We attempt to answer your Frequently Asked Questions about computers, the internet, technology and more.
A small wafer-thin chip with lots of pins on one side of it. The CPU is actually an integrated circuit containing millions of transistors.
CPU, Microprocessor, Processor or whatever name you decide to give it, is where all the action begins. Its function is to execute programs stored in the main memory by fetching their instructions, examining them, and then executing them one after another.
One must think in terms of human anatomy, it is essentially the brain of your computer. Just like the brain controls your body, the CPU essentially controls and directs all the functions of your computer.
RAM stands for Random Access Memory and is the primary area where the computer stores information as it is processed.
Thin rectangular microchip that is similar in size to a low-fat sugar wafer. They are usually installed (on your motherboard) in pairs. RAM comes in different flavors DRAM, SRAM, VRAM, etc.
Random Access memory or RAM as it is commonly called, is measured in megabytes. A megabyte is the equivalent of one million (1,048,576) bytes. A byte equals one unit of information. A megabyte is the measurement used for RAM, CD-ROMs, Floppy Disks and Hard Drives.
The miracle of RAM happens when you turn on the computer and double click on your favorite game or program. The contents (information) is temporarily stored in RAM, meaning it is now ready for use and appears on your computer screen.
Your program will remain stored in RAM until you exit (close) the program. Also every thing is removed from RAM when you turnoff the computer, so make sure you save it to your hard drive before closing your application and or shutting off the computer.
A box about the size of a VHS video cassette (about 1 inch shorter) containing magnetically coated disks. These disks can hold massive amounts of information.
Hard drives are used to store your software programs and information created from them. Imagine it being a giant filing cabinet inside of your computer, holding all your information.
The benefits of this, is that you can permanently store all of your software programs such as:
- word processors
- Games (yeah!)
Unlike a cassette tape, a computer writes information to the hard disk in a sequential manner. One file’s data may be scattered around the disk. As files are deleted or edited, blank spaces may appear around the disk.
It is important as part of your monthly housekeeping to run a program called “Defrag” to pull the parts of the file back together and speed up access to it.
Also, you should run the Error-Checking tools on a monthly basis to keep the hard drive running optimally. Both Defrag and Error-Checking are available by selecting My Computer, right clicking on the C drive and selecting Properties / Tools options.
If you take a 3.5″ diskette apart, inside you will find a thin “floppy” piece of magnetic media. Floppies for older computers came in two sizes and two densities (see chart below).
The most widely used format today is 3.5″ High Density although ZIP disks (100 MB) or Super Disks (120 MB) may supercede it. Floppy disks are good for backup of data files in the event of a hard disk failure or for easy exchange of data with other computer users.
|5.25″||Double Density (DD)||360 KB|
|5.25″||High Density (HD)||1.2 MB|
|3.5″||Double Density (DD)||720 KB|
|3.5″||High Density (HD)||1.44 MB|
The standard microcomputer keyboard consists of 104 keys arranged in the standard typewriter or QWERTY layout.
A separate numeric keypad is at the right side of the keyboard and can be toggled on or off by pressing the “Num Lock” key. When on, the keys act like the keys of an adding machine or calculator; when off, the keys act like the arrow keys for moving the cursor around the screen.
Special ergonomic keyboards are available (sometimes referred to as “Natural” keyboards) where the keyboard is split in the middle and the keys are rotated outward to reduce the risk of repetitive stress injury caused by prolonged keyboarding. Some keyboards include touchpads to remove the need of a separate mouse.
A mouse is a handheld device for moving the pointer around the screen. It is a primary component of the Windows GUI (pronounced “goo-ey” – Graphical User Interface) environment.
The use of the mouse in Windows allows the user to point at and click on various icons for programs and data files rather than having to type in commands to copy files, open programs, etc. as in the older DOS.
The standard PC mouse consists of two buttons, each of which functions differently in Windows. A single click of the left button on an icon selects the item, a double click (clicking twice in rapid succession) will open the file or program, and a single click of the right button will open a pop-up menu offering choices relative to the item clicked.
The newer IntelliMouse includes a roller between the two buttons for easy scrolling of windows. Instead of having to move the pointer to the down scroll arrow on the screen, one can roll the roller on the mouse.
This is especially helpful when looking at web sites. In addition to the traditional mouse, there are touch-pads, large and small trackballs, and graphics tablets. Touch-pads are most often found on notebook computers and are a good replacement for desktop computer users with small hands who do a lot of mouse work.
Not always. Almost all functions that you can do with a mouse can be replaced with keyboard commands. If you have problems using a mouse or tend to type on the keyboard a lot, keyboard commands will save you time.
To learn the keyboard equivalents, observe the menus when you click on them (they can also be opened by pressing “alt” with the underlined letter of the menu name at the same time). If there is a keyboard equivalent, it will be notated to the right of the menu item. For example, the copy command is usually “Ctrl-C”and paste is usually “Ctrl-V”
The “Start” button can be accessed by pressing the “Windows” button on the Windows keyboard.
Note: With the popularity of cable internet and DSL, modems have lost their popularity. People still use them for faxing and connecting if their high speed connection is down.
The term modem stands for modulator/demodulator. A modem is a device that translates the digital signals of the computer to analog signals that the telephone lines can understand.
Modems always work in pairs, since a second modem is needed at the receiving end to translate the analog signal back to digital for the host computer. A modem is needed on a PC in order to use the Internet or access electronic bulletin boards or other remote computers such as the library’s catalog.
Modems can either be internal (a PC card) or external. Look for 56K modems when purchasing a new computer.
The most common settings for your modem include data bits – 8, parity – N (none), stop bits – 1. These settings are entered into the dial-out information of your telecommunications software.
Check with the managers of the computer that you are trying to reach by modem if the above settings do not work.
Telecommunications software is needed to begin using your modem. Hyper Terminal is included in Windows (press Start / Programs / Accessories to access it) but commercial or shareware packages such as ProComm or Anzio offer many advanced features.
One of the best things that you can do for your computer is to purchase a surge protector. This is different than a power strip. While both may offer a single on-off switch and multiple electrical outlets, only the surge protector will prevent your computer from lightning or fluctuations in the electrical current in your home.
A power strip will only shut off if the circuit is overloaded. If you have a modem, purchase a surge protector that includes outlets for phone plugs. If a bolt of lightning hits your phone line and the phone jack is not protected, you could lose your modem.
For a little extra money, you can purchase a UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply) which will keep your computer running long enough in case of a power outage so that you can save data and properly shut down the computer.
A COM Port stands for communications port and is also referred to as a Serial Port. Most computers have at least four COM ports internally which modems or other internal peripherals use.
Every computer has at least one and usually two external COM ports for physically attaching external peripheral devices, such as external modems, scanners, and digital cameras. The COM port has nine pins.
A parallel port is also referred to as the printer port since that is usually the device that plugs into it. Many other peripherals have been created to use the parallel port including external CD-ROM drives and ZIP drives.
While plugging these devices into the parallel port makes them extremely easy to set up, the speed is not as fast as when used with a SCSI interface or the newer USB ports. The parallel port is easily identified by its 25 holes. (See letter “C” in the (See letter “C” in the diagram above.) (See letter “C” in the diagram above.)
SCSI (pronounced “scuz-zy”) stands for Small Computer System Interface. This interface is most often used for connecting CD-ROM drives and scanners to the computer but can also be used for hard disks when a faster data access is required.
USB stands for Universal Serial Bus and is a common component on new computers. The port looks like a flat slot and there are usually two of them together. Up to 127 devices can be chained together and attached to the computer.
Many new computer peripherals (digital cameras, scanners, speakers) come with USB adapters that allow the user to plug the unit into the computer and use it immediately without having to install expansion cards inside the computer and make manual adjustments to the computer settings.
(See letters “B” & “F” in the diagram above.)
External devices are added to the computer system by plugging them into one of the ports on the back of the computer. Sound cards are always internal devices and scanners are always external devices, while modems and CD-ROM drives can be either internal or external.
Modems are sometimes easier to use if they are external because you can physically turn them off to reset them.
This board sits inside of your computer case, it is what many of your other computer devices plug into. It is called “main” or “mother” board because most of your computer’s devices (CPU, Memory Chips, Video Card and Modem) plug directly into it.
Devices such as the ones mentioned above plug directly unto the motherboard via expansion slots.
All signals used by the computer are processed by the motherboard. Memory chips, the central processor, expansion boards and cables to disk drives all attach to the motherboard.
A sound card is an expansion card that is required in order to hear sounds from a CD-ROM or any audio file.
sound card converts computers signals into sound. This signal is sent to speakers or headphones that might be connected to the device at the time.
When you play your favorite game or are listening to your favorite music CD-ROM, the sound is being generated form the sound card.
Not that you really care but for the sake of adding information to this page, sound cards employ three sound standards:
- AdLib – 8-bit sound, which of course is very poor quality sound.
- SoundBlaster – 16-bit and above, produces digital or CD-quality sound.
- Musical Instrument Digital Interface (called MIDI)- produces the same sounds as an actual musical instrument.
All but the worst of sound cards can duplicate the last two standards.
First, turn on the power switch. The computer will make some beeps while it goes through a self-check of the system components.
If you want to change any of the setup options, such as setting a password for the system, changing the sequence for booting up the computer, or re-configuring any other hardware, you should press the <F2> key or whatever key is recommended by your hardware supplier to access the BIOS settings.
The BIOS includes very basic information about the hardware to get the computer started before the operating system software takes over. Once the operating system takes over, more detailed information about the hardware is loaded into the computer’s RAM and Windows starts up.
The only time that you should ever turn off the power switch is when you see the “It is now safe to turn off your computer” message or if your computer “locks up.”
To properly shut down your computer, click on the Start button and select “Shut Down.” This will give you the option to restart or shut down your computer. The computer will close any open programs that you are using and ask you to save any unsaved data before it shuts down.
You will want to restart your computer if you get error messages such as “invalid page fault” or “program error in module xyz” to clear the memory and reset the computer.
The second time to turn off the power switch is when the computer stops responding to keyboard or mouse commands. You may lose data in open applications if you have to do this so be sure to save your data frequently.
You perform a cold boot every time you turn on the power switch of your computer. To “boot” the computer means to start it up and reset the memory and BIOS.
Pressing the “Ctrl-Alt-Delete” keys simultaneously while the computer is running performs a warm boot.
The computer needs to be reset before you can continue. If the warm boot fails to restart the computer, you will need to resort to a cold boot by shutting off the power switch, waiting ten seconds and then turning it back on.
DOS stands for Disk Operating System. The most prevalent form of DOS is manufactured by Microsoft. The last version of DOS to be marketed separately was 6.22 and was used in conjunction with Windows 3.11.
Directories or folders work like a filing cabinet in your computer. They help keep your hard disk organized by keeping system files together or program files together and separate from data files.
Some types of files include executable or program files (file names end in .exe), dynamic link libraries (.dll) which are called upon by programs to do routines, and initialization files (.ini) which are used by certain programs to store startup settings.
Most software programs are complex and large in size. The programs are compacted when packaged for sale or downloading and therefore need to be installed onto the computer’s hard drive before they can be used.
Some CD-ROM programs do work directly off the disc and do not need to be installed.
Software installation extracts the executable portion of the program (.exe files) and places these and other necessary files in various directories on the computer so they can be used directly from the hard drive.
As mentioned previously, program files and data are stored on the computer’s hard disk. The hard disk is a mechanical device that is susceptible to physical damage from jarring or strong magnetic forces. Viruses may infect your computer and wipe out important data. Most programs come with installation disks, whether they are CD-ROMs or floppies.
Your computer manufacturer or retailer should have supplied you with an original Windows program disc – if not, insist that they supply one to you. If they refuse, don’t buy the computer.
A Windows backup program is supplied with every installation and can be found by selecting My Computer, right clicking on the C drive and selecting Properties / Tools / Backup. Backup any data that you store on the drive that can’t be replaced.
Program files can be restored from the original program disks. You can use floppies, tape backup units, or special high capacity disks such as ZIP disks.
A computer virus is a malicious computer program that infects the computer memory or hard disk. Some are comical and will simply change the display on your monitor while most are designed to do damage to the data on the computer.
Boot sector viruses are especially damaging since they rewrite the information needed to start up and access your computer’s hard disk. Trojan horses are destructive programs disguised as something harmless like a game.
Worms are programs written to replicate themselves until the computer’s memory or hard drive is completely used up at which time the computer crashes and becomes inoperable. A good place to learn more about computer viruses is my article about Viruses and Anti Virus Software.
If you buy no other piece of software for your computer, buy a virus protection program. Some common programs are Norton AntiVirus and McAfee ViruScan. Don’t share floppies or other files without first checking the files or disks with a virus protection program.
This includes downloaded files from the Internet – know the source of the file before you download and activate the virus protection plug-in for your browser. Two good virus protection programs are from McAfee (ViruScan) and Symantec (Norton AntiVirus)
No. Viruses are always program or executable files. This includes macros used by word processing programs and spreadsheet programs. Simply reading your e-mail will not infect your computer.
However, files attached to e-mail messages are another story. Never open a file attached to an e-mail message before checking it with a virus protection program. Several e-mail messages have popped up on the Internet over the years including “Good Times” and “Win a Free Vacation” that claim that if you read these messages your computer will suffer great damage.
These are considered hoaxes but may in reality be the virus since the chain message keeps being forwarded wasting both computer processing space and the time of the individuals who read and believe the message. Check the Computer Virus Myths site (http://kumite.com/myths/) for a complete listing of Internet hoaxes before you pass that important message along to everyone you know.
The Blue Screen of Death signals a major problem with the computer, usually involving video or hard disk problems. Make a note of the message that you see on the screen.
This is often useful when trying to solve the problem. Other problems that you may encounter are invalid page fault messages that will close the open program, possibly causing a loss of unsaved data. Save your data frequently. In either case, rebooting your computer will usually solve the problem temporarily.
If it happens often, investigate the problem and solve it by reloading the corrupt files named in the message. Sometimes adding memory to the system will solve the invalid page fault messages. Check the web site for the company that made the program to see if they have a patch or fix for the program that you can download onto your computer.
Downloading files from the Internet is similar to copying files from your hard disk to a floppy disk. The procedure is simple with the World Wide Web.
Clicking on a link for a program will start the process. When you are prompted, you will select the folder where the file will be saved after it is downloaded.
Programs need to be installed to the hard disk before they can be used. From My Computer or Windows Explorer locate the file named “install.exe” or “setup.exe.”
Double click on the file and follow the prompts to complete the installation of the software.
A computer bug is a problem in the programming that is unknown at the time of release of the program. As users use various aspects of the program and put it through its paces, problems in the program come to the fore and are referred to as bugs.
These bugs are then solved and program patches or upgrades are released to registered users to repair the problem.
Not really, the computer that I use to update this site is running 24 hours a
day, 7 days a week. I will occasionally reboot it every few weeks.
I have heard some say by turning off the
computer this gives the components a chance to cool off and turning off the
computer prolongs the life. I have been using the same computer for the
past 3 years. The components seem fine to me.
are using one of the newer operating systems such as Windows 2000 or Windows XP,
you need at least 128MB of RAM for the operating system to install, it is the
But understand this, after using 2000 and XP
for some time; you will realize that it is not nearly enough. 128MB of RAM will
have you pulling out your hair (if you have hair, I don’t) after opening a few
applications such as a word processing or your favorite spreadsheet program.
To truly optimize Windows 2000 and XP, I
recommend at least 512MB of RAM more if you can afford it…
question can be a tough one to answer. The general rule of thumb is if the
computer is meeting all your current needs and you plan not to increase your
usage or features demanded then there really isn’t any reason to upgrade.
However, this gets a little grey when
considering if your PC is worth fixing or if it is better to simply upgrade your
system all together. This decision has many factors if you really are not in the
position to replace your PC then the decision is easy, repair it…