Ten Computer Terms Explained


To the average person, computer terms make as little sense as legalese or medical jargon. However, the average person encounters computer terms much more often in day-to-day life and conversations can become confusing. Next time you’re on the phone with the helpdesk, keep these terms straight to make your call go much quicker.

Central Processing Unit (CPU) – Although the entire computer case is sometimes referred to as the CPU, the actual CPU is a small chip on your motherboard and is usually covered by a heat sink and a fan. The CPU’s job is to process all of the data being used in the computer; the faster the CPU, the faster data can be processed. CPU speeds are typically measured in megahertz (MHz) or gigahertz (GHz). One gigahertz is equal to 1,000MHz. Newer processors may have two, three, four or more cores. Each core acts like a separate CPU, allowing your computer to crunch numbers even faster.

Memory (RAM) – Memory is used to store programs that are currently running. The more memory you have, the more programs you can typically run at the same time. Memory sizes are given in megabytes (MB) or gigabytes (GB). One gigabyte is equal to 1,000MB. Most modern computers come with one to eight gigabytes of memory installed and can often be upgraded with even more.

Hard Drive (HDD) – The hard drive is often confused with memory, but it serves a different purpose. While memory is used for the programs currently running, the hard drive contains all of your installed programs, files and folders. Hard drive sizes are measured in gigabytes (GB) or terabytes (TB). One terabyte is equal to 1,000GB. If your hard drive crashes, then all of your files may be lost.

Power Supply (PSU) – The delicate parts inside of a computer typically use 3 to 12 volts of DC current, but the power supplied by your wall outlet is around 120v of AC current. If the wall power was sent directly to the computer’s circuits, the components would melt and give off smoke. The power supply’s job is to take the power from the wall and convert it to the lower voltages required by the computer. Converting power gives off a lot of heat, so most power supplies have a fan to prevent them from overheating.

Motherboard – The motherboard, also called the system board or main board, is the heart of your computer. It’s the largest circuit board in your PC and everything else either plugs directly into it, or is connected to it by a cable. The motherboard has many responsibilities including controlling the flow of power and data to most other devices in your computer.

Operating System (OS) – The operating system acts as an intermediary between your computer’s hardware and software. When you save a file in Word, the operating system is responsible for getting that data to the hard drive and saved as physical data. When you go to open that file later, the operating system then tells the hard drive where to find it and transfers it to Word. Modern operating systems also handle tasks such as networking, user logins and keeping track of your folders and files. Popular operating systems include Windows, Mac OS and Linux.

Drivers – Drivers are small pieces of software that tell the operating system how to speak in the same language as a certain piece of hardware. Printer drivers, for example, let Windows know how to talk to your printer in order to transfer your document on-screen into a format the printer can use.

Network – One of the major advantages of computers is the ability to communicate almost instantaneously across large distances. Networks are the mix of cables and devices that connect computers together to share files and make the Internet possible. When something is on the network, it exists on a different machine and your computer pulls over a copy of that data.

A little diagram of an IP address (IPv4)

Image via Wikipedia

IP Address – One of the issues with networks is getting the right data to the right computer. IP addresses work just like your house address; network devices are like the post office. The numbers making up an IP address can be read by networks to know exactly where to send your data.

PEBCAK – Next time you’re on the phone with tech support, they may claim it’s a PEBCAK error. This stands for “Problem Exists Between Chair And Keyboard” and means that the user is the problem, not the computer. Other common terms include “ID-10-T error” and “wetware error.” Although sometimes used condescendingly, computer techs often use it to describe users that take ignorance above and beyond simply being computer illiterate.

Remembering these terms and what they mean can help when communicating with other people, especially technical support. When terms such as hard drive and memory are mixed up, it can lead technical support down the wrong path and increase the time it takes to fix your issue. As computers become more ubiquitous, learning these terms maybe the first step towards fixing your own computer problems as well.

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