3 computer terms everyone should know

These tech terms can help you better understand your machine.

As the availability of technology continues to grow, more people are beginning to hear terms that they’ve never run into before. But there’s no reason to be afraid: While computers have gotten super advanced, the basics are pretty straightforward.

1. Bits and bytes

Let’s start with the absolute foundation of data transfer and storage in the computer age: bits and bytes. You might have heard that a specific smartphone has a certain number of gigabytes of storage or that Exede’s satellite internet can download data at up to 12 megabits per second, but what does that really mean?

“A good way to understand a bit is to think of it like a light switch.”

A good way to understand a bit is to think of it as a light switch. The switch can either be flipped ON or OFF — with nothing in between. A bit works a lot like this, but instead of a light switch, the bit is represented as either 1 or 0. When a computer sees a 1, it recognizes that the bit is ON.

Eight bits make up one byte. This is crucial, because that one byte can be used to represent a character, such as the letter “A” — that’s “01000001” in computer speak. String enough of these ones and zeroes together and you’ve got binary, the most basic language of the digital world.

However, because a byte is such a tiny amount of data, humans had to create a way to talk about the millions and millions of bytes it takes to make up a video, your music, or this blog. You’ll probably recognize some of these terms:

  • Kilobyte = 1,000 bytes
  • Megabyte = 1,000,000 bytes
  • Gigabyte = 1,000,000,000 bytes
  • Terabyte = 1,000,000,000,000 bytes

As you get further down that chart, you’re talking about a LOT of information. According to TechTarget, the entire collection of the U.S. Library of Congress’s physical documents can fit into 10 terabytes. What’s even crazier is that you can buy external hard drives with 10 terabytes of storage for about the same price as a new smartphone. How many people in all of human history could say they could fit a whole national library on their coffee table?

2. Memory and RAM

As the name implies, a computer’s memory is basically its ability to recall data. An important spreadsheet for work or your child’s graduation photos are all stored in your computer’s memory.

The tricky bit here is random access memory. RAM allows your computer to remember certain processes for programs that are currently in use. Because regular memory systems require a lot of effort to access information, RAM is used to streamline your experience. However, if you shut off your device, everything stored specifically in RAM gets cleared out.

3. CPU/processor

Now that you have a rough understanding of the mechanics behind data storage, let’s jump into how your computer actually sifts through all of this information. Your device needs a central processing unit, also referred to as a processor. The CPU has four basic functions:

  • Fetch:  The CPU searches for information on how to run a specific program in the computer’s memory.
  • Decode: Programs are written in a variety of languages, so the CPU has to backtrack these instructions to “Assembly Language,” and then into binary.
  • Execute: Now the CPU takes action, either performing some mathematical calculation moving data or continuing to work with the program.
  • Writeback: Once an output is received, the CPU “writes” it into the computer’s memory.

While that may be a little more information than you might use in your daily life, the point here is to explain that the CPU pretty much determines how well your computer runs. So, if you want a better performing machine, one of the most important areas to focus on is the processor. Tom’s Hardware has a good article on how to choose a CPU.

If there’s anything you should take away from this, it’s that computers aren’t magic. They may be complicated, but their inner workings can be understood as machines if you take the time to research them.

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