11 Basic Computer Skills You Need to Know: A Beginners’ Guide
The computer revolution of the last two decades has transformed lives the world over. It has increased productivity in industries as diverse as deep-sea drilling and fashion design, drastically improved communication globally, and made the world’s information available at your fingertips. With increasing digitization, knowing how to operate computers has almost become a basic survival skill.
Learning basic computer skills can be difficult. Fortunately, with the right guidance, anyone can learn how to work with computers:
1. Understanding the Basics of Computer Hardware
Chief Focus: Hard Drive, CPU, Memory
Computers are machines. Like most machines, they are made up of various, sometimes moving, parts that allow them to function in different ways. These hardware components have been specially designed over the years to perform their unique functions with different levels of speed, capacity, and ability.
To that end, there are also different types of computers. You could have a gaming PC, a media center, or a work computer.
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An office worker might have a small hard drive in their work computer if they don’t need to store much data beyond simple text files. However, an independent film editor or a digital artist might need a larger hard drive to fit all the video and image files on their computer. Of course, when we talk in terms of “small” or “large,” we don’t mean physical size. Hard drive size references its capacity, or how much data it can hold. We’ll get to this later!
Just know that hardware components come in all shapes, sizes, and capacities, each with a specific role in the function of a computer system. There are huge gaming “rigs,” and there are tiny laptops and notebooks.
We’ll go over the major components below and talk a little about what each one does.
- Motherboard. Besides providing the space for the hard drive, CPU, and other components we haven’t covered yet to plug into, the motherboard is home to BIOS, or Basic Input/Output System, the very minimal piece of software that comes with a computer. When you first turn off a computer, before it loads the operating system, it must boot from BIOS.
The motherboard also provides a place for users to plug in peripherals like a mouse and keyboard. If you look behind any computer tower and see where all the plugs and wires are coming out of, that’s the motherboard! You can learn more about the motherboard’s parts and functions in this guide.
- Graphics Card. The graphics card, or video card, is the component that outputs images onto your computer’s display, or monitor. While some motherboards offer built-in, onboard, or integrated video cards, the quality is not as good as that of a dedicated video card that you purchase separately and install onto the motherboard yourself.
High-end graphics cards are most popular among people who value the quality of their computer’s display, namely people like PC gamers or people who work in 3D graphics or digital art.
- Power Supply Unit. Remember, computers are electronic, and without power, they can’t run! The power supply unit is the component that converts AC power into low-voltage DC power to run the sensitive components inside your computer. Power supply units come with fans to lower the heat inside your computer, as overheating can affect your computer’s performance and endanger its components.
- Hard Drive. Since we’re on the topic of hard drives anyway, let’s explain what these things are. This is probably the most familiar piece of computer hardware for non-tech savvy folks, but don’t fret if you’re not in the know! Basically, a hard drive is a computer’s storage device. If you’ve ever saved a picture from the internet, or saved a Word file in your documents, you’ve placed that data onto your computer’s hard drive.
A hard drive contains various components, such as the spindle, actuator, and platter. On hard disk drives, the platter is the spinning plate of aluminum, ceramic, or glass — depending on what type you have — that stores your computer’s information and performs read/write operations. When we say your computer’s information, we really mean the information on your hard drive since that is where your operating system, and all of your files, are stored.
The amount of data your hard drive can store depends on its capacity. Early hard drives (we’re talking 1950s early) could hold about 5 MB, or megabytes, of data, and they were about as big as an industrial-sized fridge-and-freezer combo unit. Physical bulk aside, 5 MB is about the size of one MP3! It’s nothing. More recently, hard drives have become much smaller in physical mass and can store huge amounts of data, ranging from about 250 to 500 GB, or gigabytes, for the average computer user, to 1 TB, or terabyte, for the power user. One terabyte is 1,048,576 megabytes!
Recently, solid-state drives have been increasing in popularity. Unlike hard disk drives, solid-state drives don’t contain any moving, spinning parts, making them a quicker and more reliable way to store your data and improve your computer’s overall performance. They’re also super quiet! Solid-state drives are popular among PC gamers. Check out this guide on how to build a gaming computer for more information.
- Central Processing Unit. The “brain” of your computer, the central processing unit — also referred to as the processor — does exactly what its name suggests: it processes all of your computer’s functions. Processors are small, square components with pins and connectors on one side that let you plug them into the CPU socket on the computer’s motherboard. Because CPUs need to calculate and process so much information, most come with a heat sink and a fan to keep the component cool.
The type of hardware you have installed is generally known as your computer’s specifications.
While you don’t need to know how to build your own computer from scratch, understanding what hardware does will help you troubleshoot issues.
2. Selecting the Right Peripherals
Chief Focus: Monitor, Mouse, Keyboard
So you can have a hard drive, motherboard, CPU, graphics card, and power supply unit, but without peripherals, your computer is useless. Peripherals are the physical hardware that allows computer users to interact with the computer.
Besides these, your computer’s tower, or case, is vital. It’s the container that holds all of the parts in place, keeping them safe from outside elements and giving a convenient space for everything to stay securely plugged in.
- Monitor. A monitor is the computer’s display. Without this, you wouldn’t be able to see anything you’re doing on the computer, rendering the machine sort of useless if your goal is to use it for email and browsing the internet!
- Mouse. A mouse is an object that lets you click around the screen, drag and drop things, and interface with the objects displayed on the computer’s monitor.
- Keyboard. The keyboard is what allows you to type things into your computer. Without a keyboard, you wouldn’t be able to input commands in the BIOS, write emails to your friends, or get much work done at all.
- Other. Other computer peripherals that enhance your computer experience are speakers, which produces sound generated from your onboard or dedicated sound card; headphones, which allow for more discrete sound enjoyment; and microphones, which let you use your voice to communicate with others on the internet or record your voice for videos and music, and more.
Making the transition to computers can feel intimidating at first. The mouse can feel patently unintuitive, and the touchpad (which does the same job as the mouse) can be incredibly difficult to work with. If you’ve worked with typewriters, the computer keyboard won’t present that big a challenge, though the tactile feel of a keyboard is dramatically different from a typewriter’s.
To use computers, you should be able to perform the following tasks:
- Moving the cursor on-screen with the mouse or touchpad.
- Clicking, right-clicking, and double-clicking the mouse.
- Using basic keyboard functions such as backspace, enter/return, space bar, delete, tab, shift, and caps lock.
- Basic typing skills.
If you’re going to be using a computer for a substantial amount of time, you also need to make sure your system is “ergonomically-friendly.” Ergonomics means that your system is comfortable to use and won’t cause a repetitive stress injury. Repetitive stress injuries (RSIs) are injuries that occur due to long-term repetitive movement.
- Monitor. Your monitor should be raised to eye level. You can use a riser or a bracket to achieve this.
- Keyboard. Install a keyboard tray under your desk so that your keyboard is positioned below your elbows.
- Mouse. Use a wrist pad to lift your wrist upward. You should be using your mouse at a downward angle rather than an upward angle.
In addition to the above, you should get a chair that you’re comfortable sitting in for long periods. Your feet should always rest flat on the ground, and your knees should be at a 90-degree angle.
3. Getting the Right Software Installed
Chief Focus: Operating Systems, Word Processors
Unlike hardware, software is not a physical component of your computer. Rather, it’s a program that your computer runs to allow you to do certain things.
The most important software you should know of when getting into computers is the operating system. An operating system, or OS, is not just one piece of software but a collection of software that acts as the foundation for everything you can do on your computer. As its name suggests, an operating system is the system by which all other software, and even some hardware components, operate on your computer. For instance, you’re probably running an operating system right now if you’re reading this, most likely Windows 7 or Mac OSX, or maybe even Linux.
Other important computer software includes word processors, such as Microsoft Word or image editing programs like Photoshop. If you’re in Information Technology, you may need programming or development tools.
4. Learning How to Use an Operating System
Chief Focus: Windows or Mac OS X
Think of an operating system (OS) as the interface which lets you communicate with the computer. The majority of you will start your computer experience with Windows, the operating system built by Microsoft. Some will start with Mac OS X, which is the operating system used on Apple computers.
For the purpose of this article, we will assume that you are using Microsoft Windows. You will be pleased to know that both these operating systems are quite similar. If you can work with Windows, it won’t take you long to work with OS X, and vice versa.
To use an operating system effectively, you should be able to perform the following:
- Finding, running, and closing a program.
- How files, folders, and directories work.
- Saving a file.
- Using Windows Explorer to find and open a file.
- Shutting down and restarting a computer.
If you prefer to use Mac OS X instead, you might want to take a small refresher course or bootcamp. It operates similarly to Windows, but there are some differences, like only having a single button mouse.
5. Using Word Processors
Chief Focus: Microsoft Word, WordPad
Now that you know how to use an operating system, you will undoubtedly be excited to get some actual work done. One of the first things you should familiarize yourself with is the humble word processor. A word processor is a software application that can create textual documents. Think of it as an incredibly powerful typewriter.
Windows ships with WordPad and NotePad — two simple yet effective text editors. Their Mac OS X equivalents are TextEdit and Notes.
If you want to do something more than writing a basic text document, you will need a more powerful program like Microsoft Word. Microsoft Word is a part of the Microsoft Office suite of software tools. It is a highly capable word processor that can create everything from a simple letter to a complicated graphical flyer.
Knowing your way around a word processor is crucial to getting the most out of your computer. You should be familiar with the following before you proceed further:
- Opening Microsoft Word.
- Creating a new document in Word.
- Using basic formatting functions (bold, italics, underline, font size, and type).
- Saving and printing a finished document.
6. Getting Online
Chief Focus: Web browsers and websites.
A computer without internet is like a Corvette without gas; it might look great sitting on the curb, but without gas, you aren’t going to go anywhere.
The internet is one of the greatest inventions of mankind. You can use it to stay in touch with friends and relatives, follow the news, reference encyclopedias, shop for things, and search for virtually anything. Getting familiar with the internet is the first step in unleashing the full power of the computer.
To use the internet, you will need a web browser. A web browser is a software application that can open websites and communicate with the internet. Both Windows and Mac OS X ship with built-in web browsers — Internet Explorer and Safari, respectively. There are other browsers as well, but for now, these should suffice.
Using the internet requires that you have basic competency with the following tasks:
- Finding and opening a web browser.
- Opening a website.
- Understanding links.
- Creating and using an email account.
- Searching on Google.
- Using Wikipedia as a reference tool.
- Opening a video.
A lot of people today use computers for social media. Others use it for activities like blogging. In fact…
7. Starting a Blog
Starting a blog is a great way to get familiar with your system and to connect with other people. Many people start a blog by first going to a web hosting service such as DreamHost or GoDaddy, or by going through WordPress. Blogs use systems like WordPress or Blogger, which are known as “content management systems.” CMS solutions make it easy to create a website. You just post “content” (articles, pictures, etc.), and the system generates a website for you!
To start a blog, you need a name and a general theme. You’ll “design” your blog through a point-and-click interface, and you’ll write “posts” that will immediately be published to the internet. A blog is a way to create a professional persona, save recipes, or just update people on your children and your family.
To get started, you’ll want to go to a site like WordPress.com and explore their tutorials and lessons. Udemy also offers a variety of tutorials and lessons on WordPress. Take a look at our beginner-friendly lessons.
8. Computer Social Skills and “Netiquette”
Communicating by computer is a little different. First, there are several modes of communication: email, instant messaging, and social media. Second, there are ways of conveying emotion in a text-based medium.
Understanding how to connect with people is important. Email is more like a letter; you might get an immediate response back, but you might not. Not everyone checks their email all the time. Instant messaging is more like text messaging; you will usually get an instantaneous response, but not if they’re away.
And you have to be careful when sharing information on social media: Anything that’s online can never be removed.
When it comes to “netiquette” (net etiquette), it’s very important to convey emotion tactfully through text. Otherwise, people may assume that you’re being rude or short with them. When appropriate, individuals may use emoticons (such as 🙂 for a happy face) — that makes the emotion being conveyed clearer.
A lot of business services like Slack and MS Teams currently support emoticons like happy faces specifically because it facilitates better work communication. While it once was considered unprofessional, today it’s more or less a staple of workplace communication.
9. Basic Graphic Design
Chief Focus: Paint
There will always be a time when you’re called upon to develop a flyer or build a basic website. When that happens, you will need to understand graphic design.
You can explore the basics of graphic design through MS Paint. Microsoft Paint is a software solution that comes with the Windows operating system. It’s one of the simplest graphic design solutions out there.
Basics of Microsoft Paint include:
- Selecting. You can use the selection tool to select part of an image to be moved or otherwise manipulated.
- Cropping. You can select part of the image and then select the “crop” button, which then cuts the rest of the image out.
- Filling. You can use the “fill” tool to fill a portion of the image with a selected color.
- Erase. You can erase parts of the image with the eraser tool.
- Pen. You can draw directly on the image with the pen tool.
- Shapes. You can put different-colored shapes in the image.
- Text. You can type text directly on the image.
With these features alone, you can do a pretty decent job of cropping, editing, and labeling an image. Anything more advanced will require knowledge of a solution like Adobe Photoshop or Adobe Illustrator.
Chief Focus: Troubleshooting Processes
When something goes wrong on your computer, your first inclination may be to call tech support. But while that’s a direct answer, part of being “computer savvy” is trying to figure out the answers to your problems yourself.
Troubleshooting is an iterative testing process. You check each part of the process one by one and then figure out what’s wrong.
Let’s say your Wi-Fi is down. Your testing process might go like this:
- Ask to determine whether other people can get on.
- If other people are on, it’s an issue with your computer.
- Check to make sure you’re using the right password.
- Restart your computer and try to log in again.
- If it’s down for everyone, it’s a problem with the internet.
- Restart the router and the modem.
- Call the telecommunications company.
By investigating further on your own, you can solve a lot of problems — and learn more about the computer systems you use.
Chief Focus: Writing and editing code
How does a computer know what to do when you ask it to do something? It’s all about programming. Every software system on your computer is actually lines of written code. This code is written in a language that the computer understands. The code tells the computer things like “Open a screen, put an image on it, and let the user click the image to make it larger or smaller.”
If you want to get started in programming, check out our article How to Become a Web Developer. This introduces you to the basics of web programming and development, which is one of the fastest-growing programming fields.
How to Improve Your Computer Skills
What should you do if you want to learn more? Taking a class is a great option. Udemy has several courses designed around beginning computer skills, advanced computer skills, and skills for productivity.
In addition to general courses, you can dig in deeper with specific technology. And keep in mind that the operating system matters a lot. A Windows lesson is not going to apply to an Apple lesson, nor vice versa.
Learning how to use computers is not easy, but it is a vital skill in the 21st century. It will take you hours of effort to become comfortable with operating systems, web browsers, and word processors. But the rewards — better, faster communication, increased productivity, and access to the wealth of the world’s information — are well worth it! Check out our article on the importance of Information Technology to learn more.
Last Updated November 2021Hot & New
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