Taking a look inside the box.
This is a non-technical guide helping to explain some of the terms you may encounter whilst using your computer.
What’s RAM, where’s my CPU and what’s a Port?
If you’ve ever wondered what you’d find if you cranked open the side of your desktop computer and brushed away the cobwebs or managed to fiddle around for long enough to take the bottom off your laptop, here’s a whistle-stop tour of the main parts and a brief explanation of what they do.
RAM – random access memory
Ask anyone familiar with computers to name a component and the first thing they will probably think of is RAM or memory. I guess the reason for this is because it’s associated with how fast a computer can run and the cheapest and easiest way to give a pc a boost is to install more memory. In the past you were lucky to have 256MB but these days, due to falling manufacturing costs, even a basic system will usually have a minimum of 4GB.
(See below for a guide to GB Gigabytes and MB megabytes)
4GB is ample when running a basic system used for general tasks and increasing this to 6 or 8GB will show little increase in the speed that it runs. However, if you want to play the latest version of COD (if you’re a gamer you’ll know what this is) or use it to run more complicated programs such as those that edit videos for example, then you will need much more than 4GB.
So why is 4GB good enough for some systems but not enough in others? The only way to explain this is to get a little technical;
All but a tiny amount of the data or information needed to run your computer is permanently stored on the hard drive. The standard hard-drive runs relatively slowly compared to RAM, so to speed things up data is moved into and out of the memory from the hard drive thus allowing it to be accessed far quicker when it is needed. Each time you open a program the same thing happens; the data is loaded into memory ready to be accessed by the whichever part of your computer requires it to run.
When the system is shut down or power is lost all information is wiped from the memory which is why, if you’re working on a document that hasn’t been saved and your computer is switched off it’s gone for good.
In simplified terms then RAM is a very speedy go between, shuttling information to and from the CPU and other parts of your pc and the hard drive.
The CPU or central processing unit
Commonly referred to as the brains of a computer, the CPU is responsible for organising and managing all the instructions and processes needed to run the system. From the moment you hit the power button to the time when you shut it down, the processor is busy taking commands and running the show. Disappointingly it is quite a non-descript looking slice of metal just a bit bigger than a postage stamp, shown here with a 1p coin for scale, but don’t let that fool you, today’s processor chips are fantastically powerful. You won’t be able to see the processor because it’s connected to the motherboard and hidden beneath a large fan needed to keep it cool.
The hard drive
As mentioned above the hard drive is where all the data, information, operating system, all your files and folders, documents and photos are permanently stored. The only consideration you may have is how much storage space you need but modern computers generally have a minimum of 500GB and the cost doesn’t increase that much if you want more.
About the size and thickness of a small paperback book, hard disk drives have for a long time consisted of mechanical disks (called platters) which determine how fast the information can be accessed but there is now an alternative called a Solid State Drive (SSD) which vastly increases the access speed. These types of hard drive are a bit more expensive though, meaning if you want the speed you pay the price.
The graphics card
Vewing images from your computer on your monitor is mostly controlled and managed by the graphics card. All computers have one and unless you want to run the latest games or use sophisticated image editing suites the standard card that comes with most new computers is good enough.
If you take a look at the back of your desktop computer or the sides of your laptop you’ll see a variety of holes which are used to connect very specific types of cables. These holes are known as ports. As an example when you want to connect a mouse or keyboard using a USB cable you would connect it to the USB port.
(Just a quick mention – there are also virtual ports which have no physical connection and generally referred to when making connections via a network).
I briefly mentioned the motherboard earlier when explaining the CPU and whilst it is a part of the computer that remains unknown to many people it is in fact essential. Every part of a computer system needs to be connected to the motherboard so that it can amongst other things, distribute the power supply and enable communication between the various parts
CD/DVD drive or Optical drive
CD/DVD drives have been around for a long time and most people know what they are. The reason it’s sometimes called an optical drive is because light is used to read the data stored on the disks.
Watch out when buying a new laptop as they sometimes take out the CD/DVD drive to accommodate a slimmer, lighter design.
There are of course many other parts to a computer system but I hope this guide has given you some small insight into what’s inside the box.
A guide to computer units
1024B = 1KB
1024KB = 1MB
1024MB = 1GB
1024GB = 1TB
Depending on how long it is, a full length feature film requires between 3.5GB and 7GB of data space if saved to the hard drive.
To go to Part 1 in this series click here; Computers Simplified – the Personal Computer
My article – Buying a new computer – has advice you may find useful if you’re thinking of purchasing a new machine.