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How Does Your Computer Work?

Today's modern computer is a very complex machine, and with that complexity there is a whole world of terminology that you will eventually need to learn.
It's really not that difficult to understand, and here I am going to try to guide you through the technological complexities using plain English.

So, what components go to make up a modern computer?

Surprisingly, there are only about 7 major components that make up a modern computer. These are as follows:

1) Computer Case

Computer caseComputers nearly always have a case. I say nearly always because there are extremists in every field, and some computer extremists have computers that consist only of a skeleton and the internal parts are exposed to the elements, and little ones fingers. But apart from the "over enthusiast", most people will have a computer that is contained in some sort of case. Computer cases range from the older style flat desktop types to upright towers as shown on the left and through to wild and fanciful computer cases that gamers typically favor.

2) Motherboard

Computer motherboards have served the same purpose for years and that is to provide a home for the Central Processing Unit (CPU) and to allow connection to other devices.
Pictured on the right is a fairly typical motherboard and you can see the various connectors which allow devices to connect and interact with the CPU. All of the different colored horizontal and vertical connectors allow different devices to connect to the motherboard and in turn allow connection to the CPU. There are 2 major motherboard styles, these are intel and AMD. These do not refer to motherboard manufacturers but to the type of CPU that will be housed on the motherboard.

3) Central Processing Unit (CPU)

As you have probably guessed, the CPU is a very important component in a computer. It is the job of the CPU to make all of the calculations and crunch all the numbers so that you get useful information displayed on your screen. You could think of the CPU as being the computer's brain, this is where nearly all the computer's decisions are made. Generally speaking, the faster your CPU is, the faster your computer will be. There are lots of complicated formula which can dispute this, but for the general user, this holds true.

4) Random Access Memory (RAM)

Random Access Memory (RAM) is found in all computers today. There are lots of different types of RAM but essentially it all does the same thing. The type of RAM that you will have in your computer system is governed by your motherboard. The slots on the motherboard are designed to take one type of RAM only. Even if there are slots designed to take different types of RAM on a motherboard, (they are available,) you only use one type or the other, not both. Data from the RAM is transferred to the CPU by demand, that is, as the CPU processes the data, it requests more data from the RAM. It makes sense that the more memory that a RAM module has, the more able it is to keep up with the demand of the CPU.

5) Hard Disk Drive (HDD)

All computers today have a hard drive of some description and there are many different types of HDD. Typically, the hard drive consists of a series of platters inside a sealed casing. The platters have a magnetic media on the surface allowing data to be written using a code called binary. Put simply, the magnetic media particles on the surface of the platters can be aligned magnetically north/south or east/west. If we then apply a code to this, for example, every north/south aligned particle gets assigned the value 1 and every east /west particle gets assigned the value 0, we can read an entire string of this coded data, get the CPU to decode it and output it a form that we can read and understand. All of our music, photos, documents and anything else is sitting on the hard drive in this format

6) Optical Drive

Most modern computers with the exception of net-books and tablet computers, have optical drives today. These come in a variety of options from CD players through to CD/DVD writers, commonly called burners. There are even Blue-ray CD/DVD writers available. The optical drive uses the same technology to read the disk as the hard drives above, but instead of using magnetic particles, CD's use a light source to detect the code. The light source is in the form of a laser light. The laser is shone at the underside of the CD/DVD and the reflection is picked up on a detector plate. If the detector plate picks up an interruption, it interprets this as either a 1 or a zero and a code is read. The computer then puts the code to the CPU and the CPU outputs the result in a form that we can understand, perhaps music or a movie or even a word document

7) Operating System

All modern computers today come with an operating system. This is a program that is loaded at start up and typically tells the computer how to do things from filing, creating folders, directories etc. The operating system typically allows you to do things graphically instead of typing commands. It's much easier to drag and drop a folder where you want it instead of having to type something like, "copy c:\myfile c:\documents&settings\user\mydocuments\myfile.txt". Also the Graphical User Interface (GUI) looks nicer using pictures and icons rather than a black screen with white writing. Contrary to most peoples thinking, there are lots of different operating systems out there, not just Windows and Mac. There are literally hundreds of different versions of Linux, one that I have dabbled with over the last few years is Linux Mint. This is an operating system that has the look and feel of Windows XP and Win 7. It has a start menu that is organized into various categories, Office, Internet etc. and is very easy to use. Software is free to download and use as is the operating system. Viruses at this point is not an issue as all users operate as standard users and if you need to do an administrative task, it will ask for the super user's password before you can do the function. You can boot Mint off the disk and try out a fully functional operating system before committing to installing it onto your hard drive. If you do decide to take the plunge, you can still retain your Windows partition as when you are installing it will ask you if you want install to the whole drive or retain the Windows partition and dual boot it. Well worth a look


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