How computers work

You have probably heard a bunch of stuff about how computers work and how they are put together, a lot of which probably sounds like nonsense, because it often uses tech lingo that is hard to understand without direct knowledge of it. This is why I will try and explain things in a bit more easy to read fashion.

Most people think that computers is that grey/black/white box you sit at in the office or have on your lap in the form of a laptop, while this is true, a lot of other things are also computers. Pretty much anything that has a screen of any kind, even a bunch of things that don’t, are actually computers as well. The word computer itself actually stems all the way back to the 14th century as computare which means “to think” and later in the 16th century as computus which means “to calculate”. This is why the very first computers were actually just gigantic calculators, that took up a small building. Fortunately these have shrunk in size over the years, all the way down to something we use every day, namely smartphones.

Old Computer
This is how computers of the 70-80’s used to look like

Smartphones themselves are probably the most widely used computer on the planet, in fact Statista reports almost 4 billion people own one or more smartphones currently. Now your big question currently is probably how is a smartphone in any way similar to a laptop and how it is even a computer. The answer to this is pretty simple, what is inside your phone and what is inside your computer, is almost exactly identical. They all contain the same components and they all use math to make things happen on the screen in front of you, the only real difference being how you click and type things into them.

At the heart of all of them we have a component called a CPU aka Central Processing Unit, which in normal people speak is essentially just a calculator, a calculator that went to the gym sometime in the 80’s and never stopped going. So what we have today are essentially super fast calculators, most modern computers can do in the billions of calculations per second. A number this high may be a bit hard to get to terms with, but it is also what is required to give you a phone or laptop that doesn’t stutter when you do “complex” tasks. Complex is in quotes because almost everything on a computer is a complex task these days, from loading your favorite website to sending a message to a friend.

The way these tasks are accomplished is by taking all the information you put into the computer, converting it into numbers, then calculating it with a bunch of numbers defined by the people who made the program you are trying to use and then returning the result to you, which is then converted from numbers into colours, text characters, lines and what not on your screen. This is also why if you think of how complex that sounds versus how fast a new text character appears on screen as you type, you can see how even typing require quite a bit of calculation power.

Raspberry Pi
The inside of a small computer called a Raspberry Pi

The CPU is not the only component in a computer though, it usually also has a special built CPU called a GPU aka Graphics Processing Unit, that has the only function of taking care of what you see on your screen. These two calculators usually work together, so the CPU does the math of what you are trying to do and the GPU does the math of showing you the results of what you did.

Another important component is memory, just like you and me all computers have memory in varying sizes and just like you and me this memory comes in long term and short term. Where it differs a bit is that our short term memory works by storing recent events, where computers store and work on recent events in this memory. On computers short term memory is called RAM aka Random Access Memory, it is usually super fast to keep up with the fast calculators, the CPU and GPU. Being fast means it is rather complex to build and therefore expensive, which is why most computers only have a limited amount of it.

This brings us to long term memory, which usually comes in the form of a harddrive or on smaller devices a chip. These are used to offload information you want to keep for a later date, usually after it is done being worked on inside the RAM, much like the human brain transfers current events into memories you can recall later on. Long term memory comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes, from harddrives to the SD cards you have probably used one time for a camera or phone. This also means that these components can be used in a very wide array of applications and is not necessarily bound to one device, a good example being USB pens, although not many people use those anymore.

All of these components is what makes up the base of a computer, there are many other smaller components tying things together, there is the screen as well and peripherals such as keyboards and mice, some computers even have a clock inside them so they can better tell time. The base of a working computer though, is those few components tied together on what is known as a motherboard, which again is just tech speak for a piece of plastic and copper, for connecting all the components together.

Hopefully this will make computers of all shapes and sizes a bit less daunting and mysterious to be around and hopefully you learned a thing a two from this article, that will make it easier to read other articles in computer science.

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