Basic computer terms

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By Matt Bentley

I’ve noticed a surprising preponderance of folk who don’t know what to name things in a computer.

This is indicative of the age we live in, where people grow up with computers and basic understanding is assumed to be instinctual. Part of this is also due to computer systems which tend to be very poor at communicating nowadays, favouring some vague aesthetic over clarity.

Disappointing of course, but the world is this way, so here’s a bunch of guff for those who’re on the novice end of the computer-literacy scale:

  • Computer: that’s the box on the floor with all the wires plugging into it, if you’ve got a desktop computer, or the entire unit screen-and-all if you’ve got a laptop or an “all-in-one” (ie. a monitor with a computer in it).
  • Peripherals: anything that’s not directly joined to the computer itself, so in the case of a desktop that’d be the mouse, monitor and keyboard, whereas for a laptop only things like external drives and external mice/keyboards are considered peripherals.
  • Hard drive: not the box or the laptop. A hard drive is a small storage unit that sits inside the computer and stores programs, data and the operating system.
  • Operating system or ‘OS’: what you use to access your files and programs. In terms of PC’s, this is usually some form of Windows, in terms of Macs this is OSX, in terms of phones this is Android or IOS.
  • Programs: also known as ‘applications’ or ‘apps’, these are what you use to do stuff on a computer. Operating systems tend to include a bunch of programs, such as ‘File Explorer’ on Windows (what you use to explore your documents etc) or ‘Finder’ on OSX (same diff for Macs).
  • Files: pieces of data stored in a computer. Some files are parts of programs or the OS, some files are your files, such as documents and pictures. ‘Your files’ are often collectively referred to as ‘your data’ by techies.
  • Office package: a set of programs for basic office work, like writing letters, creating spreadsheets or presentations. Examples include LibreOffice, Microsoft Office and Google Docs.
  • Memory/RAM: very fast storage that programs and the OS get stored in temporarily while they are running.
  • The Internet: a vast worldwide interconnected network of computers and devices. Also know as ‘The Web’.
  • Website: a place on the internet. A website may contain many “pages” – effectively many sub-places.
  • Web browser: a program that allows you to access websites. Examples include Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Opera, and last but definitely least, Microsoft Edge and Microsoft Internet Explorer.
  • Search engine: a website which allows you to search other websites for keywords and images, etcetera. Examples include DuckDuckGo, Google and Bing.
  • Taskbar: in Windows, this is the bar at the bottom of the screen where you can click on different buttons to switch between programs, and also launch some programs. Mac equivalent is called the ‘Dock’.

This is a bare minimum of terminology you need to effectively communicate with others about computers. There are a gazillion more terms, but I have limited space, so for whatever else you need to know, boot up your computer, run your web browser program, go to a search engine, and search for it.

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