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It won’t make you into a computer technician, but it will let you talk to one without thinking they are speaking a foreign language. The computers we are interested in are the general-purpose personal computers like we use at our desk, rather than the specialized computer under the hood of your car, or the big mainframe computers that the IRS uses to keep track of us all. For our purposes, a computer can be defined as a machine for processing and storing information electronically. To be useful, it must have a way for us to get information into the machine, and some way to get it out afterwards so we can see it. Therefore, a computer has four basic functions: 1. 2. 3. 4. Input Processing Storage Output
Every part of a computer system, and everything it does, is connected to one or more of these basic functions. Computers can seem complex because there are many ways of doing each of these functions, and because everything has a new name, often made up of what appear to be nonsense initials like RAM or CPU. To keep it simple, first look up any word or technical term you don’t understand. There is a glossary at the back of this course pack with definitions for all the technical terms we use here or that you are likely to hear in talking to technicians. Second, when you encounter any part of a computer for the first time, find out which of these four functions it is used for. Input The most obvious device for getting information (also called data) into a computer system is the keyboard. Another common input device is the mouse. Almost any time we use a computer we use one or both of these to get text data or instructions into the system. To get large amounts of information into the computer we would probably use a CD (compact disc), a floppy diskette, a modem connected to a phone line, or a network card connected to a network. With the right sound equipment, a microphone or musical instrument can be used to bring in sound, and a digital camera can download visual information, so these are all being used as input.
and whatever is needed at the moment is copied into RAM. Most of this takes place in a part called the processor. The only problem with hard drives is that it takes too long to get the data from them. the system needs to be able to get to any part of that information very quickly.Processing If we just put information into the computer and took it out again later. computers could be much simpler. also called a hard disk. Everything stored long-term is on the disk. because in working with computers you will hear about bytes frequently. the computer normally deals with a minimum of 8 bits at a time. and not the hard drive or other forms of storage that we haven’t covered yet. If changes are made to the data in RAM. When people talk about the memory of a computer. So. Random access is faster than sequential access. and each bit will be either a one or a zero. which stands for Random Access Memory. and it can keep this information when the computer is turned off. Doing something with it is called processing. the computer needs both RAM and disk storage. This is an important word to remember. we want to do something with it or change it in some way. or data processing. Most of the time though. For information being used at the moment. The main reason that computers don’t just store everything in RAM is that information in RAM is lost whenever the power is turned off. or Central Processing Unit. It is called the co-processor and also the Numerical Processing Unit or NPU. and also megabytes which is one million bytes. without waiting for to come up in sequence. My office computer is a Pentium III but at home I have an Athlon system. Storage Information is stored in a computer in several different ways. This is usually abbreviated to CPU. Sometimes you will hear the entire computer cabinet called a CPU. the changes must be copied back to the disk before that computer is turned off so those changes are not lost. The storage for this information is RAM. For the sake of efficiency. they almost always mean RAM. but the main two are RAM and hard drive. Sometimes they will say ‘main memory’ just to be perfectly clear about it. and 8 bits together is called a byte. To help the CPU there is another part that takes over a lot of the arithmetic. Random access means the system can ask for any piece of stored data at random and get it immediately. . because the system must wait as the disk spins until the right part of the disk surface comes under the read heads. The hard drive can store huge amounts of information. Megabyte is usually abbreviated MB. and then the drive transfers a block of data in sequence. The CPU is such an important part of the computer that we often refer to a system by the type of CPU it contains. The smallest piece of data that a computer can process is called a bit.
If you want to play a game on the computer. like the floppy diskette mentioned earlier. Certain things need to be done no matter what you are using the computer for.Output There are a number of ways to get data back out of the computer. balance your checkbook or play a game of computer solitaire. and the one used in this office. information can go both ways over the line so it’s both input and output. These little chunks are called drivers. These instructions are called software. and that’s the monitor. getting information to the monitor screen. and allows other programs to concentrate on their particular tasks. If you want to send e-mail. and anytime you add a piece of hardware to a system or upgrade to a new version of a device. Another common output device is a printer. A program called Windows is the most common operating systems for PCs. These are things you can see and touch. they are hard. and when to do it? Actually. you will need to have the right driver for that new piece of hardware. in which case they are called Input/Output and abbreviated as I/O. or both. and yes. which of course puts the computer’s output on paper for you. In many cases it is practical to consider input and output together. The monitor and the parts of the computer that run it are known as video. the operating system. Software The physical parts of as computer are called hardware. It has a screen that shows you information from the computer. the computer must have a program with the instructions for that particular game. and they are organized into sets of instructions called programs. They need instructions to tell them what to do. that can mean the applications. It comes from a little company called Microsoft. because their job is to apply the computer to a specific task. These are things like getting data on and off the disk. One of them is right there in front of your face. the operating system takes care of the basic details of running the computer. If you have a modem or network connection. When we say software. There are other little chunks of software that attach to the operating system and tell it how to run particular hardware components or applications. One program called the operating system contains the instructions for actually running the computer. These other programs are called applications. and so forth. Perhaps you have heard of it. These same pieces of hardware are used whether you want to write a letter. Anyway. . so how does this hardware know what to do. so some of that information we’re storing and processing must be the instructions telling the computer what to do. so it is an output device. there must be an e-mail program. the hardware parts don’t have a clue. Some devices are both input and output.
CPU. These are formed on a thin wafer or ‘chip’ of silicon. are connected from there to the motherboard. the ‘circuit’ just means there is a complete path back to the starting point. Most of the components will be found soldered to a ‘circuit board’. There is a set of slots near the back edge of the board for plugging in other circuit boards. and you will sometimes hear an IC being called a ‘chip’. This chip of silicon is put into a case with metal legs. To integrate means to combine things together. In a computer. The CPU plugs into the motherboard. network cards and just about any other add-on feature you can think of. that make up the path. The word ‘circuitry’ means the components. for the area in Central California where many of them are made. sound cards. The Motherboard The biggest and most important circuit board in a computer is the motherboard. etc. A trace goes from Pin 1 of the first slot to Pin 1 of each of the other slots. and the connections between them. the thing following the path is of course electricity. Whatever work it does and whatever components it must go through on the way. and so does the memory. this word ‘circuit’ shows up in a couple of places. It’s called the motherboard because every other part of the computer is connected to it. There is a set of traces connecting these slots to each other. .Circuits The word ‘circuit’ means a path something follows that goes back to where it started. like the keyboard and monitor. The components themselves are often something called an Integrated Circuit. It’s as simple as that. This is also where we get the name ‘Silicon Valley’. These traces then go on to connect to the memory. It is also called the system board. There are now ICs containing millions of transistors and other components. called adapter cards. disk drives and other parts of the computer. also called a printed circuit board. And all the components that plug into the back of the case. all in a package that will fit in your palm with lots of room to spare. These plug-in slots are for things like modems. so an integrated circuit is one that combines many circuits into the same part. and tiny wires between the wafer and the legs connect those circuits with the outside world. This is a thin board of fiberglass. and other traces connect each of the Pin 2s. with the connections between components (called traces) printed right on the board in copper. abbreviated IC. In an electrical or electronic circuit. each of the Pin 3s.
One of the differences between PCI and ISA is that PCI supports a feature called Plug-and-Play. Like IRQs. These ROM addresses are a resource just like the IRQs and I/O Ports. There is USB1 and USB2. but it’s also a port because goes into and out of the computer cabinet through its connector. there must be a way to decide whose turn it is. When a device needs to transfer data on the bus. This is done with something called an Interrupt Request. Resources Since just about everything in the computer uses the bus to exchange data. USB2 is newer and faster. and your computer may have more than one. The most common one. Ports In addition to the I/O ports mentioned in the last section are really addresses. Computers sold last few years will probably also have a connection called for Universal Serial Bus. there must be a range of memory set aside. These devices. often used to connect a mouse if there is not a separate connection. IRQs are an example of a system resource. is the ISA bus. because the connector that fits in the PCI slot has smaller pins and more of them. It is a bus because several devices connected on the same cable. plug-and-play is a great convenience. there are 16 DMA levels. Each device must have a unique memory location where their data is stored as it is transferred to and from the bus. Some devices need to transfer large amounts of data directly to and from memory without using an interrupt for each little piece of data. which back of devices ports. abbreviated IRQ. and various connect to the computer through cables attached to these One of these connections is called the Serial Port because goes over a single signal line as a series of bits. found in every PC sold today. can be data much serial port . such as disk drives. it tugs on the appropriate Interrupt Request line and waits until the CPU grants an interrupt for that level. which is a feature available in limited quantity that must be assigned to specific components. there are physical connections on the the computer that are also called ports. still seen in some new computers. The 9-pin version is more common. and they provide a way for each part of the system to exchange information with every other part. which allows you to add new hardware and have the system detect and configure it automatically. There are other resources too. Serial port connectors have either 9 or 25 pins. so it be confused with the 25-pin male serial connector. data after USB with the and is mouse parallel port cable won’t parallel in the USB. These are fairly easy to tell apart. from IRQ 0 to IRQ 15. The port is most often used to connect a printer. are assigned a resource called DMA. is called the PCI bus. and there are lines on the bus that correspond to these levels. one right the other. so that ROM and RAM are not trying to use the same addresses. For the BIOS and any other devices that use ROM. An older version. for Direct Memory Access. There are different types of bus that have been developed over the years. Another connection is called the Parallel Port because its has 8 parallel signal lines to transmit 8 bits at a time. It’s all very nice and orderly. male connector on the back of the computer and a female connector on the cable. Each component or device that will need access to the bus is assigned an IRQ level. These locations are called I/O Ports.The Bus These traces are called a bus. The computer has a 25-pin female connector on the back. As anyone knows who has used the old method.
and for convenience it is usually included in the same chip with the CMOS. Convenient. The problem is solved by a type of RAM chip that uses very low power. and when you turn the computer on again it knows exactly what time and day it is. and instead of software they are called firmware. they can be stored in a different kind of chip than we use for RAM. all the instructions copied into the RAM are gone. and those instructions direct traffic for other programs called applications. get the operating system and load it into RAM. A little trickle of juice from the CMOS battery keeps the clock running. Since the instructions don’t need to change. The term refers to somebody pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps (without outside help. The circuitry for this is called the RTC or Real Time Clock. This obviously needs to change very minute. The solution to this problem is a set of instructions that stay in memory and don’t get lost when the computer is turned off. The computer goes through a process called booting up when it is first turned on. and it can’t be stored in the BIOS because we might need to change it. This is probably more than you need to know. When the computer is turned off. since batteries don’t last forever. By the way. which is Complementary Metal Oxide Substrate. There is another feature in the computer that has the same requirements as CMOS. It can’t be stored in RAM because it will be lost at power-off. if you leave your computer unplugged for about 5 years you’ll find it needs a bit of trickery to get it to boot again. the computer knows what to do by taking instructions from programs stored in RAM. It’s called ROM. for Basic Input Output System. it needs to go out to the disk.The BIOS As we mentioned earlier. The main instructions come from a program called the operating system. When the system is turned on again. and then turning control of the computer over to the operating system after everything checks out OK. This involves executing the BIOS instructions. This type of low-power memory chip is called CMOS. Any computer term that includes ‘boot’ will have something to do with this start-up process. It stands for the type of technology used in the chip. This data can’t be stored on the hard drive because we need it to boot up. CMOS and RTC There is other start-up information that normally stays the same but that we might want to change once in a while. loading the operating system from disk into RAM. which disk drive to check first for the operating system and that sort of thing. and it is connected to a battery. in other words). This includes info about the various pieces of hardware connected to the system. We say that the instructions in the BIOS are hard-wired. but we don’t want to lose track when the computer is turned off. isn’t it? . but there are no instructions in the RAM to tell it how to do this. and that is the date and time function. for Read Only Memory. because the CMOS information will be gone. but I’m a fanatic about defining things. This set of instructions is called the BIOS.
Some high-performance monitors use SXGA (1280x1024) or even UXGA with a resolution of 1600x1200. To help narrow the search. the floppy can hold 1. Each dot of color making up the image is one pixel. The video card (or video circuitry on the motherboard) has its own RAM memory just to hold the display information. Some motherboards even have a special high-speed connection between the CPU and the video. one on top of the other like a . If we are looking for just a few bytes out of 1. so much data is needed for the constantly changing screen display that special provisions are made for it. Altogether. This disk is called a platter. or Accelerated Graphics Port. which stands for Super Video Graphics Array and has a resolution of 800x600 (that’s 800 pixels across and 600 down). it’s not enough to know which track it is in. which is how many pixels the image contains across and from top to bottom. called sectors. As video technology evolved there have been a number of standards. so if we know the track and sector number of the data we want it won’t be hard to find. there can be many more tracks and sectors on a platter. data is also organized into tracks and sectors.More About Video The monitor is a passive device that just displays the video output from the system. Hard Drives – On a hard drive.44 million. Inside the floppy diskette is a round flat disk coated with iron oxide on each side so that data can be stored on it magnetically. Each sector holds 512 bytes of data. the track is divided into 18 pieces. data is written all the way around. There is another head called the read head that copies data from the platter. for a total of 160. There are also multiple platters. That is called a track. While each sector still holds 512 bytes. One of the reasons floppy drives are still around is that it is very easy to take a floppy diskette from one system to another. and its own ROM BIOS to control the output. However. Altogether. A common one is SVGA. The floppy drive has a little slot on the face of the computer cabinet. Once the disk has made one complete revolution. More About Disk Drives Floppies – Although floppy drives are being phased out in some new computers.44 MB (megabytes) of data. there are 80 tracks on each side. there are still millions of them out there and you should know something about them. The head then moves a bit and writes another circle of data to create a second track. and it spins underneath an electromagnet called the write head that puts data onto the platter surface. The important numbers in evaluating a video display are how many distinct colors can be displayed and also the resolution. It’s called the AGP. which look much like a slice of pie. and into this slot you can slide a floppy diskette like the one shown here. CGA or VGA. and each one has its own set of initials like EGA.
called gigabytes (GB). . sometimes into the billions of bytes.stack of pancakes. Hard drives can hold much more data than floppies.
These are called IDE for Integrated Drive Electronics. but you should know about the two types because they are not interchangeable. depending on the type of drive. the platters are sealed into a metal case that is fastened inside the computer cabinet. Figuring out where the heads should go next and then moving them there is the job of some electronic circuitry called the disk controller. called FAT16 and FAT32. and it contains a Master Boot Record (MBR) that shows whether the disk contains an operating system and the location of the code. the other heads are also positioned over track 10 of the other platters. It’s called an actuator arm. Moving the heads from one cylinder to another is called a seek. Although hard drives can hold much more data than floppies. If not. which is the platter in the case of a disk drive. When we are reading track number 10 on the top platter. Another term you will encounter is a disk format. Windows NT. and the amount of time this takes is the average seek time. Because the floppy platter can be taken out of the drive. This refers to the actual surface holding the data. then the track and sector. then the whole drive will be a single partition. all attached to the same arm so they move together. There is also a low-level format that creates a new pattern of sectors. actuator arm assembly read-write heads platters There are two different interfaces commonly by hard drives to talk to the rest of the system. The first sector of Cylinder 0. and together all of these track 10s make up a cylinder. it is called removable media. There are a few more things you should know about disk drives before we leave the subject. and SCSI for Small Computer System Interconnect. Last. we have the word media. There are two versions. which may be on the motherboard or inside the drive itself. One common method uses a table called a File Allocation Table or FAT.Multiple platters require multiple read and write heads. All of the disk space assigned to a partition is called a volume. If there is more than one operating system. To specify the location of data on a hard drive it is necessary to say what cylinder. the drive must be divided into multiple partitions. . XP and 2000 use a similar method called NTFS. while a hard drive is called fixed media. Every disk drive has its own controller. There is a high-level format. which is a section of the disk with pointers to data locations. Track 0 is called the boot sector. Operating systems use a couple of different methods to keep track of what data is stored where on a drive. A low-level format must be followed by an FDISK command to create a new Master Boot Record and partitions. The technical differences are not important at this point. so it’s not an easy matter to move from one system to another like you can with floppies. which creates a new file allocation table and is done with a FORMAT command. A hard drive is sometimes called a fixed disk for this reason.
there are versions that can be used to write also. As it is used by the system. especially home systems. This refers to memory that is not on DIMMs but is either built into the CPU or connected directly to the motherboard near the CPU. which stands for Compact Disc . Because the discs can be removed. RAM is divided into base memory and extended memory. There are other types of removable media also that are not as common. and for SCSI the CD-ROM version is ASPI. This makes it very convenient to add more memory by plugging in another module. which stands for Single Inline Memory Module. The difference is that DIMMs have different signals on each side of the module connector. They are mostly used just to read data and not to write it. and these are called CD-RW and DVD-RW. DIMM module . The contents of the cache will change constantly depending on what the CPU is doing. More About Memory RAM memory is installed in the system on little circuit boards called modules that plug into the motherboard. Once extended memory was developed though. These drives do not store data magnetically but use optical markings that are read with a laser. and later ones use a DIMM or Dual Inline Memory Module. and the additional signals allow more memory addresses and more data lines going in and out.Read Only Memory. Older computers used a SIMM. The technology for both is similar but DVDs hold much more data. Another memory term you will encounter is cache memory. Zip disks and tape drives also use the ATAPI interface.Other Drives – Most systems today. CD-ROM and DVD are considered removable media. Like hard drives. such as tape drives and Zip disks. 128. CD-ROM drives can use either an IDE or SCSI interface. The version of IDE for CDROM drives is called ATAPI. and are not practical for constantly changing data. and extended memory is everything over that. expanded memory quickly became obsolete and will only be found in older computers. However. Even so they are mostly used to write just once for permanent storage. The full name for CD in fact is CD-ROM. The most common values are 32. It provides even faster access than RAM for the data that the CPU expects to need next. which are similar to floppies but with a storage capacity of 100 or 250 MB. Base memory is the first megabyte. have additional storage drives that use CD or DVD discs. The very first PCs had only base memory. 256 or 512 megabytes. The amount of memory is always is some multiple of two bytes. and then a scheme was developed called expanded memory that tricked the computer into allowing more than 1 MB of memory. 64.
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