Computers 101 - Part I

I have been tasked with teaching my father in law, Steve, the basic fundamentals of computers for his new job. Steve's generation is about two generations older than mine so naturally the younger generations have an advantage when it comes to computers in general. I started learning about computers from a very young age. I have never given a beginners course on computers before but his willingness to take a stab at learning is the first step to turning that void of confusion into usable knowledge.

Rather than spend hours putting together documents and diagrams for a single person's benefit, I decided to do it here on Code Tunnel where maybe someone else could learn from them. Let this serve as your warning that these will be EXTREMELY basic tutorials. If you have barely used a computer before and you haven't mastered much more than cutting and pasting, then this is aimed at you. This is a large departure from my usual, highly technical material so if this isn't for you then simply skip over it; it's only a brief respite from my usual activity so I don't want you to get the impression that this blog is no longer useful for developers.

Assumed Knowledge

For the purposes of this tutorial I presume that you at least know how to use a keyboard and a mouse sufficiently enough to accomplish basic tasks. If you are unsure what it means to place your fingers on the home row then this tutorial will likely be one step too far for you.

Part I Overview

This tutorial will consist of multiple parts but the first will be an overview of the hardware that makes up your computer. I will introduce you to the basic components that make up your computer so that you think of your computer less like magic and more like you would about any tool. Feel free to skip over sections that you are confident you already understand, but if the world of computers is still pretty confusing to you then I would recommend just reading through in a linear fashion, absorbing as much as you can.

The very first thing you absolutely have to learn is patience. I'm not going to beat around the bush on this one; if you don't have the patience to sit for a while and learn something that is quite possibly very foreign to you then this won't be easy for you. I will do my best to cover as much of the basics as I can but if you are too impatient to get through the mundane then you can't expect much in the way of success. Be patient, take your time, and ask tons of questions (I will talk more about asking questions and the best places to ask them in part II of this tutorial).

Hardware Basics

Before I get into the dynamics of using your computer I first want you to understand how it works on a very basic level. When you wash your hands at the bathroom sink you don't need to understand the exact process that the water went through to arrive at your sink. However, a basic understanding if the plumbing in and around your bathroom will give you that much more confidence when you use the sink. For example, if you don't understand what happens to the water after it goes down the sink drain you might assume that if you dropped your wedding ring down there that it would be lost forever. However, if you learned just a tiny bit more about what happens to the water immediately after it goes in the drain then you would know that there is a U-bend in the pipe below your sink, also known as a trap. The pipe trap is there for two reasons, 1) it traps a small amount of water which prevents smells from coming back up the pipe and stinking up your bathroom and 2) your wedding ring or other lost items don't vanish into oblivion; they get trapped. You don't have to be a plumber with a full working knowledge of all the pipes in your house, but expanding your knowledge of how things work even slightly makes you that much more powerful. So later when your wife loses her ring down the drain and is about in tears you can open up the cupboard beneath, unscrew the trap pipe, and save the day!

Let that analogy sink in just a little bit as you read this tutorial because I want you to apply the same principle to your computer. You don't need to understand what it means to "overclock your processor to squeeze out a few extra gigahertz", but I want you to understand the basic components and what they do. There are many different parts to a computer, just as there are many different parts to the engine of a car. You don't need to know about them all but there are approximately 7 major components that I believe you should at least understand on a basic level. I will briefly introduce you to each one.

Motherboard: The motherboard is a very large circuit board covered in circuit paths and microchips. One edge of the board faces the back of your computer where it exposes ports for your USB devices, mouse and keyboard, speakers, etc...

The motherboard is the thing that all the other components in your computer "plug-in" to. This board is mounted inside your computer case just like the engine block is mounted in the engine compartment of your car. You don't need to understand its inner-workings; just understand that this is an important piece of the engine.

Processor or CPU: The processor is the brain of your computer. It is a small microchip that plugs into a central location on the motherboard.

If you've never seen a processor before then you might be surprised to find out how small it is. It fits in the palm of your hand but is easily the most important piece of a computer. The processor is what makes a computer a computer because without it your computer would just be a machine with some electronic parts inside it. Because the processor does so much work it actually gets extremely hot, so hot in fact that it must be cooled down somehow or it would burn itself out. If you were to look inside your computer right now you wouldn't immediately see the processor chip. That is because it is underneath a large device known as a heat sink.

The heat sink is designed to dissipate heat away from the processor. It is usually a series of metal fins with a small fan sitting on top. The fan blows cool air down into the metal part of the heat sink to help keep it cool. This allows the heat from the processor to bleed up into the metal portion of the heat sink so it stays cool.

RAM: RAM always comes in the form of a "stick" covered in circuits and microchips and plugs into your motherboard's RAM slots.

RAM sticks are places for the computer to store memory. When you open a program on your computer, that program is loaded from your hard drive and placed into memory (RAM). The reason for this is that RAM is REALLY fast. The computer can load things stored in RAM much faster than it can from your hard drive. You don't really have to worry about what it does all that much. Just know that it is another crucial component inside your computer. Sometimes adding more RAM sticks (if your motherboard has more slots for them) will make your computer run faster.

Hard Drive or HDD: The hard drive is the place where everything is stored in your computer. When you save a file or install a program it gets stored on the hard drive. The hard drive is usually mounted inside your computer case somewhere and is then connected to your motherboard via a cable.

The difference between your hard drive and your RAM is that your hard drive can hold a lot more data than RAM. The problem though is that your hard drive has a physical arm that moves to read things off the spinning disks inside. This makes hard drives a lot slower than RAM. Since RAM doesn't hold as much data as your hard drive your computer will load whatever programs you are using into RAM. When you are done with them it will delete them from RAM to make room for other programs you might run. Don't worry about the nitty-gritty details; just know that RAM is for quick short term storage and the hard drive is for long term but slower storage.

Graphics Card: Your graphics card (also known as a video card) is what sends information to your computer monitor to be displayed. The graphics card plugs into a slot in the motherboard. The slot is usually oriented so that one edge of the graphics card touches the back of the computer case where it exposes a monitor port for you to plug in your monitor cable.

The graphics card usually has a fan on it just like your processor because it can get very hot. If you play games on your computer then your graphics card does a lot more work because it has to create high definition images really quickly. The more intense the games you play are then the bigger and more expensive your graphics card will need to be and the hotter it will get. The more hot things inside your computer get the more fans you will need to vent the heat from your case. That's why gaming computers are always so loud, because they need so many fans to keep cool.

CD or DVD drive: The CD or DVD drive (also known as an optical drive) is probably the part you are already somewhat familiar with. It is mounted usually near the top of the computer case and allows you to place CDs or DVDs in the tray. A cable connects from the back of the drive to the motherboard.

Most computers have drives that read and write to CDs and DVDs but if your computer is older then it may only have a CD drive. Optical drives are becoming less and less common these days because the internet is getting faster and faster and many people download everything they need without the need for CDs or DVDs.

Power Supply: This component is probably the easiest one for anyone to understand. It provides power to all the other components in your computer. It is mounted at the back of your computer case so that it exposes a port for the power cable to plug into. It has a bunch of cords extending out from it with all sorts of different connectors. It has connectors that plug into the motherboard, graphics card, hard drive, optical drive, and it usually has connectors for extra fans if you need them.

The power supply also has a fan of its own built in to keep it from overheating.

Hopefully that wasn't too complicated for you. You don't need to fully comprehend everything that goes on inside your computer, but I find that a very basic understanding of the components helps you to relate to it. I don't want you to regard your computer as magic. When you look at something as though it is magic you are basically saying that it cannot be understood and you build a barrier in your mind that will prevent you from learning. This is a trap I have seen many people fall into, especially people from older generations; they will try to understand something for about 30 seconds and then throw their hands in the air and give up. Remember what I said about patience. Let the information sink in a little bit and don't over-complicate it. All we have done so far is open up the hood of your car together and point at some important pieces that make up the engine. That's it, there isn't anything more to it than that. I'm not going to be teaching you how to build a motor, only how to recognize some bigger parts of one.

All that said I want to briefly touch on maintenance. Just like your car when you have to change the oil and take it through the car wash, your computer needs some basic maintenance. The side panel on most computer cases is extremely easy to remove. I would suggest getting familiar with the side panel of your computer case so that you can remove it and put it back on very easily. It's no more complicated than opening the hood of your car. Unlike your car however it doesn't really need much to keep going; there is really only one thing you should do on a regular basis to keep your hardware running top notch. Remove the dust!

Dust is cancer to computers and it can cause many of the components in your computer to kick the bucket prematurely. Dust can damage components in various ways, but there is one set of components that you absolutely do not want to get overwhelmed by dust. Remember all those fans attached to everything? Well those slow down as they fill with dust and eventually their little fan motors won't be able to withstand the strain and they will die. Sometimes you won't know right away that a fan has died and this is a recipe for certain doom. Your fans are the life support of your computer because they keep all your components cool and allow them to do their job. If fans start shutting off then your computer can very easily start to overheat. If there is one way that your computer will completely fry important components, it's through overheating. I could go into all the details about what breaks down when it gets too hot but I don't need to. Just don't let your computer overheat and you'll never have to worry about it.

To get rid of the dust in your computer it is very simple. Go to the Walmart or Best Buy and buy canned air.

Once a month just pop open that side panel on your computer case (make sure your computer is off and unplugged!), shake up the canned air, and apply a gentle breeze to all the major areas of your computer. Canned air is safe to use on nearly every component so long as you don't go nuts with it. Just nudge all the dust out of all the nooks and crannies. Spray off the motherboard, the graphics card, and every single fan. Spray air into all of your case fans, your processor fan and heat sink, your graphics card fan, your power supply fan, etc. The more dust-free you keep your computer, the longer it will last.

If all you have is a laptop then you won't have the luxury of being able to remove the side panel on the computer. A laptop has all the same major components as a desktop, just smaller versions. You can't open up laptops the way you can desktop computers so all you can do for maintenance is spray the canned air into the fan vents around your laptop and do your best to get the dust out.

You have learned the basics of your computer hardware. You haven't learned anything about the software that runs on them, but you have taken a brief peek inside the engine compartment and have a rudimentary knowledge of how the engine is put together. In the next parts we will cover the basics of how the engine works. I know that this preliminary knowledge can be boring and mundane, but I've never believed in blindly using a tool that you barely understand. Understanding the basics of a hammer before you pound your first nail will give you a better appreciation for it so that you can make somewhat educated decisions when you're at the hardware store.

Part II