Chances are you’re reading this because you just bought a new computer, are thinking about buying a new computer, or maybe even had someone give you his old computer. (Nothing wrong with high-tech hand-me-downs!)
At this point you might not be totally sure what it is you’ve gotten yourself into. Just what is this mess of boxes and cables, and what can you—or should you—do with it?
This tutorial serves as an introduction to the entire concept of personal computers in general—what they do, how they work, that sort of thing—and computer hardware in particular.
It’s a good place to start if you’re not that familiar with computers, or want a brief refresher course in what all those pieces and parts are, and what they do. Of course, if you want to skip the background and get right to using your computer, that’s okay, too.
What Computer Can—and Can’t—Do
What good is a personal computer, anyway? Everybody has one, you know. (Including you, now!) In fact, it’s possible you bought your new computer just so that you wouldn’t feel left out. But now that you have your very own personal computer, what do you do with it?
- Working - A lot of people use their home PCs for work-related purposes. You can bring your work (reports, spreadsheets, you name it) home from the office and finish it on your home PC, at night or on weekends.
Or, if you work at home, you can use your computer to pretty much run your small business—you can use it to do everything from typing memos and reports to generating invoices and setting budgets. In short, anything you can do with a normal office PC, you can probably do on your home PC.
- Playing - All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, so there’s no reason not to have a little fun with your new PC.
Not only can you use your PC to play some really cool games, you can also use it to track your favorite hobby, create interesting crafts projects, print pictures from your latest family vacation, listen to your favorite music, and watch your favorite videos.
In fact, with the right software and hardware, you can even use your PC to edit movies you take with your video camcorder.
- Managing Finances - You don’t have to be a professional accountant to use your PC to manage your finances.
Software programs, such as Microsoft Money and Quicken, let you create budgets, write checks, and balance your accounts, right from your computer screen.
Or you can go directly to your bank’s website and do all your banking online. You can even set up your system to automatically pay bills and do other banking online—no paper checks necessary.
- Keeping in Touch - Want to send a letter to a friend? With your new PC (and a word processing program, such as Microsoft Word), it’s a cinch.
Even better, save a stamp and send that friend an electronic letter—called an email—over the Internet. And if that person is online the same time you are, you can chat with him in real time via an instant messaging program. Many families use their PCs for almost all their communications.
- Getting Online - Speaking of email, chances are one of the main reasons you got a PC was to get connected to the Internet.
The Internet’s a great tool; in addition to email and instant messaging, you can buy and sell just about anything online, read the latest news from popular blogs, and browse the World Wide Web—which is chock-full of interesting and informative content and services.
Now you won’t feel left out when people start talking about “double-you double-you double-you” this and “dot-com” that—because you’ll be online, too.
Personal Computer System
Now that you know why you have that brand-new personal computer sitting on your desk, you might be interested in just what it is that you have. It’s important to know what each part of your system is, what it does, and how to hook it all together.
We’ll start by looking at the physical components of your system—the stuff we call computer hardware. As you can see in Figure 1, there are a lot of different pieces and parts that make up a typical computer system.
You should note, however, that no two computer systems are identical, since you can always add new components to your system— or disconnect other pieces you don’t have any use for.
These items are the basic elements you’ll find in almost all computer systems.
Of course, you can add lots of other items to your personal system, including printers (to make printouts of documents and pictures), scanners (to convert a printed document or picture to electronic format), PC cameras (also known as webcams, to send live video of yourself to friends and family), joysticks (to play the most challenging games), and external hard disks (to back up your precious data).
You can also hook up all manner of portable devices to your PC, including digital cameras, camcorders, and portable music players (such as the ubiquitous Apple iPod). You can even add the appropriate devices to connect multiple PCs together in a network.
By themselves, all those little beige and black boxes really aren’t that useful. You can connect them and set them in place, but they won’t do anything until you have some software to make things work.
Computer hardware are those things you can touch—your system unit, monitor, and the like. Computer software, on the other hand, is something you can’t touch, because it’s nothing more than a bunch of electronic bits and bytes.
These bits and bytes, however, combine into computer programs—sometimes called applications— that provide specific functionality to your system. For example, if you want to crunch some numbers, you need a piece of software called a spreadsheet program.
If you want to write a letter, you need a word processing program. If you want to make changes to some pictures you took with your digital camera, you need graphics editing software.
In other words, you need separate software for each task you want to do with your computer. Fortunately, most new computer systems come with a lot of this software already installed.
Windows Operating System
When you’re not using a specific piece of application software, you interface with your computer via a special piece of software called an operating system. As the name implies, this program makes your system operate; it’s your gateway to the hardware part of your system.
The operating system is also how your application software interfaces with your computer hardware. When you want to print a document from your word processor, that software works with the operating system to send the document to your printer.
Most computers today ship with an operating system called Microsoft Windows. This operating system has been around for more than 20 years and is published by Microsoft Corporation. Windows isn’t the only operating system around, however.
Computers manufactured by Apple Computing use a different operating system, called the Mac OS. Therefore, computers running Windows and computers by Apple aren’t totally compatible with each other.
Then there’s Linux, which is compatible with most PCs sold today, but used primarily by uber-techie types; it’s not an operating system I would recommend for general users. But let’s get back to Windows, of which there have been several different versions over the years.
The newest version is called Windows Vista, and if you just purchased a brand-new PC, this is probably the version you’re using. If your PC is a little older, you might be running Windows XP, the immediate predecessor to Vista.
And if you have a much older PC, or one used in a corporate environment, you could be running yet another version of Windows—Windows 2000, perhaps, or even Windows 98. All versions of Windows do pretty much the same things, although newer versions look prettier, are a bit more stable, and have a few more bells and whistles.
Whichever version of Windows you have installed on your PC, you use it to launch specific programs and to perform various system maintenance functions, such as copying files and turning off your computer.
A lot of people are afraid of their computers. They think if they press the wrong key or click the wrong button that they’ll break something or will have to call in an expensive repairperson to put things right. This really isn’t true. The important thing to know is that it’s really difficult to break your computer system.
Yes, it’s possible to break something if you drop it, but in terms of breaking your system through normal use, it just doesn’t happen that often. It is possible to make mistakes, of course. You can click the wrong button and accidentally delete a file you didn’t want to delete or turn off your system and lose a document you forgot to save.
You can even take inadequate security precautions and find your system infected by a computer virus. But in terms of doing serious harm just by clicking your mouse, it’s unlikely. So don’t be afraid of the thing. Your computer is a tool, just like a hammer or a blender or a camera.
After you learn how to use it, it can be a very useful tool. But it’s your tool, which means you tell it what to do—not vice versa. Remember that you’re in control and that you’re not going to break anything, and you’ll have a lot of fun—and maybe even get some real work done!