Computer Basics, Part 1

Dennis Faas's picture

I suppose it's time to roll up my sleeves and try to 'expose' the inner workings of the scary little box that's humming away on your desk. It's called a Personal Computer, no matter who designed and/or built it. It may have a name associated with it such as Macintosh (or Mac), Dell, IBM, Gateway, or any of a myriad of names depending where you live and what you decided to buy.

No matter what name is associated, all desktop Personal Computers (or PCs) have a few basic components that are common. Laptop systems have the same array of components but they are usually not accessible like in a desktop system.

The case!

The case is the first thing you notice when you look at your PC. It is there for more than just being pleasing to the eye. It provides an enclosure for the rag-tag collection of cables and components that otherwise may not be so attractive to look at. It also provides shielding for the high frequency generating components inside. Not that they need it, but your Am/Fm radio and TV could be interfered with by the internal workings of your computer causing static on the radio and snow on your TV screen. It also helps control the cooling needs of the computer by directing air flow across the interior of the case. If it didn't, your computer would over heat and die of Heat Prostration.

Power Supply

Since your computer actually operates at a very low voltage, the power supply converts the electricity available at the wall socket to the necessary collection of voltages and currents the components use to operate. Without getting into the description of what AC and DC are, suffice it to say the power supply takes in 110 volt AC and converts it to 12 and 5 volt DC. There is a resultant release of heat energy so there is a fan to pull in cool air and push out the heat.

Motherboard or System board

This component is the basis for the system. If you open your computer and look inside you will see a large square or rectangle that has a lot of tiny black things and tiny cans sitting on it. You will also notice that there are connectors for the cables that go to the drives and power supply. You will also see a few additional card like things that are inserted into the board. The motherboard provides the interconnections, power distribution, and data feeds for the micro processor.

The Micro Processor

This is the heart of your system. There are several different types, different speeds, and capabilities -- in fact, too many to really go into here and by far too technical. Suffice it to say, the processor is the item that does all the hard work in converting raw data into the pretty pictures and nicely organized display on your screen.


These are the little short cards plugged into the motherboard that look to be about 6 or so inches long an 1 inch or less high. You will find at least 1 or more installed. These provide what is termed as RAM (or Random Access Memory). All programs and their data are loaded here for the processor to use. Anything stored in memory will stay until modified, or until you lose power.


There are basically three different types of drive in your computer. The floppy, CD ROM, and Hard drive. Floppy drives are used to move smaller amounts of data on a diskette of floppy. The name originated back in the seventies when they were first put to use. At that time they were 8 inches across and flexible, therefore the name "floppy'. Today's floppy is anything but, since the 3.5 inch object is encased in hard plastic. CD ROMs (CD and DVD) are removable media drives that accept a 5 inch diameter disk of silvery coated plastic. These can hold large amounts of data and are, for the most part, cost effective and relatively easy to store. The hard drive is usually stores the most data than any of the other two drive types. The media is sealed inside a really clean environment. No dust, smoke, dirt, hair, or anything else can be in here with them. Even a finger print can cause severe problems if it's on the surface of the media.

Interface Cards

Once the processor has finished work, there has to be a way to get the results of all its work out so you can do something with it. The video interface provides a way for the monitor to display the graphics, or whatever so you can see and interact with it. If you want to send it someplace, a modem card allows you to both send and receive the information by telephone. The network connection provides a high speed method of moving the data much like the modem only faster.

The Monitor, keyboard, mouse, and printer aren't really a part of he PC since they are external to it and connect via cables, but they are the methods by which you, the user, interact with the computer.

Now that we've covered the basics, we can move on to the more technical aspects of each major component. Till then ...

Have Fun!

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