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computer knowledgeTechnology dominates nearly every aspect of our lives, and anyone living in a country where tech is rampant is at a severe disadvantage if they don’t understand how to works. Just because you have a computer doesn’t mean you understand fully how to use it, or even how it works. Computers don’t have to be a mystery, though. Even if you’re not planning on pursuing a career in engineering, there is plenty of interesting and applicable knowledge out there that anyone who uses technology on a regular basis should know.

From hardware to software, let this article serve as your complete, entry-level guide to computer knowledge, written with the non-tech savvy in mind. For more, you can also check out this practical guide to computer essentials.

Computer Knowledge: Hardware

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.

For instance, someone like an office worker might have a small hard drive in their work computer, where they don’t need to store much data beyond simple text files. However, someone like 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. We’ll go over the major components below, and talk a little about what each one does. You can also check out this guide on building a computer from scratch for a more thorough run-down of each hardware component.

Since we’re on the topics 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 – on which the read/write head can access your computer’s information from. 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. 1 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.

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 it into the CPU socket on the computer’s motherboard. Because CPUs need to calculate and process so much information, most of them come with a heat sink and a fan to keep the component cool.

Motherboards are sometimes referred to as the logic, system, or main board of a computer. For the motherboard, it’s all in the name. This is where all the other computer parts draw their cooperative functionality with the other components. If they didn’t all plug into one central circuit board like the motherboard, then how else could they communicate and work together to run your machine?

Besides providing the space for the hard drive, CPU, and other components we haven’t covered yet to plug into, the motherboard is also 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.

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, on board, 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.

Remember, computers are electronic, and without power they can’t run! A 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 also endanger its components.

Computer Knowledge: Peripherals

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 allow computer users to actually interact with the computer itself.

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. You can learn more about this in this course on building a computer from the ground up, or this computer building guide to accompany it.

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!

A mouse is the object that lets you click around the screen, drag and drop things, and interface with the objects displayed on the computer’s monitor.

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 computer peripherals that help 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, microphones, which let you use voice communication with others on the internet, or record your voice for videos and music, and more.

Computer Knowledge: Software

Unlike hardware, software is not a physical component of your computer, but rather, a program that your computer runs to allow you to do certain things. Check out this post for a quick guide on using basic computer software.

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 – which you can learn the basics for here – or image editing programs like Photoshop, which you can learn how to use here.

For more computer knowledge, check out this course on computer repair for beginners, or this introduction to personal computers using Windows 8. If you’re ready to go a step further, consider checking out this programming for non-programmers course, for an in-depth and easy-to-follow guide on programming basics.

Page Last Updated: April 2014

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