re not playing them.

Which brings me to the heart of my answer:  your computer’s RAM.  RAM (Random Access Memory) is where your computer stores things for quick access.  Think of your computer as being like a desk.

I don’t know about you, but I mostly use my desk to store my toys.  So you have two places on your desk to store toys… the top and the drawers.  Your RAM is like your desk top and the hard drive is like the drawers.  You put the toys on the desk top that you want to play with a lot and want quick access to.  Sometimes you play with more than one toy at a time, and you want all of them there to play with.  The problem is that when you start getting too many toys on your desktop, you have to start storing some of them in the drawers.  So you’re trying to play, but one of the toys that you’re trying to play with has to keep going into and coming out of a drawer.  Doesn’t sound like too much fun, does it?

Well, that’s what happens when your computer runs out of RAM.  It starts to store bits of the programs that you have open on a section of your hard drive, which is MUCH slower to pick information from than your RAM, which is what causes your audio to lag or “skip”.  Too much information open, too little RAM to support it.  This is called “caching”. 

In part 2, we’ll look at some ways to reduce the load on your RAM and speed your system up.

~ Randal Schaffer