Is it time for you to start using a real computer with applications that actually get the work done? Maybe that tablet with its apps is fun to watch and poke at, but you need more. Learn about Computer Definitions for the Average Person!

The question is how much “more” is enough? You go to the Microsoft or Apple computer store and listen in on conversations between the salespersons and other customers, and you hear something like this:

Salesperson: “Yeah, this one’s got a 2.8 gigahertz quad-core Intel processor. It’s loaded with 12 gigabytes of RAM and a 500-gigabyte solid-state hard drive.”

Right about now, you’re wishing you would have done some homework because you are feeling ill-equipped to make a sound buying decision for your new laptop or desktop. Perhaps it is time to do some homework and load up on computer terminology and see how it relates to capability and how all that translates to the price of your new computer.

Buying a computer is somewhat analogous to picking out a new car. You check out things like engine size, top speed, the capacity of the engine, fuel economy and accessories. You naturally expect to pay more to get more. It’s the same with a computer. Read on and discover why.

Computer Definitions on the Web

If you’re the type that enjoys reading glossaries, there are plenty online that cover computer terms. For example, has an A-to-Z listing of computer terms. It is definitely worth bookmarking as a reference tool, but no one ever learned to speak English by just reading the dictionary.

Your motivation here is to learn the computer terms to make you a smart shopper. So let’s focus on the terms you need to know and learn why some computers are cheaper/more expensive than others.

How Fast a Computer Works

Returning to the conversation between the salesperson and the knowledgeable customer, let’s parse what went on:

“Yeah, this one’s got a 2.8 gigahertz quad-core Intel processor….”

The computer processor is the “brain” that governs what the computer does. It either plugs into or is permanently attached to the computer’s base or motherboard.

If the computer were Frankenstein’s Monster, the processor would be the junction between the mad scientist’s commands and the Monster’s unsophisticated interaction with its environment.

How fast the processor responds to whatever tasks the computer must do — start up, load an application, surf the web, etc. — depends on its rated processor speed. Speed is measured in Megahertz — one million computer instructions per second. So 2.8 gigahertz is 2.8 thousand megahertz, which is nearly instantaneous and is pretty much the industry standard.

The part about “quad-core Intel processor” means the processor can do four times the work. Intel is a computer processor manufacturer.

How Much Work the Computer Can Do

“It’s loaded with 12 gigabytes of RAM…”

RAM (stands for random access memory), would be analogous to your car’s fuel supply. The more RAM — or computer memory — your computer carries, the more tasks your computer can handle at once.

Your car’s fuel supply is limited by the capacity of its gas tank. The amount of RAM on a computer is limited by memory chips mounted in slots on the inside of the computer.

Think of a memory chip as providing the temporary workspace — active memory — required to do tasks at hand — e.g., open a spreadsheet, enter numbers, do computations (with the aid of the processor).

Random access memory is volatile; that is, once you are finished with the task at hand and shut down the computer or close an active program or application, the computer or program goes to sleep until you call it up again.

So 12 gigabytes of RAM would give you plenty of capacity to handle most computing tasks and programs. The minimum amount of RAM most modern computer applications require is about four gigabytes, but four is a guarantee of robust performance. (We’ll go over gigabytes presently.)

How Much Information (Data) the Computer Can Store

“…and a 500-gigabyte solid-state hard drive.”

Your computer’s hard drive (or hard disk) is analogous to your car’s trunk and roof rack space. Your computer must store the “baggage,” which consists of its operating system, applications and system files – i.e., its software.

Software programs and applications take up space on the computer’s hard drive, so the bigger the hard drive capacity, the more programs and applications your computer can run.

Your hard drive plugs into a cable inside the computer. It serves a similar purpose to the old jukebox record players, where you would insert a coin, push a button and the mechanism would seek, mount and play the record on a turnstile by means of a needle on the end a metal arm.

Standard hard drives have spinning disks that store the software files. Newer solid-state hard drives have no moving parts and do not require the arm and magnetic reader head. Solid-state drives run faster and cooler but tend to cost more.

So a 500-gigabyte solid-state hard drive is typically large enough for the average user to store everything, including the files that the user downloads or creates.

Understanding the Basics

So far, we have gone somewhat “under the hood” in learning the basic computer terms you need to know to compare computer models. In terms of processing speed, RAM capacity, and hard drive storage, you now know that a computer, like a used car, can be cheap because it is slow, has limited memory, and has a small hard drive.

Don’t Forget the Computer Monitor

Sometimes, though not always, the computer monitor–the display screen–is included in the price of the computer. You can judge computer monitor display quality by the number of pixels (little coloured dots) the monitor can display.

Experienced computer buyers advise never to skimp when it comes to choosing a new monitor. Also, to prevent a high-resolution monitor from competing for space in the processor, have the dealer install a good video card.

Input vs. Output Devices

For the computer to do its job for you, you need to input commands, and the computer must output the desired result. They are the so-called peripheral devices:

Input peripheral devices include:

  • a keyboard or touch screen
  • a mouse or trackball
  • a built-in or plug-in microphone (if you have a sound card installed)
  • a built-in or externally connected camera

Output peripheral devices include:

  • the computer monitor
  • built-in or external speakers
  • headphones
  • a printer

Connecting to the Internet

Now, that you’re familiar with basic terminology, it’s time to take your computer for a spin on the Internet. Actually, new computers come out of the box ready to start surfing the web. Most have built-in Wi-Fi connector cards. A Wi-Fi-ready computer will detect wireless service routers in the immediate area, which serve as entry points to the World Wide Web.

To get on the web, your computer must have:

  • access to the router, which may be password protected
  • a web browser software on its hard drive

You either connect to your home system on a telephone, cable or satellite modem or through a public-access system (in a coffee shop or book store, for example).

Being Careful on the Web

If watching television were half as risky as using the Internet, television viewing would be way down. Surfing the web can be wrought with dangers because opening your computer to the outside world exposes you to:

  • hackers and crooks, who want your personal data and the names of your friends so they can victimize them, too
  • malware and viruses that can embed themselves as evil software on your computer’s hard drive
  • posers and stalkers who engage in fraud and phishing scams to cheat unsuspecting people out of money or personal information

Avoiding the Threats

Here are some things you can do to stay out of trouble on the web:

  • Take precautions like installing antivirus software, and activating computer firewall protection can keep your computer safe.
  • Be on the lookout for e-mail scams that claim one of your online accounts has been hacked.
  • Never download photos, videos or applications from unknown or suspicious sources. No, repeat no
  • Be especially diligent in safeguarding your personal information.
  • Do not use the same password for everything you access on the web, and don’t make your passwords easy to crack. Suggestion: MnbwbA13 would be a difficult password to crack, but easy to remember, because it contains the first letter of the sentence, “My next birthday will be April 13.”

The Bottom Line

The computer terms we covered in this presentation are just enough to get the average technologically challenged person pointed in the right direction. So now you know why a computer with 2 gigabytes of RAM and a skimpy 250-gigabyte hard disk with a low-pixel resolution monitor costs a lot less.

You also know how to avoid the high costs of viruses, malware and hackers lurking out there on the web. Keep your online friends close, but keep your passwords closer.