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Back to Basics: What Exactly is a Computer?

Mar 24, 2020 BY Paul Reissner

Back to Basics: What Exactly is a Computer?

Computers are everywhere. You’re using a computer to view this article. A computer controls the engine in your car, and there’s even a computer on your wrist or in your pocket right now (even if your watch or phone isn’t all that “smart”).

But, what is a computer really? This article should help to explain the individual components of arguably one of the most important inventions of the 20th century.

CPU / Processor
The processor or central processing unit (CPU) is the “brain” of the computer, and is responsible for doing the actual computation required to use the computer (e.g., launching a web browser, opening a document). CPUs typically have multiple “cores” (i.e., the physical part of the processer that does the computation) and “threads” (i.e., how many things the processor can do at the exact same time), which are contained on the same “chip”. As an example, a computer with a “quad-core” processor with “multithreading” has essentially four processors that can each do two things at the same time.

A processor’s “clock speed” refers to how quickly the processor can perform tasks and is useful for comparing otherwise similar processors. However, not all “fast” processors are created equal. Higher speeds depend on the number of cores, as well as for what the processor is being used. Generally, Office applications want fewer faster cores and multimedia applications want as many cores as possible.

A faster CPU (i.e., a CPU with more cores) generally allows a computer to more quickly complete tasks; however, it is more important to select the right processor for the job than to simply choose the “faster” or “better” processor.

Input and Output Devices
Input and output (I/O) devices are the devices we generally use to interact with computers, commonly known as a keyboard, video (monitor), and mouse (KVM). Other types of I/O devices include microphones used for video calls or multi-function printers used for printing, scanning, and copying documents. I/O devices of typically chosen based on preference; some people prefer a certain style of keyboard (e.g., ergonomic) or mouse (e.g., trackball, trackpad), as well as the wireless versions for more portability.

The size of each monitor usually depends on how the computer is used (e.g., a video editor and an administrator have different computer needs). A higher resolution display (e.g., 4K, 1080p) allows the user to show more items on their screen at the same time but will make everything appear to be smaller allowing for more detail.

Also, having additional monitors allow the user to quickly refer to other programs and more effectively multitask without needing to minimize windows. If you’ve ever been to the Dataprise offices, you have likely noticed that the majority of Dataprisers use more than one monitor. Some individuals use “ultrawide” monitors that allow them to easily view four (or more) documents at the same time.

Memory / RAM
Random-access memory (RAM) can be thought of like a bookmark; more memory means more reference points the computer has to open applications. A computer rapidly switches back and forth between these bookmarks (like one might do in a large reference book).

More memory in a computer means the user can have more windows or programs open at the same time and not slow down. Certain applications (e.g., multimedia, design, server applications) can also be sped up when more memory is available.

Upgrading a computer’s memory can sometimes be an effective way of extending the system’s life or repurposing the unit.

Storage
Storage is the amount of space allocated for files and programs on a computer, typically in the form of a hard disk drive (HDD) or solid-state drive (SSD). Hard drives use a spinning platter that stores data using magnets, which is why a computer sometimes gets louder when a file is being opened. An SSD uses “chips” to store data, not a spinning platter, and is usually much faster (sometimes hundreds of times faster), more durable, and much smaller. As such, smartphones, tablets, and most laptops use (or can be configured with) SSDs instead of hard drives.

More storage allows for more files and programs to be installed on a computer. Hard drives typically have more storage and a lower cost than SSDs, but files stored on hard drives may take longer to open.

It is not uncommon for a computer to have both an SSD and HDD if there is a need to store a large amount of data directly on a computer; however, most business users should have no problem using even a small SSD.

Networking
Networks allow multiple computers to communicate, multiple people to open files stored in a central location, and users to send an email, browse the internet, or even play quick multiplayer video games.

Connecting to a network (e.g., the internet) can either be “wired” (i.e., a physical cable connecting a computer to the network) or “wireless” (i.e., a radio frequency connecting a computer to the network). Wired connections are typically faster, while a wireless connection allows for better portability. Although, new standards (e.g., WiFi-6) are providing speeds that meet or exceed speeds commonly associated with consumer wired networks.

A faster network connection leads to a decrease in the amount of time it takes to transfer files over the network since the “local” network is generally faster than an internet connection. Wireless networks can be susceptible to interference and can sometimes be less stable than a wired network. For this reason, servers are almost exclusively connected using a wired connection.

Wrapping Up
A lot of information was presented in this article, but hopefully, you've found it useful. A foundational understanding of computers is important to make the most of the technology we use every day and to make sense of the various specifications. This information will also be useful as we continue our “Back to Basics” series and dive deeper into servers, networking, and cloud computing.

Check out the first few articles in our "Back-to-the-Basics" series here:

Preventing User Error
5 Reasons to Restart Your Computer

IT Fundamentals
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