1.Introduction to computers
Are you new to computers? Do you wonder what they do and why you would want to use one? Welcome—you’re in the right place. This article gives an overview of computers: What they are, the different types, and what you can do with them.
1.1. What are computers?
Computers are machines that perform tasks or calculations according to a set of instructions, or programs. The first fully electronic computers, introduced in the 1940s, were huge machines that required teams of people to operate. Compared to those early machines, today’s computers are amazing. Not only are they thousands of times faster, they can fit on your desk, on your lap, or even in your pocket.
Computers work through an interaction of hardware and software. Hardware refers to the parts of a computer that you can see and touch, including the case and everything inside it. The most important piece of hardware is a tiny rectangular chip inside your computer called the central processing unit (CPU), or microprocessor. It’s the “brain” of your computer—the part that translates instructions and performs calculations. Hardware items such as your monitor, keyboard, mouse, printer, and other components are often called hardware devices, or devices.
Software refers to the instructions, or programs, that tell the hardware what to do. A word-processing program that you can use to write letters on your computer is a type of software. The operating system (OS) is software that manages your computer and the devices connected to it. Windows is a well-known operating system.
1.2. Types of computers
Computers range in size and capability. At one end of the scale are supercomputers, very large computers with thousands of linked microprocessors that perform extremely complex calculations. At the other end are tiny computers embedded in cars, TVs, stereo systems, calculators, and appliances. These computers are built to perform a limited number of tasks.
The personal computer, or PC, is designed to be used by one person at a time. This section describes the various kinds of personal computers: desktops, laptops, handheld computers, and Tablet PCs.
1.2.1. Desktop computers
Desktop computers are designed for use at a desk or table. They are typically larger and more powerful than other types of personal computers. Desktop computers are made up of separate components. The main component, called the system unit, is usually a rectangular case that sits on or underneath a desk. Other components, such as the monitor, mouse, and keyboard, connect to the system unit.
1.2.2. Laptop computers and small notebook PCs
Laptop computers are lightweight mobile PCs with a thin screen. Laptops can operate on batteries, so you can take them anywhere. Unlike desktops, laptops combine the CPU, screen, and keyboard in a single case. The screen folds down onto the keyboard when not in use.
Small notebook PCs (often referred to asmini-notebooks), are small, affordable laptops that are designed to perform a limited number of tasks. They’re usually less powerful than a laptop, so they’re used mainly to browse the web and check e‑mail.
Smartphones are mobile phones that have some of the same capabilites as a computer. You can use a smartphone to make telephone calls, access the Internet, organize contact information, send e‑mail and text messages, play games, and take pictures. Smartphones usually have a keyboard and a large screen.
1.2.4. Handheld computers
Handheld computers, also called personal digital assistants (PDAs), are battery-powered computers small enough to carry almost anywhere. Although not as powerful as desktops or laptops, handheld computers are useful for scheduling appointments, storing addresses and phone numbers, and playing games. Some have more advanced capabilities, such as making telephone calls or accessing the Internet. Instead of keyboards, handheld computers have touch screens that you use with your finger or a stylus (a pen-shaped pointing tool).
1.2.5. Tablet PCs
Tablet PCs are mobile PCs that combine features of laptops and handheld computers. Like laptops, they’re powerful and have a built-in screen. Like handheld computers, they allow you to write notes or draw pictures on the screen, usually with a tablet pen instead of a stylus. They can also convert your handwriting into typed text. Some Tablet PCs are “convertibles” with a screen that swivels and unfolds to reveal a keyboard underneath.
1.3. What can you do with computers?
In the workplace, many people use computers to keep records, analyze data, do research, and manage projects. At home, you can use computers to find information, store pictures and music, track finances, play games, and communicate with others—and those are just a few of the possibilities.
You can also use your computer to connect to the Internet, a network that links computers around the world. Internet access is available for a monthly fee in most urban areas, and increasingly, in less populated areas. With Internet access, you can communicate with people all over the world and find a vast amount of information.
Here are some of the most popular things to do with computers:
1.3.1. The web
The World Wide Web (usually called the web, or web) is a gigantic storehouse of information. The web is the most popular part of the Internet, partly because it displays most information in a visually appealing format. Headlines, text, and pictures can be combined on a single webpage—much like a page in a magazine—along with sounds and animation. A website is a collection of interconnected webpages. The web contains millions of websites and billions of webpages.
Surfing the web means exploring it. You can find information on the web about almost any topic imaginable. For example, you can read news stories and movie reviews, check airline schedules, see street maps, get the weather forecast for your city, or research a health condition. Most companies, agencies, museums, and libraries have websites with information about their products, services, or collections. Reference sources, such as dictionaries and encyclopedias, are also widely available.
The web is also a shopper’s delight. You can browse and purchase products—books, music, toys, clothing, electronics, and much more—at the websites of major retailers. You can also buy and sell used items through websites that use auction-style bidding.
E‑mail (short for electronic mail) is a convenient way to communicate with others. When you send an e‑mail message, it arrives almost instantly in the recipient’s e‑mail inbox. You can send e‑mail to many people simultaneously, and you can save, print, and forward e‑mail to others. You can send almost any type of file in an e‑mail message, including documents, pictures, and music files. And with e‑mail, you don’t need a postage stamp!
For more information about using e‑mail, see Getting started with e‑mail.
1.3.3. Instant messaging
Instant messaging is like having a real-time conversation with another person or a group of people. When you type and send an instant message, the message is immediately visible to all participants. Unlike e‑mail, all participants have to be online (connected to the Internet) and in front of their computers at the same time. Communicating by means of instant messaging is called chatting.
1.3.4. Pictures, music, and movies
If you have a digital camera, you can move your pictures from the camera to your computer. Then you can print them, create slide shows, or share them with others by e‑mail or by posting them on a website. You can also listen to music on your computer, either by importing music from audio CDs or by purchasing songs from a music website. Or, you can tune in to one of the thousands of radio stations that broadcast over the Internet. If your computer comes with a DVD player, you can watch movies too.
Do you like to play games? Thousands of computer games in every conceivable category are available to entertain you. Get behind the wheel of a car, battle frightening creatures in a dungeon, or control civilizations and empires! Many games allow you to compete with other players around the world through the Internet. Windows includes a variety of card games, puzzle games, and strategy games. For more information, see Learn about Windows games.
2.Parts of a computer
If you use a desktop computer, you might already know that there isn’t any single part called the “computer.” A computer is really a system of many parts working together. The physical parts, which you can see and touch, are collectively called hardware. (Software, on the other hand, refers to the instructions, or programs, that tell the hardware what to do.)
The following illustration shows the most common hardware in a desktop computer system. Your system might look a little different, but it probably has most of these parts. A laptop computer has similar parts but combines them into a single, notebook-sized package.
2.1. System unit
The system unit is the core of a computer system. Usually it’s a rectangular box placed on or underneath your desk. Inside this box are many electronic components that process information. The most important of these components is the central processing unit (CPU), or microprocessor, which acts as the “brain” of your computer. Another component is random access memory (RAM), which temporarily stores information that the CPU uses while the computer is on. The information stored in RAM is erased when the computer is turned off.
Almost every other part of your computer connects to the system unit using cables. The cables plug into specific ports (openings), typically on the back of the system unit. Hardware that is not part of the system unit is sometimes called a peripheral device or device.
Your computer has one or more disk drives—devices that store information on a metal or plastic disk. The disk preserves the information even when your computer is turned off.
2.2.1. Hard disk drive
Your computer’s hard disk drive stores information on a hard disk—a rigid platter or stack of platters with a magnetic surface. Because hard disks can hold massive amounts of information, they usually serve as your computer’s primary means of storage, holding almost all of your programs and files. The hard disk drive is normally located inside the system unit.
2.2.2. CD and DVD drives
Nearly all computers today come equipped with a CD or DVD drive, usually located on the front of the system unit. CD drives use lasers to read (retrieve) data from a CD; many CD drives can also write (record) data onto CDs. If you have a recordable disk drive, you can store copies of your files on blank CDs. You can also use a CD drive to play music CDs on your computer.
DVD drives can do everything that CD drives can, plus read DVDs. If you have a DVD drive, you can watch movies on your computer. Many DVD drives can record data onto blank DVDs.
2.2.3. Floppy disk drive
Floppy disk drives store information on floppy disks, also called floppies or diskettes. Compared to CDs and DVDs, floppy disks can store only a small amount of data. They also retrieve information more slowly and are more prone to damage. For these reasons, floppy disk drives are less popular than they used to be, although some computers still include them.
Why are these disks called “floppy” disks? The outside is made of hard plastic, but that’s just the sleeve. The disk inside is made of a thin, flexible vinyl material.
A mouse is a small device used to point to and select items on your computer screen. Although mice come in many shapes, the typical mouse does look a bit like an actual mouse. It’s small, oblong, and connected to the system unit by a long wire that resembles a tail. Some newer mice are wireless.
A mouse usually has two buttons: A primary button (usually the left button) and a secondary button. Many mice also have a wheel between the two buttons, which allows you to scroll smoothly through screens of information.
When you move the mouse with your hand, a pointer on your screen moves in the same direction. (The pointer’s appearance might change depending on where it’s positioned on your screen.) When you want to select an item, you point to the item and then click (press and release) the primary button. Pointing and clicking with your mouse is the main way to interact with your computer. For more information, see Using your mouse.
A keyboard is used mainly for typing text into your computer. Like the keyboard on a typewriter, it has keys for letters and numbers, but it also has special keys:
- The function keys, found on the top row, perform different functions depending on where they are used.
- The numeric keypad, located on the right side of most keyboards, allows you to enter numbers quickly.
- The navigation keys, such as the arrow keys, allow you to move your position within a document or webpage.
You can also use your keyboard to perform many of the same tasks you can perform with a mouse. For more information, see Using your keyboard.
A monitor displays information in visual form, using text and graphics. The portion of the monitor that displays the information is called the screen. Like a television screen, a computer screen can show still or moving pictures.
There are two basic types of monitors: CRT (cathode ray tube) monitors and the newer LCD (liquid crystal display) monitors. Both types produce sharp images, but LCD monitors have the advantage of being much thinner and lighter.
A printer transfers data from a computer onto paper. You don’t need a printer to use your computer, but having one allows you to print e‑mail, cards, invitations, announcements, and other material. Many people also like being able to print their own photos at home.
The two main types of printers are inkjet printers and laser printers. Inkjet printers are the most popular printers for the home. They can print in black and white or in full color and can produce high-quality photographs when used with special paper. Laser printers are faster and generally better able to handle heavy use.
Speakers are used to play sound. They can be built into the system unit or connected with cables. Speakers allow you to listen to music and hear sound effects from your computer.
To connect your computer to the Internet, you need a modem. A modem is a device that sends and receives computer information over a telephone line or high-speed cable. Modems are sometimes built into the system unit, but higher-speed modems are usually separate components.
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