Computer Basics

Computers are a major part of our everyday lives. From laptops to mobile phones to smart watches, computers have changed the way we do things. But have you ever asked yourself; how much do I actually know about this machine that is always by my side?

For consumers who are looking into buying a computer, this article will help you under its basic parts and make the right choice. For those who are completely new to computers and have possibly never interacted with one, this article tells you all you need to know about these mysterious machines.

What Is A Computer?

A computer is an electronic machine that has the ability to store and process data. Computers are made of:

  1. Hardware: the external, tangible parts of the machine that help it to function.
  2. Software: a collection of codes within the computer that allows you to execute tasks.

Computers can be used to execute tasks such as:

  • Creating documents,
  • Accessing the internet,
  • Playing video games,
  • Editing video footage,
  • Creating 3D models or 2D animations,
  • Graphic designing,
  • Streaming HD movies.

Since there is such a wide variety of tasks that a computer can do, some computers specialize in certain fields more than others. A Dell G5 Gaming Desktop will suit a user who wants to play extensive video games without lag, whereas a HP Pavilion Laptop might be better suited to a student who only wants to access the internet and create documents. Continue reading to find out how computers differ from one another.

Types of computers

Desktop

Also known as a personal computer (PC), a desktop sits on top of your desk, and it is not moved often. Desktops have been waning in popularity in the last decade as portable devices saturate the market. However, many people still have use for them because they are the best when it comes to performing high load tasks such as gaming, video editing, 3d modelling, etc. There are several types of desktops that you can get:

  • Full-Size Desktop: This is a relatively large setup which is less expensive.
  • Compact Desktop: This comes at half the size of the full-sized desktops.
  • All-in-One Desktop: Other desktops do not include a monitor, giving you the opportunity to purchase one separately. With All-In-One desktops however, the monitor is included alongside the computer in one tightly packed unit.
  • Gaming Desktop: gaming systems differ from normal desktops as they offer higher quality graphic processing, larger hard drives and better RAM.

Laptops

A laptop is like a portable version of a computer. As a general rule of thumb, laptops do not offer the same performance as a desktop, due to their smaller size. Consumers who do not have any special needs tend to prefer laptops for day-to-day tasks like sending emails, making documents, etc. The size of the laptop is generally a good indication of what you’ll be getting:

  • Small Laptops: These 10-inch screen laptops are good for those who always are on the move. They offer a weaker processor but have a long battery life that can last all day long. Storage capacities will vary, but they generally offer less storage than desktops.
  • Medium Laptops: Although slightly harder to carry, these 14-inch laptops offer better performance, RAM, and memory. Some medium sizes laptops even come with a GPU, which makes them suitable for gaming. Battery life will probably not be great if you plan to use it for high-load tasks like gaming.
  • Large laptops: Many modern day 18-inch laptops can now rival desktops in terms of processing power and storage, but bear in mind that you’ll be paying extra just for the portability factor.

Other Types Of Computers

There are many devices on the market that push the boundaries of our traditional definition of “computers”. Some of them include:

  • Tablets: a hybrid between a mobile phone and a computer, these devices are lightweight and can perform similar functions to a laptop – but with considerably less processing power. They serve as good laptop replacements if you want to surf the web, but they are not compatible with most computer software.
  • 2-in1s: also known as convertibles, these devices can shift from a tablet to a laptop. They come with a keyboard that is either detachable or it can be bent around to the back of the screen. They aren’t as powerful as proper laptops, but will still run most software and serve well as a primary computer.
  • Chromebooks: This is an incredibly lightweight laptop that utilizes chrome OS. They are much more affordable than regular laptops, but do not offer a lot of storage capacity. They also are not compatible with most software. You’ll have to download web-based versions of your favorite software.

Computer Hardware

It’s vital for you to understand basic computer parts when shopping for a laptop, otherwise the technical information that sellers provide will just go over your head, and you won’t know if the laptop suits your needs or not. Computer hardware is categorized as follows:

Central Processing Unit (CPU)

The processor is undoubtedly the most important part of the computer. It is like the brain of the computer – it receives input and provides output.

The Central Processing Unit (CPU) handles all basic system instructions such as running software, keyboard and mouse instructions etc. There are a few terms related to the CPU that need to be understood:

  • Core: We mentioned that the CPU is like a brain for the computer. A CPU with multiple “cores” essentially has multiple brains. It is able to process more than one task at one time, which makes it faster and more effective.
  • Dual core: A CPU with two cores, it is able to handle two tasks at the same time.
  • Quad core: A CPU with four cores, it is able to handle four tasks at the same time.
  • Clock Speed: This is a measure that tells you how fast a CPU can process information. It measures the number of clock cycles a CPU can perform in a minute.
  • Megahertz (MHz): Clock speed is represented in megahertz; it tells you the millions of instructions per second that the computer is processing.
  • Gigahertz (GHz): The billions of instructions per second that the computer can process.

Graphic Processing Unit (GPU)

Also known as a graphics card or video card, the GPU is a separate processor responsible for rendering high quality graphics onto your monitor. Computers that contain a separate GPU are able to perform graphic intensive tasks more effectively than those with just a CPU. This is especially relevant for gaming, rendering, and video editing, although a multitude of media-related tasks benefit from a GPU. Whether or not you need a GPU is up to your discretion, but the general consensus is that it is mandatory for gamers and media editors. Check out our article on graphic card basics to learn more about GPUs.

Hard Drives

The hard-drive is your computer’s long-term storage – all your files and programs are kept here. The size of the hard drive is measured in Gigabytes (GB). The two types of Hard Drives are:

1. Hard Disk Drives (HDD)

This is the more old school style of hard drive which uses mechanical platters to store information, and a moving magnetic head to access it.

  • Benefits: HDD drives offer more space for affordable prices, particularly for drives that are over 1 Terabyte.
  • Drawbacks: Since the HDD uses mechanical parts, it is vulnerable to wear and tear. In fact, the faster that the mechanical head moves across the platters to retrieve info, the more it wears down and can fail.

Since the HDD contains moving parts, it can also be quite loud. In addition to this, it is usually 3.5’’ or 2.5’’ for both desktops and laptops, so don’t expect to buy a sleek, ultra thin device with an HDD. Since it has magnetic parts, it is also vulnerable to external damage. The information on the hard drive can be erased if it comes in contact with a powerful magnet.

2. Solid State Drives (SSD)

This is a newer kind of disk which utilizes flash memory to store information. Files are saved on a grid of NAND flash cells, and a requested file can be accessed almost instantly.

  • Benefits: SDDs are nearly hundred times faster at retrieving data then HDDs. This allows software and programs to run faster. SDD is more reliable than HDD as it does not have mechanical parts that are prone to damage. They also utilize less power, which means less electricity bill and longer battery life.
  • Drawbacks: SDDs offer less space, at a higher price point. Anything over 1TB in an SDD would be out of most people’s price range.

Random Access Memory (RAM)

RAM is short for Random Access Memory. The RAM acts like a middle man between your processor and hard drive. Whenever you require the data from your hard drive for a task, the RAM helps bring it to you.

You can also think of RAM as a form of short term memory. The hard drive is the long-term memory where your files are permanently kept, and the RAM is the short-term storage where they are held temporarily for the CPU to process. The RAM has the following functions:

  • Reads files
  • Temporarily stores files
  • Acts as a “workbench” where the necessary data is stored before the CPU can use it.
  • Allows computer to access data quickly
  • Allows applications to run smoothly
  • Acts behind the scenes in almost every task the CPU executes.

Features of RAM

  1. Gigabytes (GB): this refers to the size of the RAM. e.g., you may read 8GB RAM or 16GB RAM in your laptop specs.
  2. Double Data Rate (DDR): this is the standard form of RAM used. Modern computers use DDR4, and it is recommended that you buy a computer with this form of RAM if you want the most optimal performance.
  3. Frequency (MHz): this refers to the number of commands the RAM can process in a second, and is an indicator of the speed. The higher this number is, the faster your RAM is able to fetch data – and the faster your computer will be able to run your applications.

Computer Software

Aside from hardware, your standard laptop will come with some pre-installed software for you to use. This includes:

Operating System (OS)

The OS acts as the interface through which all tasks are performed. Windows, Mac, Linux, and Chrome OS are the OS options available in the majority of computers.

Windows

  • Good for home use, gaming, and business use
  • Relatively affordable price range.
  • Compatible with almost every type of computer, both expensive and cheap.
  • Compatible with almost every kind of software.
  • Relatively vulnerable to malware and viruses.

Mac

  • Good for professional multi-media use, e.g., graphic designing, video editing, music production.
  • Only runs on Mac computers, which are not affordable.
  • Compatible with most software and programs, but not as many as windows.
  • Generally, less vulnerable to malware and viruses compared to windows.

Linux

  • Good for programmers and IT professionals. Relatively difficult to use for ordinary people.
  • Is free to download and can be installed on any computer.
  • Not compatible with most software.
  • Least vulnerable to malicious attacks as almost every process requires administrative permission.

Chrome OS

  • Lightweight system suitable for simple tasks such as accessing the internet.
  • Suitable for users who have little technical knowledge and only need to perform basic functions, e.g., students, non-IT office staff, kids, etc.
  • Only runs on google Chromebook laptops, which are quite affordable.
  • Not compatible with a vast majority of installed software. You have to install web versions of applications from the google playstore or webstore instead.
  • Relatively secure from viruses and attacks.

Conclusion

In this article, we explained the computer basics. We learned about the definition of a computer, its functions, its hardware and software, and the different types of computers. Keeping all this in mind, you can now make informed decisions about the next computer you wish to buy or interact with. If you want a more detailed buying guide for computers, check out “How to choose a computer for you”.