The explanations of terminology on this page are very basic. A resource like WikiPedia can explain it in much greater detail.
I recommend reading this section as a whole because much of the terminology is interdependent. By the time your reach the end all of it should make sense.
The Basic Computer Components
A “computer” includes hardware, an operating system as well as the software that runs on that combination:
- Hardware is the physical components that make up the computer, including the main computer (motherboard, processor, RAM, hard drive, DVD drive, video card, etc.), keyboard, mouse and monitor. It also includes peripherals like the printer, scanner, microphone and speakers. Computer components are defined here.
- Software refers to the programs that run on a computer.
- The Operating System (OS) is a special type of software that allows the user to interface with the computer's hardware and programs.
Computers have evolved from the traditional desktop computer (or PC) to laptops, net books, tablets, smart phones and other formats — each running an operating system and software specific to their design.
Computers have become smaller, more compact, more powerful and are far more portable. Mobile is becoming so much a part of our lives that there are now more such devices than people on the planet.
Early portable devices required a computer for setup and maintenance, but more recently most are designed to be self-contained via cloud-based storage and wireless printers. They can still interface with computers to share contacts and other information.
The tablet market is currently dominated by Apple and Android phones and tablets.
Tablets running Microsoft Windows have only a nominal presence in the market. Microsoft is hoping that Windows 10 will improve their market share by emphasizing mobile features as well as new features for mobile users like Cortana to compete with Apple Siri and Google Assistant.
Computer Systems Interdependent
Computer hardware and software are interdependent — you need newer (and more powerful) hardware to run newer versions of both the operating systems and programs that run on them. You cannot run software on hardware not designed for it, nor on incompatible operating systems.
Count the Bits
Current software and hardware can be either 32- or 64-bit (older systems were 8- and 16-bit). Think of the difference between a two-, four- and eight-lane highway and that will help you to picture the difference in capacity. Learn more….
The operating system (sometimes abbreviated as OS) is the main software running on a computer and will dictate a great deal about what hardware will work and what software is available to run on any particular computer or device.
PCs and Laptops
Earlier versions of PCs ran command-line operating systems like DOS which forced people to understand something about programming. Newer operating systems have been designed to be more user-friendly and, in the process, led to the loss of this capability the vast majority of users today.
Programming is a valuable skill as well as a fulfilling hobby. The Raspberry Pi, a very basic computer, was developed to reintroduce the challenge of computer programming and experimentation at a very reasonable price ($25) that anyone can afford.
Apple has made Swift, a program originating at Stanford University, freely available to develop applications for the Apple operating systems.
Programs generally refer to the software applications that can be installed onto a computer or device, although it can also refer to the utilities that come preinstalled with an operating system like NotePad in Windows.
In most cases a program will only run on a single operating system (e.g. Windows but not Mac) but technologies like Java were developed to provide cross-platform compatibility (meaning that software will run on more than one operating system). Unfortunately, the universality of Java combined with security vulnerabilities has led to recommendations to stop using it.
SaaS (mentioned earlier) lets remote servers do the heavy lifting and usually runs on web browsers, and therefore truly cross-platform.
Software is often referred to in generic terms based upon the purpose it fulfills. This avoids the problems with referring to a specific piece of software running on a single operating system when you are speaking about a software capability (e.g. word processing) rather than the program itself.
Software falls into different classes such as word processing suites (Microsoft Office and LibreOffice), Internet software (Firefox and Thunderbird), graphics software (Photoshop and Irfanview), utilities (CCleaner and Defraggler) and Security software (antivirus suites like ZoneAlarm).
Moving into the “Cloud”
An emerging trend is storage in the “Cloud” which is the generic term given to any software service located on remote servers accessed via the Internet. Your ISP's email service is an example of a server in the cloud.
The cloud has been an important component in the development of powerful mobile devices.
Cloud-based storage provides interconnectivity to multiple devices wanting to access the same information anywhere. It has permitted the development of software as a service (SaaS) where programs are running on remote servers rather than on device itself. Rather than purchasing and upgrading software on your computer, you pay a company a monthly fee to maintain the program (or are presented with ads to pay for a free service).
Hardware, as noted earlier, is a generic term for the physical aspects of your computer and the devices connected to it (like scanners and printers) as well as the components that make up the computer itself.
32- or 64-bit?
You'll probably run into the term 32-bit and 64-bit which refers to the capabilities of the hardware and how it addresses (uses) RAM. When referring to 32- or 64-bit software, we are referring to the hardware requirements to run the software.
- 64-bit software will only run on 64-bit hardware running on a 64-bit operating system
- Most 32-bit software can be run on 64- or 32-bit hardware.
- 64-bit operating systems cannot be run on 32-bit hardware nor can 32-bit operating systems support 64-bit programs even if it is running on 64-bit hardware.
64-bit is Faster
64-bit hardware allows for more RAM to be utilized and run faster just as traffic moves faster on an 8-lane highway than on a 2-lane roadway. 32-bit systems can only “see” approximately 3.5 GB of RAM, even if 4GB is installed. 64-bit systems can see up to 128GB. The same bottlenecks happen when programs are forced to run in the more restricted 32-bit environment as you see when two lanes of traffic are merged into one.
- Issues with 32-bit software and drivers in 64-bit Windows.
- 32-bit and 64-bit Windows FAQ.
- Wikipedia's 64-bit article covers the history as well as the technical architecture.
We're currently nearing the end of a transition period between 32- and 64-bit software and hardware which began over 10 years ago. Just as earlier systems running 4- 8- and 16-bits has been phased out, 32-bit hardware is gradually being replaced.
Because 64-bit systems will run 32-bit software, there wasn't enough pressure to end the dominance of 32-bit software until the majority of users could run 64-bit systems. Windows XP was the last version of Windows that was primarily 32-bit (64-bit versions were available but rare).
The majority of recent computers come with 64-bit operating systems. As the last of the 32-bit systems running Vista (particularly the crippled Vista Basic and Windows 7 Starter editions) are retired, 64-bit software is becoming more readily available.
Web Browsers as an Example
One example is web browsers. Most browsers are available in 64-bit versions, but people tend to continue to use 32-bit browsers because plugins like Flash are only available in 32-bit (Java is available in both 32- and 64-bit versions). As Flash is phased out in favour of newer technologies, this limitation will disappear and 64-bit browsers will become the norm.
Drivers: Software that Talks to Hardware
If your computer is asking for drivers, it is looking for the specialized software that tells hardware how to work.
Drivers are designed for a specific piece of hardware to work with a particular operating system at a particular version level. In most cases current computers are smart enough to determine what drivers are required and will download and install the correct version automatically.
If not, you'll need to know the specific version of the hardware as well as that of your operating system in order to get the correct drivers. This is particularly true when visiting a website to download drivers for your computer's hardware.
You'll need to know:
- the specific model of the device you're trying to install;
- the operating system and version you wish to install it on; and
- whether the computer is running a 32-bit or 64-bit operating system.
For example, you might want to download a driver for a HP Color LaserJet CP1215 on a 64-bit version of Windows 7. You'll usually need to download a different driver for a 32-bit version of Windows 7 or for either version of Windows 8.
Even though most 32-bit software runs on 64-bit systems, many 32-bit drivers will NOT run on 64-bit systems, especially if they contain 16-bit components — one reason that older hardware may not run on newer systems without updated drivers.
Support for Windows drivers tends to be excellent — at least for current hardware running on a currently-supported versions of Windows.
- You may have difficulty finding support for older hardware on newer Windows versions or for newer hardware on older versions of Windows.
- Because Apple hardware is proprietary you should have fewer problems except when trying to install third-party hardware not specifically designated as Mac-supported.
- Linux support for newer hardware has improved tremendously but you'll want to ensure you can obtain the necessary drivers before purchasing hardware.
Hardware is the physical components of the computer like the monitor (screen), mouse, keyboard and printer. These can be attached to the main computer case (sometimes referred to as the "box") which contains the internal components of your computer or can be integrated (like the laptop's keyboard, touch-pad and screen).
- The motherboard (sometimes called the mainboard or logic board) is the main circuit board. All other devices connect to the motherboard in some fashion. The motherboard is housed within a casing that provides access ports to various external devices. All devices have some sort of motherboard although it is easier to access in desktop computers.
- The processor is the “brains” of the unit and is where programs are run. Most computers run Intel or AMD processors.
- RAM is the volatile memory that a computer uses. When the computer stops, information in RAM is lost. The capacity is usually specified in megabytes or gigabytes.
- The hard drive is a magnetic storage device (like a cassette tape but the format is different). Unlike RAM, information stored in a hard drive does not disappear when the computer is turned off. The capacity is usually specified in gigabytes or terabytes. They come in 3 main formats:
- Hard Disk Drives (HHDs) are cheapest but slower and potentially noisier;
- Solid-State Drives (SSDs) operate like a flash drive and are much faster but tend to cost more, have lower capacity and shorter lifespan; and
- Solid-State Hybrid Drives (SSHDs) which the SSD technology for faster boot times with the greater reliability of HDDs.
- The video card displays the output to the monitor and can be onboard (built into the motherboard) or external (a dedicated video card attached via the expansion slots). The capability of the video card determines the resolution and quality of the video display.
- USB ports provide a “smart” hardware interface for the connection of many external hardware devices to your computer such as mice, printers, external hard drives, flash drives and more. The device tells the computer what it is and the requirements to run it so that the necessary drivers can be installed. More about USB.
The computer can contain other ports (SATA, HDMI, etc.), capabilities (Bluetooth, infrared, etc.) and storage mediums (Blu-ray, SDHC, etc.).
A network is a collection of computers connected either via network cables (a LAN) or via wireless signals (a WLAN). The security is generally better on workplace networks than in home networks.
The Internet (notice the capital I) is also a network, one connecting many different types of computers, servers and devices all around the world. Because most of today's computers and devices are connected to the Internet, computer security is an important consideration.
The network adapter is a the computer's interface to network via the modem or router and provides for Internet and network access. Desktop computers now have built-in LAN; laptops generally have both LAN and WLAN connections. You can install WLAN adapters to provide wireless access to a remote desktop as well.
Modems & Routers
The modem is the device that connects your computer to the Internet.
Most people now have high speed Internet connections via either a cable modem (where a cable TV vendor is the provider) or ADSL modem (where a telephone company is the provider).
In earlier days people used a low-speed telephone modem to dial-up a temporary connection.
Routers provide hardware firewall protection as well as allowing you to connect more than one computer to a modem using either a wired or wireless connection. They are generally connected between your modem and your computer(s).
Most ISPs now offer a high-speed modem and router combined into one dual-purpose device which serves both as the connection to the Internet and access to other computers connected to it either via network cables or via wireless.
The router/modem must be wired to at least one of the computers during set up. After that, all network and Internet access can be done wirelessly, although the wired connections are generally much faster.
When you buy a program or a hardware device it will usually have a set of specifications that indicate what operating system it is designed for as well as the minimum hardware requirements (and optimally, the recommended hardware requirements).
Your satisfaction with your purchase will improve the more you exceed the minimum requirements — which is why the recommended requirements are so useful.
If you have a different version of the operating system or if your hardware is not at least as good as the system requirements then you should not buy the program or device without consulting the manufacturer unless the vendor guarantees it will work (accepting the product back for full refund if it does not).
Windows Experience Rating
Starting with Windows Vista, Microsoft has included a "Windows Experience" rating. This evaluates your hardware and tells you how well your computer will perform certain tasks. The higher the score the better, but anything less than 3.0 will mean you will have a less than satisfactory experience with even basic tasks. (See my Windows 7 and Windows 10 pages for examples of actual listings of the five categories which comprise the Experience Rating.)
Because Apple bundles its operating system with proprietary hardware, this is less of an issue until your computer begins to age (Apple may not allow updates even though the hardware supports it).
When Your Computer Slows Down
All computers and software become less powerful as they get older because of technological advances and the software that takes advantage of newer technology. Upgrades can be made to your computer to improve performance but at some point it becomes uneconomical or physically impossible and you'll need to purchase a newer computer.
The boot environment is the hardware initialization that precedes the loading of the operating system. It configures the hardware recognition. The boot process may be obscured by a full-screen logo on your computer monitor.
Traditionally, BIOS was used to configure the boot environment for personal computers (PCs) dating back to the early IBM-PC. It provided an environment for configuring hardware separate from the operating system.
- BIOS loads before the operating system and determines how hardware like memory, USB and video are configured (although much of this is now automatic).
- Wikipedia's BIOS Wiki has more detailed information.
UEFI provides a more modern approach to this boot environment and adds hardware-based security.
- See the Wikipedia UEFI Wiki for more details.
- Windows 8.1 and Windows 10 takes advantage of UEFI technology to speed up the system startups and shutdowns, but only if the hardware supports it.
- Windows 7 or earlier does NOT support UEFI technology. If you're computer is EUFI and you enable the security options, Windows will not boot.
Some computers can boot using resources on the LAN rather than what is contained on the computer's own storage devices but is seldom available outside commercial environments.
Networking refers to the technology interconnecting computers grouped together using wired or wireless connections (local networks). Networking is also part of the technology connecting you to the Internet (a global network).
Some terminology that is commonly used:
- The Internet or the Web (notice that both are capitalized) is the huge world-wide network of connected computers.
- Your Internet Service Provider or ISP is the company that provides your access to the Internet. ISP can also refer to a company that provides an email account that is not part of your Internet access service.
- A LAN refers to a local area network, a group of computers connected via CAT5 or CAT6 network cables.
- WLAN refers to a similar network but is connected wirelessly (via WiFi) rather than with network cables.
- Most networks today are comprised of both LAN and WLAN elements.
- A server can refer to a remote external computer accessed via the Internet (such as the email server for your ISP or one hosting websites). It can also refer to a specialized computer that runs and manages a LAN.
When configuring an email client you'll run into several terms that might not make sense to you. You don't need to know the specifics but do need to understand the differences.
- An email server can refer to the email server for your ISP or to a specialized computer that runs and manages email on a LAN.
- An email client is an standalone email program on a computer or mobile device that can send and retrieve email messages.
- A webmail client is a server-based service stored on an external server (remote computer) that allows you to manage your email remotely using a web browser.
If you're using an email client supported by your ISP, then they'll indicate the settings and where to enter them. Otherwise, you'll need to configure your email program from the generic settings provided by your ISP. You many require help determining what goes where.
Email Login Information
Most configurations begin with the following login settings:
- The name allows you to set up how you'll refer to yourself (e.g. Joe Smith, Manager or Joe). It is flexible and does not generally form part of the security protection for your email account.
- The user name (usually referred to as username) is the name assigned to you by your ISP. It is usually the full email address (email@example.com) but may only be the first part (joesmith) or an account designation (A4dc1245).
- The password is the secret character string that protects your email address. Remember, this is probably the only non-public piece of information of the three, especially if your email address is your user name).
Each username-password combination is unique to the particular account and should be kept secret to protect your email account from being hacked. Since your email account is accessed via the Internet, it is accessible to anyone that has or can guess your password. Learn more about passwords and security precautions.
Once you've setup the login details, you need to tell the email program how your email is to be handle and what protocols are to be used.
IMAP, POP and SMTP are email protocols used when configuring email retrieval. Once setup, email will be managed transparently if the settings are correct and you have entered the right password.
IMAP allows you to maintain the same mail on multiple email clients or devices simultaneously, mirroring what is on the server. Deleting messages with IMAP on any of the connected devices will remove them from both the server and ALL devices connected to that account with IMAP.
POP3 retrieves mail from the server, generally deleting it following successful retrieval. You can opt to leave it on the server for a period of time or permanently.
SMTP is a protocol for transmitting email messages to the server from which they are distributed to the intended recipients.
POP3 combined with SMTP worked fine for situations where the emails where being retrieved by a single email client on a single computer, allowing for mail to archived on the computer and deleting mail on the server.
However, when used on multiple email clients or devices for the same account, it has limitations.
- To allow for all devices to download new messages, you'd need to leave the messages on the server until all devices had retrieved them.
- One device or computer can be set to automatically remove messages after 15 days, but because messages aren't being deleted from the server for 15 days (in this example), unwanted messages would download to all devices unless the user manually logged into the ISP's server to manually delete any unwanted messages as they were delivered.
- Sent messages would only be stored on the computer or device from which they are created.
If a mobile device is used only when away from your computer (such as when on holidays) and you didn't need to have all your emails on the device, this might not be an issue for you provided you BCC'd (blind-carbon-copied) any important sent messages to yourself to be downloaded to the main computer.
IMAP resolved this issue by mirroring the same information on the server and on all connected email clients and devices, including sent, received and archived messages. Unfortunately, IMAP has its own limitations.
- Deleting messages with IMAP on any of the connected devices will remove it from both the server and ALL devices connected to that account with IMAP.
- Most email accounts have limits on how much you can store on their servers. Once you pass that limit the ISP may simply delete the oldest messages or “bounce” incoming messages (often arbitrarily and without warning).
- You can purchase extras storage, but some ISPs limit the amount of space you can purchase even though the cost of storage has greatly decreased.
Remember, there are no copies of messages except what is on the server. Once all the devices have synced a deleted message, it is gone forever.
In addition to the protocols there are other settings, some of which are dependent upon how your ISP configures its servers and partly on whether the connection is secure or not.
- POP defaults to port 110, IMAP to port 995 and SMTP to 587 but may be set to something else often depending upon the security settings.
- Security is generally one of Regular, Secure to regular port (STARTTLS) or Secure to dedicated port (TLS). Older email programs may not support secure connections.
For example, Gmail settings as indicated by Google Support:
There is more about the various protocols involved on WikiPedia if you're interested.
Searching for Answers
If you didn't find what you want a search can help you find answers or you can choose from StartPage (recommended because StartPage searches Google anonymously).
Typing in a phrase will help you to find what you're looking for (e.g. HP color laserjet cp1215 Windows 7 drivers).
- The more specific you are the more likely you are to find what you need.
- Google and other search engines will usually offer suggestions as you begin to type in your search terms.
Avoid downloading the “sponsored” results and stick to the offerings from the original vendor where possible.
- You'll often see results that include sites that make no sense. The folks running these sites are more concerned with attracting traffic than in providing you accurate help.
- Choose the manufacturer's site (HP in this example) from within the search results rather than third-party options.
- Choose the manufacturer's site (HP in this example) from within the search results rather than third-party options.
In my example search (“HP color laserjet cp1215 Windows 7 drivers”) the result from support.hp.com is more promising than the printerdriverforwindows.com or userdrivers.com options and far less likely to have malware or additional software installed.
Updated: March 7, 2017