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What is a computer?

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 1 0

This article will outline what a computer is and how a computer works.

Hi everyone,

After studying computer engineering in university and understanding exactly how complex modern day computers are, I thought I would write an article to fill in the blanks for those wishing to learn more about computers.

A computer, by definition, is an electronic device for storing and processing information according to instructions given to it by a user.  This data is typically in binary form, which means all data is represented by strings of 1's and 0's.  Although many devices can be considered a computer, such as a calculator or phone, today I will be speaking about a general purpose personal computer (PC), such as the one you may be using to read this right now.


At a very low level, most parts of a computer are made up of circuitry, similar to the circuits that carry electricity throughout your house. However, these circuits in computers are much, much smaller than the circuits in your home, and their components number in the millions in each computer part. These circuits are responsible for carrying electrical signals back and forth between various pieces of hardware within the computer, which all come together to provide you with the functionality you have when using a modern day computer.

At a higher level, a computer is generally made up of the following parts:


Central Processing Unit (CPU) - This is the brain of the computer, which is responsible for taking an input, in the form of the instructions it is given, and producing an output. 


Motherboard - This is the body of the computer, which connects all parts of the computer and allows them to function and transmit data between each other. For instance, the CPU and Random Access Memory (RAM) can transmit data across the bus. The bus is simply a subsystem that transmits bits of data between two or more points.


Random Access Memory (RAM) - This is a form of data storage, located close to the CPU for quick exchange of data. However, RAM is usually not a persistent form of data storage; that is, when power is lost or shut off, it does not maintain the data you store on it. For this reason, hard drives are used to store data, since they are persitent; the data survives a power loss or shut down.


Hard Drive - Similar to RAM, this device stores your data, typically in binary form. However, although it is a form of persistent data storage, it is much slower to exchange data between the CPU and the hard drive, due to moving parts in the hard drive and a longer latency time (the time it takes for data to travel between the hard drive and CPU). This is why RAM is used - for fast and efficient data storage while you are using the computer. 


CD/DVD/Blu-Ray Drive - I am sure you have all heard of these. Located on the front of a desktop tower or side of a laptop, these are optical disk drives in which you can insert a CD, DVD or Blu-Ray disk to access information, such as music or movies. Keep in mind that not all drives handle all of these formats! Blu-Ray drives are the newest (and also most expensive) types of drives typically available.


Power Supply - Very straightforward, this device takes power from a cable plugged into the wall (or a battery) and provides power to the motherboard and other devices plugged into it. A computer with more parts, or higher performance devices, will need more power and hence a power supply with a higher wattage.

There you have it! These are all the basic parts, however, there is also various other parts like a video card, sound card, and different types of hard drives and cooling systems that I did not mention in this article. Keep posted in the coming weeks for a follow-up article that will outline the more complex parts and how they fit into the grand scheme of things!

 Until next time...

Michael Capicotto



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