Computer Terms Explained
Updated 6-22-16
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CPU= Central Processing Unit. This is the guts of the computer and does the primary work of computing. All computers work on 3 primary functions: Input, Processing and Output. The CPU is the heart of the Processing stage. The CPU is mounted in a circuit board called a Motherboard.

There are 3 major manufacturers of CPU, namely Intel, AMD and Cyrix. You may hear special names for some like Pentium and Celeron, both made by Intel. Cyrix was bought out by another company and are no longer contenders. Now it's just Intal and AMD in a tight race.

Past CPU's had designations like 386-16, 486-66, Pentium 90, Pentium II, Pentium III, etc. Current levels are Pentium IV at speeds from 1.5 Ghz to over 3.0 Ghz. AMD designates theirs as K6 or K7-1.5 to 3.0 and up.

CPU's vary by speed. This is the second number in the descriptions above. The higher the number, the faster information can be processed. Speeds above 500 are only needed if you are processing pictures or other forms of graphics. The CPU speed has NO EFFECT on e-mail transfers. So buying a new computer is not going to do much for your slow Internet speeds unless you are still using a slow modem.

The box that contains the CPU is frequently called the CPU because it contains all the components that do the processing. The boxes are available in desktop and tower format. Desktops usually sit under the monitor. Towers usually end up on the floor.

MOTHERBOARD= This is the large circuit board that everything else plugs into. It carries the electrical information between the various parts as the information is processed. The various parts that may be included or plugged into it are the Modem, video card, network card, and places to plug in the mouse, keyboard, scanners, cameras, etc. These plugs are called Ports and are usually on the back of the CPU box, although many computers have some plugs in front.

RAM= Random Access (electronic computer) Memory. These are small circuit boards with some parts called chips. These plug onto the motherboard and provide electronic workspace for the jobs being done. RAM is temporary workspace and is cleared off each time the computer is restarted. So if you have been typing a document and haven't saved it and the power drops, you will lose any unsaved typing. ( keyboard shortcut to save is CTRL-S)

Older computers may have only 32 to 64 MB of RAM. (Really old computers with less than this are now obsolete). Some inexpensive computers still are being sold with only 128MB, but anyone buying a new computer today should insist on at least 256MB. 2016 now 4, 8 or 16 GB, not MB anymore.

MB= megabytes. One byte = one character (A,B,C,123, ETC.) KB is 1000 bytes. MB is 1,000,000 bytes. GB is 1,000,000,000 bytes. RAM is measured today from 128 MB to 512 MB. (Serious graphics computers can have much more) Typically the more RAM you have, the faster things work (Except the modem).

Floppy disks hold 1.44MB of data (about 80 pages of typing).

Zip disks hold 100MB or 250MB. A 100 MB zip disk hold the equivalent of 70 or 80 floppies. Iomega has released a new 750 MB zip disk, but it does not seem to be taking hold.

HARD DRIVE= A box inside the computer that stores electronic data. The user has no access to it. It is closed and not visible from the outside. Most computers have a light that tells when the hard drive is doing something.

The size of the hard drive is measured in MB or GB or TB. The larger the number, the more data it holds.

Hard drives of the past were under 3 GB (from 5MB to 3000MB) and are not adequate for today's jobs.

Most new computers come with 250GB to above 6000GB. In 2016, new computers are never less than 500GB.

SSD Drive = a solid state drive that can replace the hard drive or be in addition to it. The advantage is the speed since there are no moving parts.

Hybrid drive = a regular hard drive with an SSD section. This is not as fast as a true SSD but is less expensive.

MODEM= A device that sends and receives electronic data between computers. There are different kinds of modems.

Telephone modems transfer data over telephone lines and work today at top speeds of 56,000 bits per second, although in Boulder City, anything over about 44,000 is exceptional due to distance from Vegas and poor connections. All new computers come with 56K modems. Only computers over about 5 to 6 years old have slower modems.

Cable modems work over the coax lines that supply cable television to your house. Cox is providing this service to most of Boulder City now. Transfer speeds vary depending on the level of service you pay for, but the slowest cable speed is from 10 to 20 times faster than the best phone modem.

DSL modems. DSL means Digital Subscriber Line and is a special high speed connection using the regular telephone line. The monthly cost and transfer speeds are about the same as cable modem.

Sprint and Cox are in a constant competition. Look for deals to change monthly.

STORAGE DISKS: The hard drive is a storage disk, but is not removable. The other types are removable.

Floppy disk. A plastic container about 1/8th inch thick and about 3-1/2 inches square. If you tear one apart you will find a circular magnetic tape inside similar to a record, except flexible (hence the tag floppy). Older ones had no protective box and were real floppy. Touching the tape inside will render it useless. Floppies are inserted in an opening in the CPU box and only go in one way. Never force it. Always check the appearance before using. If the sliding cover is bent or damaged and you insert it, it may never come out in one piece. Floppies cost only pennies. Floppies are history. Windows 7, 8, 10 do not support internal floppy drives. You can still add a USB floppy drive but very few folks still have any need. We converted our embroidery machines over to USB inputs now.

Zip Disk. Similar to a floppy disk, but slightly larger and holds a lot more stuff. Cannot be used in the same slot that is used for floppies. Many computers used to provide a Zip drive for using Zip disks. A portable one can be added to any computer. Zips come in 100MB, 250MB and 750MB. The disk size should match the drive size. These are pretty much history now also.

Super Disk. This is the same physical size as a floppy and holds 120MB (=90 floppies) and requires a special drive. Super drives can read regular floppies. Super disks will not go into a regular floppy drive. These are not very popular and hard to find.

CD, CD-R, CD-RW: These are Compact Disks, round plastic and about 5 inches in diameter. They are quite different from floppies. They are read optically by laser and touching them will not make them unusable. They also require special drives to use them in. A CD is a disk that stores computer data or programs or music that has been made by a professional manufacturer. CD's hold about 650MB or the equal of about 400 floppies. One CD can hold the text from a 20 volume encyclopedia. (Without pictures)

The CD-R is a blank disk that you can record your own information on. You must have a CD-R or CD-RW drive to record with. A regular CD will not record. It is only a player. After you have recorded data or music on a CD-R, it is permanent and cannot be changed. A CD-r can be used in any regular CD player. A CD-RW is recordable and rewritable just like VHS tapes. CD-RW disks can only be used in a CD-RW drive. If you put them into a regular or CD-R drive, they will be unusable. Many computers today come with CD-RW since they read everything except DVD.

DVD. Digital Video (or Versatile) Disk. These are the same size as a CD, but hold about 7 times as much. Mostly used for movies today and the drives are just players. The latest drives combine CD-RW and DVD which will write CD's and play DVD's. As of 2003, DVD writers are coming down in price and looks like it will be the choice of the future.

The term CD can encompass all 4 formats and does not always refer just to a plain CD. It may also refer to the player or the disk sometimes causing confusion.

DRIVE LETTER ASSIGNMENTS: The computer knows how to transfer data from one place to another because of giving each component a name. Computer names are real simple. The Hard drive is called simply C. The floppy drive is called A. Older computers had a drive called B but most new computers have no B. When other devices are added, such as a CD, Zip or a second hard drive, they are assigned names from D to Z.


DEFAULT = preset condition. Some defaults are preset by a program and cannot be changed. Other defaults can be changed to an option chosen by you, the operator and will remain the new default until something or someone changes it to a new default. For example, the mouse pointer is set to a small size by Microsoft. You can change that size and the pointer will remain that size until you change it or reload Windows. To see how to change the mouse pointer and some other defaults click HERE.

FIELD = A data entry field. Usually a white box where you are expected to type information.

TYPING CURSOR = The blinking vertical bar that shows where typing will be inserted.

MOUSE CURSOR = Same as the mouse pointer. The mouse pointer takes on different shapes to display the action available at the location of the cursor. For example, placing the mouse pointer in a data entry field changes the pointer to an I beam, indicating a typing area. If you wish to type entries here, you must click the mouse to activate the typing cursor.

SYNTAX = Properties of every character and space. Upper case and lower case are different, comma and period are different. Incorrect syntax happens when a wrong character is used.

PROTOCOL = A language for communicating between two devices. Similar to an interpreter to allow different people to understand each other when they speak different languages. This defines a common language that allows communication.


MINIMIZE = A condition of a window that hides it from view but does not close it. Do this by clicking the minus sign (-) in the right side of the title bar. Bring it back into view by clicking on the button on the taskbar.

MIDIMIZE = A condition of a window between minimize and maximize. Only in this condition can the window be moved and resized. Identified by the icon in the title bar between minimize and close. In the midi condition, the icon will look like a single box. (Not a standard definition. This was coined by one of my students a few years ago.)

MAXIMIZE = A condition when the window fills the entire screen. No other windows are visible and the icon in the title bar is a double box.

DROP ARROW = a black triangle (pointing downward) to the right of a field of information that drops a list of choices when clicked

HYPERLINK = A special text or graphic that when clicked, shows a new window of information. Usually identified by the mouse pointer changing to a pointing hand.

TOOLTIP = A small windows (often yellow) that pops up beside the mouse pointer to describe what that item does.


See also Glossary

BROWSER = A program that allows the user to surf the web. The program displays the contents of a web page. Web pages are selected by the web address or URL or by clicking on a link.

URL = Uniform (or Universal) Resource Locator. Same as web address. Typical form is or may be or may leave out the www and just be See Web Page Address.

WEB PAGE ADDRESS = Same as URL. Web page addresses must follow exact protocol or syntax. Each character must be typed correctly. Using a comma instead of a period will not work. SPACES ARE NOT ALLOWED. Each space must have a letter, number, punctuation, dash, underscore, slash, but no empty space. When typing a web address, you can skip the http:// since the browser inserts it automatically. Some browsers also insert the www and the .com as well. You just type CNN and you go to If you want a .org or .gov, you must type them. I find it faster to type the Having to add the missing information seems to slow thing down.

HYPERLINK ADDRESS (or just ADDRESS) = The web address that is noted in the hyperlink. Also URL.

LINK, ADDRESS, URL All similar terms for a WEB PAGE ADDRESS.

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