Learning the Basics of Your Computer

By Kenny Williams

When I meet with a customer for the first time I always like to assume that they know nothing about computers. This has help-ed many people to better understand how their computer works and I figured that this week I would share some basics with you. Whether youíre completely new to computers or you know a little about computing and would like to learn more, this column will be a good start. After reading this, you should know the essentials of what computers are, how they process data or information, what they can do for you, and how you might go about buying one.

A computer lets you store information, compose and print letters, balance your checkbook, and do countless other things, depending on what computer hardware and software you have. Any part of a computer that you can see or touch, including the computer case and all the components (parts) and electrical circuitry it contains, is called hardware. The programs that tell a computer what to do are collectively known as software.

There are many different types of hardware. For now, it is important to know that the basic hardware inside of a computer consists of microchips (small units of circuitry) and wiring that process data and carry it from place to place. Any hardware device thatís attached to a computer is called a peripheral. Printers, scanners, and monitors are all examples of peripherals.

Software is the actual data that a computerís hardware processes. Computer programmers are the people who work to create software, and the finished software product is often referred to as a program. Unlike hardware, you canít see or touch software itself, but you can see the media that software is stored on, such as a floppy diskette or CD (compact disc). Individual programs let you accomplish specific tasks. Microsoft Word, for instance, is a word processing program, which means itís good for typing and organizing text, and QuickBooks is a financial planning and record-keeping program.

A very small amount of software, called the BIOS (Basic Input/Output System), is built into the hardware of a computer so that the computer will turn on properly. However, in order for a computer to be useful it needs an OS (operating system), which is software that lets a computerís basic internal hardware communicate with its peripherals, other programs, and, most importantly, the user. Microsoft Windows, Apple Mac OS, Unix, and Linux are all examples of OSes. Most of todayís new computers intended for home use include Windows XP.

The Processor or CPU (central processing unit) is the main microchip in your computer, and therefore is considered the brain behind the entire system. Processing data in a computer basically comes down to an ongoing series of numeric calculations using binary digits. The CPU, then, is responsible for crunching the numbers that are essential to the computer running properly. This includes managing the flow of data throughout the computer and processing all the data that comes into the computer from external sources such as a keyboard.

A computer stores a great deal of information in a relatively permanent form (you have to go to the trouble of deleting it if you want to get rid of it), but the data a computer is working on at any given moment is temporary unless you save it to make it permanent. This temporary data is stored in a computerís memory. Memory is more precisely known as RAM (random-access memory) because the CPU can access it randomly, or without having to access data in any particular order. The more memory a computer has, the better it can perform; a small amount of memory makes it difficult to use multiple programs at the same time.

Inside every computer youíll find at least one hard drive, a component whose only function is to store data. The internal parts of a hard drive look rather similar to record players stacked on top of each other. Hard drives contain platters (metal discs) that hold the data and a spindle (turning rod) on which the platters spin. For each platter, thereís an access arm that behaves somewhat like the arm on a record player; it runs back and forth across the platter to read (get data from) and write (save data to) the platter.

How well a hard drive works is based on how quickly its access arms can retrieve data, and on how fast the spindle can rotate the platters (and therefore bring data more quickly to the access arms). Hard drive capacity (maximum amount of data a hard drive can contain) has increased greatly over the past few years; take a look at the "By The Numbers" sidebar for more information about todayís hard drive capacities. Other storage devices include the floppy diskette drive, CD ROM drives and DVD.

A computer monitor is a device with a screen that lets your computer communicate with you visually. The two main monitor types are the CRT (cathode-ray tube) monitor, which uses a large CRT similar to that found in a TV set to light up a screen with images; and the LCD (liquid-crystal display, sometimes called a flat-panel monitor), which embeds tiny wires, transistors, and liquid crystals between two plates of glass for a sleek, thin display. LCDs are almost always more expensive than CRT monitors because of the technology involved in manufacturing them.

Any device that lets you physically put data into a computer is called an input device. The most common input devices are the keyboard and mouse. A mouse lets you control the pointer on the screen by moving the mouse across a flat surface with your hand, and it lets you select on-screen objects by clicking buttons it has on its body.

Computer cases almost invariably have a small built-in speaker that lets you hear the beeps and various other sounds that indicate the computer is working. But some motherboards have a sound adapter that lets you plug in a microphone, headphones, and speakers, as well. Just as there are video cards for improved graphics performance, there are also sound cards, expansion cards that include special performance features such as multi-channel Dolby Surround Sound.

In order to use a computer to visit Web pages or to network (connect and share data) with other computers, your system has to have a connectivity device. A modem lets you plug a computer into a telephone line and make a dial-up connection, an Internet or network connection made when a computer dials the phone number at which the Internet access or network resides. Standard modems are relatively slow. A cable modem, on the other hand, connects to the Internet using a cable TV connection and is much faster.

If you need computer help or have any questions, comments, suggestions please feel free to e-mail me at WebServerColumn@yahoo.com

The WebServer is a weekly computer column with a circulation of over 120,000 readers in three different publications. Look for your weekly dose of WebServer in The Caribbean Connection in Atlanta, Orlando, and Miami and in The Observer News in SouthShore.

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