Right now you are reading this on a computer (cell phones, tablets and laptops are considered computers). You have always wanted to know how these gadgets work, and now that moment has arrived!
A computer or PC (Personal Computer) is a machine that is commanded by us–humans–to do different tasks, like display websites, store digital documents, solve mathematical problems in milliseconds, play video games, connect with other computer users, and more.
Introducing the PC and its Parts
Maybe you are saying to yourself “Yeah, I know that stuff already, but what is inside this buddy?”. Before talking about the inside of the PC, let’s talk about its peripherals, or the tools that computers need to receive user input and display output. To interact with us, computers have input, output and storage devices:
- Mouse/touchpad: This device enables us to move the cursor on the screen and select/open files.
- Keyboard: Remember the old typewriters? This device allows us to write words into computer files, like writing a text document, entering a password for a website, and so on.
- Microphone: We can talk or sing to the PC through a microphone, and it will record our words, which can then be re-played on our computer or another.
- Webcam: We can record ourselves and make a video, or we can stream ourselves live to the rest of the world with this device and an Internet connection.
- Joystick: This is intended to replace the keyboard when playing games.
- Screen: This shows the user the current programs or files that are opened and running, and also gives feedback about user input (displays errors, warnings, popups, etc…).
- Audio: Almost every computer has an audio output to connect headphones or speakers in order to hear the sounds coming from a music file, video or something else.
- Printer: This device prints any text/image files onto paper.
- USB flash drive: A pocket-sized device that allows us to save data from a PC or to write previously saved data onto a PC. In order to read or write into this device, the PC must have a USB port.
- CD/DVD disc: A digital disc that allows data to be stored only once. The data can be read multiple times but it can’t be modified again, compared to a flash drive, where it can be. There are CD/DVD discs that allow further modifications but they are limited. In order to read these disks the PC must have a CD/DVD drive.
Ok, now that you know the most common peripherals of a PC, let’s see what makes it possible to coordinate all these devices to work together. These main elements can be found inside a computer:
- Motherboard: The motherboard is the real frame of the PC; every inner part and peripheral is connected to the motherboard, enabling communication between the different components.
- Processor (CPU or Central Processing Unit): This is the PC’s brain–all the data processing occurs here (mathematical operations, data reading and writing, device controlling).
- Storage Disk: Here’s where all the files are stored, including text files, program files, audio/video files and more. There are two kinds of storage disks: Hard Drive Disk (HDD) and Solid State Drive (SSD). HDD has been on the market for decades, and it has a slower read/write speed compared to the newer SSD, which is more expensive.
- RAM memory: Well, if the CPU is the brain, what’s this kind of memory? In human terms, this is the PC’s short-term memory. It’s faster to obtain the information stored here than the memory on the storage disk, and it is used for all your computer processes that don’t require permanently storing data (viewing images, playing audio, video, playing games). Well, if this memory is faster than the storage disk, why do we have a storage disk? The main reason is that when the PC is turned off, everything that was on the RAM disappears–that’s why it’s called volatile memory .
- Power supply: This gives energy to every part of the PC so it can work, and also has a fan to prevent overheating.
- Video card or GPU (Graphical Processing Unit) (optional): This is a parallel processor that focuses on video, improving display quality and releasing RAM memory for other purposes. Why is it optional? Because nowadays most CPUs do have their own video driver, also called “integrated graphics card”, but the performance is much lower compared to a “dedicated graphics card”.
Introducing the OS (Operating System)
GNU/Linux, Windows and OS X are the most common operating systems. A PC without an OS is like a person without civilization. It may function without it, but the interaction will be less user-friendly and much harder to accomplish. OS have evolved through time but the main features remain, like the Graphical User Interface (GUI). The interface is what enables you to read this article on your screen, and it varies among different OS.
OS GUI components:
- Pointer or cursor: The cursor is moved with the mouse or the touchpad.
- Icons: These icons represent the data stored on the PC: text files, program files, audio/video files, and more.
- Folders: Simply put, a folder is an icon container– it can contain other folders as well.
- Multiple windows: A window is a program container. Most computer programs use windows to display their information, like web browsers, folder browsers, etc.
- Home Menu: This menu shows the user the programs that are currently installed on the computer, and also allows the user to access the PC configuration.
After reading all of this, I hope you understand more about your own PC. Maybe you are wondering why there is not only a computer pictured, but a cellphone too? Well, cellphones and tablets are computers–they share most of the devices you see in a computer, and also have a CPU, RAM, storage disk, motherboard, yet instead of a power supply there’s a battery. Their OS are mainly Android and iOS.