Back to Basics: Getting Cozy With Your Computer

May 01, 2024


Back to Basics: Getting Cozy With Your Computer

We live in a digital world, surrounded by computers. We do our work on computers, we shop on computers, we carry computers around in our pockets, on our wrists, and even now, you’re reading this article on a computer.


Welcome to Back to Basics, a series where we’re going to be reviewing basic engineering concepts that may require a more complex explanation than a quick Google search could provide.

But how often do you ever stop to think about what a computer is or how it works? It’s not like you need to know what the stuff in your laptop does as long as it still turns on, right?

While a basic level of knowledge is serviceable, and for most people will be all they need to know, it’s useful to know what makes a computer tick if you’re planning on digging any deeper into the digital world we live in.

To start our journey into what exactly a computer is, let’s try to demystify a few basic terms: hardware, software, and firmware. 

Get to Know Your ‘Wares

Let’s start by clarifying what we count as a computer. A loose definition of a computer would be a calculator with a brain. At their most basic level, all computers do is perform arithmetic and logical operations on binary numbers, store them for later, and then grab new ones.

With that out of the way, let’s get back to those three terms. Hardware is a word that describes the physical parts that make up a computer. Everything from motherboards to fans is hardware. An easy way to delineate whether something is hardware is to ask: Is this needed to help a computer run, and can I touch it? If the answer to both these questions is yes, it’s probably hardware.

Software is a little more difficult, since it doesn’t exist in the real world. A good way to understand software is that it’s a set of instructions stored on hardware that performs a task. Your web browser tells your computer to run a bunch of binary computations in order to get your screen to show what you see as a window with access to the internet.

The task a piece of software performs may be anywhere from a complex program like your operating system to a light task like a document editor.

This brings us to firmware. Firmware is software, but more specific. Firmware is software that is made to run on specific hardware. This means that it performs low level tasks in order to allow for the more high level tasks to run.

A decent example of firmware is your computer’s BIOS, which is a piece of software that allows your computer to boot up, and nothing more. (BIOS stands for Basic Input Output System… firmware tends to be very simple). 

So, that’s just a quick crash course in the basic elements that make a computer… compute. In the next part of this series, we’ll take a more in-depth look at specific examples of basic hardware that pretty much every computer needs, so stay tuned!


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