Computers 101 - Part II

In part I of this tutorial we went over the basic components that make up a computer and their major functions. In this part I will go over the basics of software for computers. I won't give you a history lesson because I feel like knowledge of history sometimes makes it hard for beginners to retain important knowledge about how computers work today. Thus, if you are interested in the history of computers and software then I encourage you to do some research after reading this tutorial.

All the components we discussed in part I are hardware components. You can pick them up and hold them in your hands because they are actual objects. The physical components that make up your computer are quite impressive indeed, but it is the software that runs on that hardware that makes your computer truly spectacular. I'm sure you've heard "it's all 1's and 0's" before. Don't think about computers like that anymore because when you think of them in such complicated ways you make it difficult for yourself to actually understand your computer. You can use a hammer even though you may not have any idea about the exact processes the hammer went through while on the assembly line. You can drive your car even if you have no idea what a timing belt is for. Computers are no different; you can use a computer to accomplish many tasks even if you have no idea how those 1's and 0's work. I am a programmer for a living, and even I still don't fully understand machine code. So if I can program a computer without fully understanding it on every level, then you can most certainly use one.

The software in your computer consists of three major parts that I will go over one at a time in the order that they load on your computer after you turn it on. It's important for you to remember that you do not have to understand the specifics of how software talks to the hardware in your computer, just learn about software from a surface level. You have to start somewhere and the learning snowball will go from there. Just don't try to take on too much at one time. One of the big issues I've noticed with beginners is that they will ask a lot of the hard questions too early. Don't worry about the differences between 32-bit and 64-bit computers, or even the differences between Windows XP and Windows 7 just yet. Instead just learn the computer you have right now and then worry about learning what other types of computers can do after you've mastered your own.


The BIOS is the first bit of software that loads when you first turn your computer on. You usually see a screen similar to this however briefly.
This software is really simple in that all it does is find your hard drive and check if there is an operating system on it that can be started. Don't worry about the specifics or technical details. Just know that the first thing that loads on your computer is the BIOS and it finds your operating system.

Operating System

Once the BIOS finds your operating system it passes control over to the operating system which starts loading.
The operating system is much more complex than the BIOS. There are several different operating systems that could be installed on your computer but in this tutorial we are going to focus on the most popular one known as Windows. As of this writing the latest version of Windows is Windows 7. Windows 8 is currently in a beta stage and will likely be released later this year. It is difficult to talk about the operating system in this tutorial because it could be and has been the topic of entire books.

Once your operating system (Windows 7 in this example) is loaded you'll usually be presented with a login screen like this one.

If there is no password on your Windows account then it will sometimes skip the login screen and take you directly to the desktop, which usually looks something like this.

The desktop is the area where you do most of your work. The bar that runs across the bottom is known as your taskbar and the mostly empty area above that is the desktop workspace. The workspace is often referred to just as "the desktop".

The icons on the left of the desktop workspace are known simply as "desktop icons". They serve as shortcuts to your favorite programs, which we'll get to shortly. The icon on the far left of the taskbar is known as the start button. The start button is a menu that opens up and gives you access to all programs on your computer. If you don't have a shortcut to a program on your desktop workspace then you can go to the start menu and find it through there. The icons right next to the start button are your "quick launch" icons. They are exactly the same as the icons on your workspace, shortcuts to your favorite or most used programs so you don't have to navigate through the start menu every time. The difference is that when programs are open they may fill your screen and hide the desktop icons, however the taskbar is almost always visible even when you have programs open that fill the screen so taskbar quick launch icons are more convenient sometimes.

The currently empty area of the taskbar just to the right of the quick launch icons is where your "taskbar items" will appear. Taskbar items are your currently running programs. When you open a program that program will almost always have an icon that appears in the taskbar items area until that program is closed. Lastly the area on the far right of the taskbar is the "task tray" and the icons are known as "task tray items". You also have a clock in the task tray. Task tray icons are usually used for notifications from programs that you have running in the background (running in the background means programs that are running, but do not have a visible window that you can see at the moment).


I already mentioned programs a little bit when going over the Windows 7 desktop above, but I didn't really explain what programs are. Programs are pieces of software designed to run on an operating system. For example, Solitaire is a program designed to run on Windows 7 and it comes pre-installed when you setup Windows 7. (Note: while some programs you use come pre-installed with the operating system itself, most of the programs you will use will not and you will have to install them yourself.)

Notice how Solitaire opens in a window-like frame on the desktop and a taskbar item on the taskbar. Also notice that the taskbar item looks very much like the quick launch items. This can be a little confusing. There is one major difference between quick launch items and taskbar items: taskbar items only exist while a program is open while quick launch items are there even when the program is closed so that you can click on them to open the program. As soon as you close a program that is open in the taskbar items then the taskbar item will disappear.

The program's window frame has a few buttons at the top right that enable you to do several things.

The left button with the line allows you to "minimize" a window. When you minimize a window it disappears from the desktop workspace area but its icon in the taskbar items stays there. To open the window back up just click the taskbar item for that program. Minimizing a program does not close it; the program is still running, it's just hidden from view until you un-minimize it by clicking its taskbar item. The middle button is the "maximize" button. The maximize button allows you to maximize a window so that it fills the entire desktop workspace. Most programs will let you maximize them but some programs have this button grayed out which means that you cannot click on it. To restore a maximized window just click the same button and it will shrink down to its previous size. The last button is the close button. The close button actually closes the whole program and it will no longer appear in the taskbar items.

Open programs take up memory. If you remember from part I about the difference between RAM and your hard drive then you know that RAM is used for short-term but fast storage while your hard drive is used for longer-term but much slower storage. When you interact with a program everything seems to happen pretty fast. That is because that program was loaded into memory (RAM) once you opened it. The program will take up space in memory until you close it. Some programs take up more memory than others and opening up tons of programs at once could fill up your memory and make your computer slower. If your computer is only a year or two old then you likely don't have anything to worry about because newer computers are fast enough and have enough memory that you'd have to try really hard to fill it up. However, if your computer is a little older then you may need to watch how many programs you have open at the same time. If you're not using a program then it's a good idea to close it.

That is all for part II. You have learned about the three major software components of your computer. In part III I will discuss the internet and a special program on your computer called a "browser". The internet is often the most confusing part for someone new to computers so I highly recommend you get some experience with Part II before you move on to part III.


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