OK. Let's start with a computer introduction. Everywhere you look there is a computer of some description working to perform a task or action. Some are obvious, such as a laptop. Other less so, such as a a car or a thermostat.
To the benefit, or detriment, of society (depending on your view), computing technology is here to stay, and it is evolving all the time, at an unprecedented rate.
This means if you do not have experience or interest in using computing hardware and software, you are putting yourself at an increasing disadvantage, whether it be at home, work or part of daily life.
I've heard people who fear or reject technology in all its forms be unkindly referred to as Luddites in the IT industry.
Don't be a Luddite! Even if you don't class yourself as 'technically minded' there are reasons why they play an important part in society, and therefore why you should understand the basics at least! That is what this computer introduction page is all about.
The chances are you know about some form of computer, whether you are aware of it or not. The majority of people know how to use a computer of some description (its functionality).
Here we look at what computers are, what they do and the different types. We touch on the different hardware devices we use today and the types of software available to operate that hardware.
We also look at computer troubleshooting principles, because despite their brilliance, most people experience a computing malfunction of some description now and again. The troubleshooting secrets of the IT Industry are laid bare in this article!
However, first things, first. What are computers?
A proper computer introduction requires us to get a little bit technical. Not too technical though, but just enough so the principles of computing technology are understood.
Computers are machines. They are electronic devices. The hardware undertake tasks by performing instructions written in a software program to achieve a desired result or output.
The hardware is items such as a keyboard, monitor or hard drive. Software is the instructions that tells the hardware what to do.
Computers have 4 main functions.
Well what does all that mean exactly, you may ask? It means everything you do on a computers follows the above steps. Let's take typing up a document as an example.
As you can appreciate, personal computers perform these actions very, very quickly.
The principles of what a computer is applies to all forms of machine. In the next section we look at the different types of computer we have at our disposal today.
As part of your computer introduction it is important to understand the different types of machine in existence today, and what their role is.
Machines range in size and capability, from huge supercomputers such as the Tianhe-2, to standard desktops, smartphones and embedded devices found in fire alarms.
Everyday personal computers come in the form of desktops (pictured above) and laptops. Microsoft Windows based devices are the most common at the time of writing. Hardware is manufactured by a variety of companies.
Devices such as the Macbook Pro Laptop is manufactured by Apple, who also provides the operating system (OS X). Laptops are more transportable than desktops due to their size and weight.
Other portable computers such as tablets and smartphones are increasingly popular today. Although limited in what they can do when compared to desktops, they provide a convenient way to communicate online with each other.
Hardware such as these are used in the home, education and in business. A whole variety of tasks are undertaken on these machines, such as document writing, e-mails, web surfing, instant messaging, presentations and financial accounting tasks to name but a few.
Hardware such as smart TV's (and remote controls), thermostats, air conditioning units, microwave ovens and medical equipment have what is known as embedded devices.
These are small chips that sit directly on the devices motherboard. They are programmed to perform a single task.
A fire panel, for example, is programmed to send a real-time alert to an audible alarm if it receives data from a heat sensor that surpasses a set temperature threshold i.e. a potential fire.
Another example is the functioning of the electronic dashboards in trains and cars.
Each type of hardware device discussed here is made up or comprised of various components. Hard disk drives, memory and processors form part of internal components that make up a personal computer (PC).
Monitors, printers and mice form part of the external hardware components of a PC. We look at these, in more detail, in the Computer Hardware Components article.
For hardware to work as we see today, software programs are required. Just like hardware, software programs are designed to meet a variety of objectives and tasks, ranging from firmware to modern applications. We take a look at this in the next section.
A computer introduction wouldn't be right if it overlooked software. This is the real engine of computing technology, without which hardware would be a complete waste of time, as it would not be able to do a thing!
OK. Let's start with firmware. This is a software program that sits on computer chips and enables the hardware to communicate with other types of software, such as the operating system.
Known as UEFI or BIOS in PC's, it checks all the parts inside your machine e.g. keyboard, ports, memory, graphics card etc., are in working order before your operating system loads.
Other types of firmware perform similar functions on hardware components such as sound cards and graphic cards.
Operating Systems are a necessity for modern computers to work properly. There is a variety of different makes and versions, depending on the hardware device in use.
PC's use Microsoft Windows. Mac's use OS X. Both are classed as commerical operating systems, which means there is a cost associated with each. You must buy a genuine license to use. This limits software theft.
Some people use LINUX which is classed as an open source O/S. This means it is free to use and you don't need to buy a license. LINUX comes in various forms, such as Ubuntu or Mandrake.
Device drivers enable the O/S to interact with hardware components. Each main hardware component requires a loaded device driver program to interact with the O/S.
As with all software forms, device drivers are updated frequently. The benefits of doing this include bug fixes, improved security and performance.
Applications are a collection of computer programs or routines that enable you to carry out your intended tasks or activities. Whether it is on a desktop PC or an android device, applications are dependent on system software such as the O/S, but are independently run.
There are literally millions of software programs in existence today, all classified in lots of different categories. Some are free. Some you pay for. Some enable you to do you home accounts. Some remove malware. The list is endless.
Examples of applications include Word Processing (Microsoft Word), Anti Virus (Avast) and games (for your XBox or Playstation - another type of hardware device!).
With so many things comprising a typical computer, it is no surprise things sometimes stop working. Whether it is hardware or software related, the basic principles of troubleshooting apply. This is what we look at in the next section.
A computer introduction would not be complete without touching on how to approach troubleshooting a computer problem. We all know they happen often enough to cause us headaches!
The following approach is taken from several IT certification courses I studied in the past 10 years. Each approach has a unique take on problem solving, but the guiding principles do not change.
In fact, the approach does not only relate to computer hardware and software troubleshooting. They can be applied to a whole manor of issues. There are no big suprises here, just a lot of common sense.
Step 1 : Determine the Issue or Problem
To fix a computer issue you need to understand what has happened, and more importantly, the events leading up to the issue occurring.
If the issue occurs on your own machine, think about what you were doing before the error message appeared. Try to re-create each step leading up to the error. Write it down and try to make sense of what's happened. Reproducing the issue if possible is a great help.
The same applies if someone is asking you for help. If the steps are unclear, simplify things so you know at least which part of the system is at fault. Error messages, beeps, flashing lights, noises, recent changes etc. all contribute to the story.
Understanding what happened gives you a good indicator with which to resolve the issue.
Step 2: Determine Probable Cause(s)
Apply common sense to what you know and understand from Step 1. Establish a starting point. If the monitor is not switching on, for example, the power cord is a logical consideration to resolve the issue.
Probable cause is not always straightforward. Sometimes you hit dead ends and need to repeat the process. This is particularly true if the error cannot be repeated and/or steps leading up to the issue cannot be recalled in order.
Over time you learn to recognise common issues, especially those that re-occur frequently. However there is a human tendency to rush things, dive straight in and apply a fix that has worked countless times before (until now!)
Assuming a fix often leads to issues not being fixed permanently or correctly. Sometimes the common fix does not work at all, because the cause of the issue is different, or because there is more than one reason.
Step 3: Test Your Potential Fix
Often the fix to an computer issue is simple. However we often overlook the obvious in search for some complicated answer. Start with the hardware peripherals, then the internal components, then the software.
Once you have a list of causes, test each one to see if this fixes the issue., or test the single fix you have in mind.
Start with the simple, easy things. For example, check the monitor power cable is secure, or unplug at the monitor and wall, and re-seat. Ensure the monitor on/off button is set to on.
Next try an known good power cable that works, or plug your suspected faulty cable in to a known, working monitor. Through trial and error you isolate the cause and confirm your fix.
This applies to all hardware components. Software is similar in that you can remove and re-install the application, or remove the toolbar recently installed that is suspected of causing the web browser to crash.
Step 4: Verify the Issue is Resolved
Did your fix work? Great! Ensure the events leading up to the issue are avoided if they are the cause. Power cable fault? Ensure you replace with a brand new cable if possible, rather than an old cable you found in the back of the wardrobe.
See where we are going with this? To ensure the fix is permanent, replace the faulty hardware component with new, re-install the software application without error messages, and conduct some post fix checks to be thorough.
You don't want the fault to re-occur the next time you login because you were not thorough!
Step 5: Documentation Documentation Documentation!
Writing down the events, root cause and fix gives you a head start if the issue does re-occur on another machine, or a similar issues arises.
Use a template so all your documented fixes are in the same format. Draw diagrams. Highlight the 'A-Ha' moments that helped you find the solution.
You think you'll remember the fix for next time, but believe me, you won't. Certainly not in the level of detail you need. This is why documentation is so important! It also means others can learn from your experiences and save time troubleshooting in the future.
Writing a computer introduction is more difficult than it sounds. Once you delve in to the detail it is easy to get caught up with all the technical terms and lose sight of whom the article is aimed at.
Our journey through what computers are, the different hardware and software types, and the troubleshooting framework gives you a decent head start to be your own computer support technician.
To round the computer introduction article off, take a moment to watch the video below. It is an excellent, 2 minute video that encapsulates the answer to the question 'what is a computer' perfectly.
What is a computer?
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The video is part of the excellent, free Computer Basics course (Opens New Window). Take a look to learn more.
Next take a look at the Computer Hardware Components page for a more in depth look at what is inside a typical personal computer.