How it Works: Making Sense of Computer Technology

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Much of the confusion when buying a computer comes from being unfamiliar with the terminology – gigabytes, processors, the different kinds of screen technologies and so on. In this guide we’ll illustrate these and more using sensible examples. You should have a better idea of what you’re shopping for or just looking to understand by the time we’re finished. This guide is the first installment in our ‘How it Works’ article series.

Computer Terminology – Data Storage

Computers store data – programs, the operating system, documents, pictures and more – on a storage drive. Two types of storage drives are hard drives and solid state drives (SSDs); we’ll review these technologies in a later article in this series; for now all that matters is that they store data.

Computers are capable of understanding two numbers, one and zero in a language called binary. A one or a zero by itself is called a bit; eight bits together is called a byte which is the minimum amount of data a computer needs to represent one alphanumeric character – a single letter or number. Here are some common storage measurements in context:

  • 1,024 bytes together is one kilobyte (kB) – that’s enough to store a couple of text paragraphs.
  • 1,024 kilobytes is one megabyte (MB) – one of these holds about 30 seconds of a good quality MP3 file.
  • 1,024 megabytes is one gigabyte (GB) – sufficient to store a whole standard definition DVD movie.
  • 1,024 gigabytes is one terabyte (TB) – sufficient to store over a thousand DVD movies.

DrivePropertiesStorage space these days is almost always listed in gigabytes or GB; it’s common for even entry-level computers to include 1TB or more storage space.

So how much space do you really need? On a Windows computer, open ‘My Computer’ and right-click your computer’s storage drive (it will be labeled ‘C:\’ if you have only one storage drive); then select Properties. You can see in this screenshot I’m using 295GB of my drive’s total 465GB capacity.

The rule of thumb when buying a computer is to buy one with two to four times the amount you’re using now to account for your future storage needs. I for example would buy a storage drive with at least 600GB of space, if not 1TB (remember 1TB is the same as 1,024GB).

Computer Terminology – Memory (RAM)

Random Access Memory (RAM) – or just memory – is to a computer as short-term memory is to humans. The more memory a computer has, the more it can do at once. Memory is different than data storage which we just reviewed; the purpose of memory is to provide computers a way to quickly access data they need to perform the task at hand whether that’s running a web browser, editing photos or just reading this article.

IMGP8265Computer memory in modern computers is almost always measured in gigabytes (GB). Generally speaking it’s hard to buy a modern off-the-shelf consumer computer that has an inadequate amount of memory for everyday applications. If you’re an enthusiast that runs a lot of demanding applications (such as HD video editing, any sort of 3D modeling/graphing), take a look at the more expensive computers on the market and see how much memory they’re coming with; that’s what you should target.

Generally speaking the minimum for a Windows 8-based computer should be 4GB; 8GB is recommended and for the enthusiast, it’s not uncommon to find computers with 12-16GB or more.

As with the other topics in this introductory guide, we’ll explore more about RAM in a future installment.

Computer Terminology – Processing Power

A computer’s processing power is determined by its central processing unit (CPU) or just processor for short. A computer’s processor is generally categorized as one of the following:

  • Dual core: this is a single chip with two processing cores; these are standard on most entry-level or ultra-thin computers and have sufficient power for most any task.
  • Quad core: a single chip with four processing cores; significantly more powerful than a dual-core at greater expense and increased power consumption; typically found only in larger notebooks.

Kaveri APUDual- and quad-core processors are termed multicore processors; even the most inexpensive computers usually come with a dual-core processor. And just as with storage and memory, it’s hard to buy a modern consumer computer with an inadequate amount of anything which includes processing power. A dual-core processor will suffice for most people; consider investing in a computer with a quad-core processor if you run demanding applications like video/photo editors and 3D games.

The two major processor manufacturers are Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) and Intel; both produce processors suitable for entry level and high-end computers. A general breakdown of their product lines is as follows:

  • Entry level (dual-core): Intel Core i3; AMD A4
  • Mid-range (dual-core): Intel Core i5; AMD A6/A8
  • High-end (quad-core): Intel Core i7; AMD A10

Later in this series we’ll go over how processors work and specifics you may want to consider when choosing a computer with the right CPU.

Computer Terminology – Graphics

8800mgtxComputers use a specialized component called a graphics processing unit (GPU) to render what you’re seeing on-screen – that includes this article. This is different than the computer’s processor as discussed in the last section. Graphics processors are categorized as one of the following:

  • Integrated: a low-power/low-cost solution where the graphics processor is integrated into another component (it usually resides on the same chip as the computer’s processor). Integrated graphics solutions lack their own memory and simply share some of the computer’s memory.
  • Dedicated: a more capable solution where the graphics processor is a separate dedicated circuit board; it has its own dedicated memory and doesn’t use any of the computer’s memory. Dedicated graphics cards provide a significantly higher level of performance at variably greater cost, complexity and power consumption.

Most computers sold today have integrated graphics; they’re more than adequate for everyday applications including web browsing and full HD video (which wasn’t the case four to five years ago). As in the past however, integrated graphics are still insufficient for the latest 3D games and other 3D applications such as modeling.

The three major graphics processor manufacturers are Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), Nvidia and Intel. A general product breakdown is as follows:

  • Entry-level (integrated): Intel HD graphics
  • Entry level (dedicated): AMD R5 M200; Nvidia GeForce
  • Mid-range(dedicated): AMD R7 M200; Nvidia GeForce GT
  • High-end (dedicated): AMD R9 M200; Nvidia GeForce GTX

74023Computer Terminology – Displays

The display represents your primary method of interaction with the computer. It’s actually become quite difficult to explain display technology as so many different kinds have come out over the last year.

A computer display has five primary specifications: size, resolution, type (panel technology), surface coating and touch sensitivity.

Size: measured diagonally in inches. The smallest notebook displays are 11.6” and smaller; mid-range 14” – 15.6”; and large 17.3” – 18.4”. The notebook computer’s portability naturally goes down as the size goes up.

Resolution: computer displays present an image by lighting up tiny dots called pixels; each pixel can display any one of about 16.7 million colors at any given time. You may be able to see the individual pixels on your display if you look close enough (or better yet, use a magnifying glass). The displays on smartphones and flat-screen TVs are the same way.

The display’s resolution refers to how many pixels are in the display; displays with more pixels are more expensive. Resolution is given by the number of pixels horizontally by number of pixels vertically (e.g. a 1920×1080 display would be 1,920 pixels across the top and 1,080 pixels from top to bottom). High resolution displays can show more detail and have a crisper picture; they can also show more information (two pages in a Word document side-by-side without scrolling for example). This is a breakdown of what’s considered ‘low’ and ‘high’ resolution in today’s computer market:

  • Low: 1366×768 or less (natively displays a 720p video)
  • Mid-range: 1600×900
  • High-end: 1920×1080 (natively displays a 1080p video)
  • Ultra high-end: 2560×1440 and above (natively displays 1440p video)

Type (Technology): the third important aspect of a display is the technology it’s based on. We can summarize the available technologies into two categories:

  • Limited viewing angles: the image on the display can change depending on the angle you’re looking from; these displays are by far the most common (essentially any display not advertised with unlimited viewing angles).
  • Unlimited viewing angles: these displays can be viewed from any angle and the image will look the same. The picture quality is also generally better. IPS and IGZO are two technologies that offer unlimited viewing angles.

Gateway LT41P_handSurface coating: the second to last most important specification is the type of surface on the display.

  • Glare/glossy: these displays have a mirror-like reflective surface  and can be problematic in well-lit areas due to reflections. The glossy coating is typically used to enhance contrast and clarity.
  • Anti-glare/matte: these displays are non-reflective and a superior choice for mobile devices.

Touch sensitivity: Windows 8-based computers may include touch-sensitive displays which allow you to interact with the display by touching it. Note some touch displays are better than others; for example some are “10-point multi-touch” allowing you to interact with multiple fingers at the same time.

bluetoothComputer Terminology – Wireless

One final topic we’ll look at is wireless technologies. Notebook computers are typically equipped with at least one of the following wireless technologies.

  • Wireless LAN (WLAN): one of these chips allows your notebook to connect to a wireless router. It would be hard to find a notebook sold today that didn’t come with this technology.
  • Bluetooth: this is known as a personal area network (PAN); it’s used not for Internet but for peripherals such as mice, keyboards and headsets to connect wirelessly to your notebook.
  • Wireless Wide Area Network (WWAN): notebook computers equipped with this technology can connect to cellular networks much like cell phones; a data plan and activation is required.
  • Wireless display: you’ll see the occasional notebook listed as having wireless display technology; this allows your notebook computer to wirelessly connect to any display such as a TV or projector provided you connect a special adapter to the display.

Conclusion

We reviewed the major technologies that go into notebook computers: this included the storage drive, memory, processing power, graphics, displays and wireless. Future installments in our ‘How it Works’ series will explore each of these topics in greater detail and help you not only understand them but use that knowledge to make the best buying decision when it comes time to purchase a new notebook.

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