Understanding computer features

Computer features

In the past, buying a computer was easy – you simply chose a model from the various desktop varieties available. But nowadays computers come in all shapes and sizes, which can make it a challenge to choose the right one for your needs.

Here’s a rundown of the main types of computers available to buy.

Desktop PC
Favoured by businesses and schools, desktop computers are designed to be used in one place. Modular in design, they consist of a body – usually a tower shape – that houses the computer processor; a monitor; a separate keyboard; and connecting cables. Each component of a desktop PC can be replaced or upgraded separately.

A laptop is a lightweight portable computer with a built-in battery, so it can be used wherever you want in your home or outside. It features a built-in screen, keyboard, and a trackpad or trackball that serves as a mouse. Laptops are as powerful as traditional desktop PCs and many people now buy a laptop as their main computer at home. Laptops come in a variety of types from basic laptops and small netbooks to slim, ultra lightweight models and powerful laptops for playing games.

Tablets are lightweight, touchscreen computers with internet access. Easy to hold and use, they offer a similar computing experience to smartphones. Long-lasting rechargeable batteries make them great for long journeys, and optional mobile broadband keeps them connected to the internet while out and about. They lack physical keyboards, are less powerful than laptops and desktop PCs, and they can’t be upgraded. Their lack of ports also makes it hard to connect to other devices, such as printers and digital cameras.

Tablets differ from laptops and desktop PCs in their use of software. Instead of traditional software, tablets use apps. Apps are small programs that perform specific computing tasks. There are hundreds of thousands of apps available, from blockbuster games and office productivity tools, to interactive cookery books, travel guides, and fitness and exercise apps.

Out of the box, tablets come with an assortment of basic apps such as a calendar and a web browser, with many more downloadable from an online app store. Many apps are free or cost a small amount.

When it comes to buying a mobile phone, most people now choose a smartphone. Not only do they let you make and receive calls and text messages, you can use your smartphone to browse the web, check and write emails, listen to music, take photos and record video, and find your way around using GPS. And, like a tablet, you can download apps to do even more with your smartphone.

Although today’s computers vary in shape and design, they share some common components and features. Here’s a guide to some of the most important ones.

Processor  Also known as the central processing unit (CPU), this is the engine that runs your computer and determines its speed (measured in GHz/gigahertz). A multi-core processor has more than one CPU on a single silicon chip, so it’s faster at doing multiple tasks at the same time.

Memory  Your computer’s short-term memory – also known as RAM – determines how well it handles computing tasks and how many programs it can run at the same time. How much RAM you need depends on how you’re using your computer. Editing video footage, for example, requires more RAM than say reading emails or using a word processor. You can usually add more RAM to desktop PCs and laptops, but tablets and smartphones have a fixed memory capacity so it’s advisable to buy as much as you can afford to start with.

Hard disk  Your computer’s hard disk stores all your software, system and personal files. Hard drive capacity is measured in gigabytes (GB) or terabytes (TB).

How much you need depends on how you plan to use your computer. Storing your entire photo, video and music collections on your computer can leave you little free hard disk space. And, if your hard drive becomes more than 85 per cent full, the computer’s performance will suffer. Deleting unwanted files and storing infrequently-used files on a external hard drive will not only free up space but will deliver a faster computer too.

Many laptops use solid-state drives (SSD) that unlike standard hard drives have no moving parts, which helps produce blisteringly fast start-up times and performance. The downside is that they typically offer smaller storage capacities.

By virtue of their size, tablets have far smaller hard drives. It’s advisable to buy a computer with as big a hard drive as you can afford.

Graphics card  This computer component is responsible for displaying images on your screen. Most computers feature an integrated graphics card – one that is permanently fixed to the computer’s main circuitry – which shares your computer’s RAM (memory) to complete tasks. If you want to play powerful 3D games or edit lots of video footage, look for a laptop or desktop PC that has a dedicated graphics card. This uses its own RAM to handle complex 3D computing tasks rather than draw on the computer’s memory.

Monitor  Also known as the screen or display, the monitor shows the computer’s user interface and programs. It lets you interact with the computer using the keyboard, mouse or, if using a touchscreen monitor, your fingers.

Power supply  Your computer will have a power supply port and a cable, so you can run it off the main or recharge the internal battery.

Ports  Desktop PCs and laptops have a range of ports including ethernet, Firewire and USB so you can connect devices such as printers, MP3 players, digital cameras and camcorders. Tablets and smartphones typically have few ports, and are often limited to a single charging and connection port.

Speakers  Your computer will come with a soundcard and built-in speakers.

Operating system  This is the software that controls your computer. Microsoft Windows is the world’s most popular operating system, and most new desktop PCs and laptops come with Windows 8 installed. Older computers may have Windows 7 as their operating system. Tablets use their own specialised operating system designed for touchscreen tablet computing. There are several operating systems available for tablets – which one you use depends on the type and model of tablet you buy.

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