If you are studying personal computers as the beginning of your career in technology, or perhaps you are just trying to understand how things work on your home computer to better deal with problems and upgrades, you can't get away with not knowing some very basic definitions of the components of a desktop personal computer system.
There have been so many types of hardware and software over the years, keeping up to date on what is current is a full time job for many computer support technicians. This section is meant to be a brief introduction to common personal computer terms, we are only introducing you briefly to the basics.
If you are interested to learn more, many of the topics described here are covered in more detail throughout the websites of the Guru42 Universe. Over at our sister site GeekHistory.com we explore the history of technology and the evolution of personal computers.
Basic parts defined
Computer hardware is the collection of physical elements that make up a computer system such as a hard disk drive (HDD), monitor, mouse, keyboard, CD-ROM drive, network card, system board, power supply, case, and video card.
The main system board is sometimes called the motherboard. It is the central printed circuit board (PCB) in and holds many of the crucial components of the system, providing connectors for other peripherals.
The central processing unit (CPU), the brain of a computer system is the main component on the main system board. The CPU carries out the instructions of computer programs, performs the basic arithmetical, logical, and input/output operations of the system.
System boards will have expansion slots, a CPU socket or slot, location for memory cache and RAM, and a keyboard connector. Other components may also be present. A slot is a narrow notch, groove, or opening. A socket is a hollow piece or part into which something fits. Systemboards contain both sockets and slots, which are the points at which devices can be plugged in. A CPU slot is long and narrow while a CPU socket is square.
RAM (Random Access Memory), is the computer's primary storage which holds programming code and data that is being processed by the CPU.
ROM is read-only memory. ROM chips, located on circuit boards, are used to hold programming code that is permanently stored on the chip.
Flash ROM can be reprogrammed whereas regular ROM cannot be. In order to change the programming code of regular ROM, the chip must be replaced. Upgrades to Flash ROM can be downloaded from the Internet.
BIOS stands for basic input-output system. It is used to manage the startup of the computer and ongoing input and output operations of basic components, such as a floppy disk or hard drive.
Computer software is a collection of computer programs and related data that provide the instructions for telling a computer what to do.
System software provides the basic functions for computer usage and helps run the computer hardware. An operating system is a type of software that controls a computers output and input operations, such as saving files and managing memory. Common operating systems are typically Windows based, but personal computers can also use an Apple or Linux based operating system as well.
Software applications represent a variety of computer programs. Some applications such as computer games are for the entertainment of the computer user. Other applications such as word processors are used for creating documents or spreadsheet programs that are computerized simulations of paper accounting worksheets.
The term data is used to describe the files created by the applications. On the typical home computer you have various data files such as the documents created by your word processors, as well as music and movies that you have downloaded in the form of various types of audio and video files.
There are many types of data storage devices. A hard disk drive (HDD) is called secondary storage while memory is called primary storage because programs cannot be executed from secondary storage but must first be moved to primary storage. Basically, the CPU cannot "reach" the program still in secondary storage for execution.
As the personal computer has evolved over the years, so has the many forms of storage devices used to remove the data from your computer for storage. Early home computers had floppy disk drives which used various forms of diskettes based on magnetic storage.
The next generation of data storage devices were optical disc technologies, first with the Compact disc (CD) and later with the digital versatile disc (DVD).
USB flash drives are now commonly used for storage, data back-up and transfer of computer files. The USB flash drive has been replacing all other forms of data storage devices in recent years.
A home computer system is a combination of hardware and software components. Computer hardware describes the physical parts or components of a home computer system.
Computer peripherals are various devices used to put information into and get information out of your computer. Keyboards, mouse, scanners, digital cameras and joysticks are examples of input devices. Displays, printers, projectors, and speakers are examples of output devices.
What is the difference between a PC (personal computer) and a workstation
In a business environment you may have a computer on your desk that is very similar to the computer you have at home, but there is one major difference, the work computer is managed as part of a LAN (local area network) that contains many other computers. In the next section we define networking terms and go into a bit more detail on the concept of a LAN.
Some definitions will state that a workstation computer is faster and more powerful than a personal computer. Not necessarily. Terms like "faster and more powerful" are pretty ambiguous. The difference is a bit more clear-cut, it is a point of reference in how they are used.
In your home you have a personal computer, it is the center of your personal technology universe. When you open up an application, it is on that computer. When you create a data file, like a Word document, you save it to that computer.
When you open up an application, it may be installed on your local computer, or it may be installed on an application server somewhere on your LAN. When you create a data file on your workstation, like a Word document, you save it to your personal directory on a file server that is on your LAN.
Many years ago when computer systems were expensive, all the work was done on a mainframe, a huge computer surrounded by geeks in a special room. The end users had dumb terminals, meaning there was a keyboard and a monitor at your desk, but the box they attached to on your desk was called a dumb terminal because it did not do any work, it was dumb!
The concept of the workstation is that some of the "work" is done locally at your desktop, but some of the work could also be done on a computer somewhere else, in the case of the LAN, that somewhere else would be a server.