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Old Thursday, September 18, 2008
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A programmable machine. The two principal characteristics of a computer are:
it responds to a specific set of instructions in a well-defined manner.
It can execute a prerecorded list of instructions (a program).

Modern computers are electronic and digital. The actual machinery -- wires, transistors, and circuits -- is called hardware; the instructions and data are called software.
All general-purpose computers require the following hardware components:
1. Memory : Enables a computer to store, at least temporarily, data and programs.
Internal storage areas in the computer. The term memory identifies data storage that comes in the form of chips, and the word storage is used for memory that exists on tapes or disks. Moreover, the term memory is usually used as a shorthand for physical memory, which refers to the actual chips capable of holding data. Some computers also use virtual memory, which expands physical memory onto a hard disk.
Every computer comes with a certain amount of physical memory, usually referred to as main memory or RAM. You can think of main memory as an array of boxes, each of which can hold a single byte of information. A computer that has 1 megabyte of memory, therefore, can hold about 1 million bytes (or characters) of information.
There are several different types of memory:
RAM (random-access memory): This is the same as main memory. When used by itself, the term RAM refers to read and write memory; that is, you can both write data into RAM and read data from RAM. This is in contrast to ROM, which permits you only to read data. Most RAM is volatile, which means that it requires a steady flow of electricity to maintain its contents. As soon as the power is turned off, whatever data was in RAM is lost.
ROM (read-only memory): Computers almost always contain a small amount of read-only memory that holds instructions for starting up the computer. Unlike RAM, ROM cannot be written to.
PROM (programmable read-only memory): A PROM is a memory chip on which you can store a program. But once the PROM has been used, you cannot wipe it clean and use it to store something else. Like ROMs, PROMs are non-volatile.
EPROM (erasable programmable read-only memory): An EPROM is a special type of PROM that can be erased by exposing it to ultraviolet light.
EEPROM (electrically erasable programmable read-only memory): An EEPROM is a special type of PROM that can be erased by exposing it to an electrical charge.

2. Mass storage device : Allows a computer to permanently retain large amounts of data. Common mass storage devices include disk drives and tape drives.
Refers to various techniques and devices for storing large amounts of data. The earliest storage devices were punched paper cards, which were used as early as 1804 to control silk-weaving looms. Modern mass storage devices include all types of disk drives and tape drives. Mass storage is distinct from memory, which refers to temporary storage areas within the computer. Unlike main memory, mass storage devices retain data even when the computer is turned off.
The main types of mass storage are:
floppy disks : Relatively slow and have a small capacity, but they are portable, inexpensive, and universal.
hard disks : Very fast and with more capacity than floppy disks, but also more expensive. Some hard disk systems are portable (removable cartridges), but most are not.
optical disks : Unlike floppy and hard disks, which use electromagnetism to encode data, optical disk systems use a laser to read and write data. Optical disks have very large storage capacity, but they are not as fast as hard disks. In addition, the inexpensive optical disk drives are read-only. Read/write varieties are expensive.
tapes : Relatively inexpensive and can have very large storage capacities, but they do not permit random access of data.

Any machine or component that attaches to a computer. Examples of devices include disk drives, printers, mice, and modems. These particular devices fall into the category of peripheral devices because they are separate from the main computer.
Most devices, whether peripheral or not, require a program called a device driver that acts as a translator, converting general commands from an application into specific commands that the device understands.
3. Input device : Usually a keyboard and mouse, the input device is the conduit through which data and instructions enter a computer.
Any machine that feeds data into a computer. For example, a keyboard is an input device, whereas a display monitor is an output device. Input devices other than the keyboard are sometimes called alternate input devices. Mice, trackballs, and light pens are all alternate input devices.

4. Output device : A display screen, printer, or other device that lets you see what the computer has accomplished.

Any machine capable of representing information from a computer. This includes display screens, printers, plotters, and synthesizers.
central processing unit (CPU): The heart of the computer, this is the component that actually executes instructions.
In addition to these components, many others make it possible for the basic components to work together efficiently. For example, every computer requires a bus that transmits data from one part of the computer to another.
Abbreviation for central processing unit, and pronounced as separate letters. The CPU is the brains of the computer. Sometimes referred to simply as the central processor,but more commonly called processor, the CPU is where most calculations take place. In terms of computing power, the CPU is the most important element of a computer system.
On large machines, CPUs require one or more printed circuit boards. On personal computers and small workstations, the CPU is housed in a single chip called a microprocessor. Since the 1970's the microprocessor class of CPUs has almost completely overtaken all other CPU implementations.
The CPU itself is an internal component of the computer. Modern CPUs are small and square and contain multiple metallic connectors or pins on the underside. The CPU is inserted directly into a CPU socket, pin side down, on the motherboard. Each motherboard will support only a specific type or range of CPU so you must check the motherboard manufacturer's specifications before attempting to replace or upgrade a CPU. Modern CPUs also have an attached heat sink and small fan that go directly on top of the CPU to help dissipate heat.
Two typical components of a CPU are the following:
The arithmetic logic unit (ALU), which performs arithmetic and logical operations.
The control unit (CU), which extracts instructions from memory and decodes and executes them, calling on the ALU when necessary.

Computers can be generally classified by size and power as follows, though there is considerable overlap:
personal computer : A small, single-user computer based on a microprocessor. In addition to the microprocessor, a personal computer has a keyboard for entering data, a monitor for displaying information, and a storage device for saving data.
workstation : A powerful, single-user computer. A workstation is like a personal computer, but it has a more powerful microprocessor and a higher-quality monitor.
minicomputer : A multi-user computer capable of supporting from 10 to hundreds of users simultaneously.
mainframe : A powerful multi-user computer capable of supporting many hundreds or thousands of users simultaneously.
supercomputer : An extremely fast computer that can perform hundreds of millions of instructions per second.

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