Introduction to the Concept of the Computer


Understanding computer vocabulary is the main difficulty that potential personal computer buyers face. Unlike buying a TV, a task for which the decision-making criteria are limited, choosing a computer requires choosing each of its components and knowing their characteristics. The purpose of this document is not to make sense of all the computer abbreviations (because each manufacturer has their own technologies) but rather to profile the main components of a computer, explain how they work and outline their main characteristics

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Presentation of the Computer
computer is a set of electronic circuits that allow for data to be manipulated in binary form, i.e. in bits
Types of Computers
Any machine capable of manipulating binary information can be considered a computer. However, the term “computer” is sometimes confused with the term personal computer (PC), which is the type of computer that is most commonly found on the market. And yet there are many other types of computers (the following is not an exhaustive list):
  • Amiga
  • Atari
  • Apple Macintosh
  • Alpha stations
  • SUN stations
  • Silicon Graphics stations
The rest of this document, as generic as it might be, applies particularly to PC type computers. They are also called IBM-compatible computers because IBM is the company that created the first of these computers models and was for a long time (until 1987) the leader in this area, so much so that they controlled the standards, which were copied by other manufacturers.

Insights from experts

What does a Computer Software Engineer do? Could you give me a description of the field?

Computer software engineers apply the principles and techniques of computer science, engineering, and mathematical analysis to the design, development, testing, and evaluation of the software and the systems that enable computers to perform their many applications.

Software engineers are involved in the design and development of many types of software, including software for operating systems and network distribution, and software for compilers (which convert programs for execution on a computer). In programming, or coding, software engineers instruct a computer, line by line, how to perform a desired function. Software engineers must possess strong programming skills, but are often more concerned with developing algorithms and analyzing and solving programming problems than with actually writing code.

Typically software engineers, working in applications or systems development, analyze first the needs of the user. They then design, construct, test, and maintain computer applications software or systems to meet these needs.

Computer Applications Software Engineers 
Computer applications software engineers analyze user needs and design, construct, and maintain general computer applications software or specialized utility programs. These engineers use different programming languages, depending on the purpose of the program. The programming languages most often used are C, C++, and Java, with Fortran and COBOL used less commonly. Some software engineers develop both packaged systems and systems software, or create customized applications.

Computer Systems Software Engineers
Computer systems software engineers coordinate the construction and maintenance of a company’s computer systems and plan their future growth. Working with the company, they coordinate each department’s computer needs – such as ordering, inventory, billing, and payroll recordkeeping – and make suggestions about the appropriate technical direction. The engineers also might set up the company’s intranets, namely the networks that link computers within the organization and ease communication among the various departments.

Systems software engineers work for companies that configure, implement, and install complete computer systems. These engineers may be members of the marketing or sales staff, serving as the primary technical resource for sales workers and customers. They may also be involved with technical support to the company’s customers. Since the selling of complex computer systems often requires substantial customization for the purchaser’s organization, software engineers help to explain the requirements necessary for installing and operating the new system in the purchaser’s computing environment. One of the major responsibilities of systems software engineers is ensuring a proper level of security across the systems they are configuring.

Additional information on software engineering can be found at the Sloan Career Cornerstone Center Webpage of software engineering.

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Make-up of a Computer

A computer is a collection of modular electronic components, i.e. components that can be replaced by other components that may have different characteristics that are capable of running computer programs. Thus, the term “hardware” refers to all the material elements of a computer and “software” refers to the program parts.

The material components of the computer are structured around a main board that is made up of a few integrated circuits and many electronic components such as capacitors, resistors, etc. All these components are fused to the board and are linked by circuit board connections and by a large number of connectors. This board is called the motherboard.

The motherboard is housed in a casing (or frame) that comprises slots for memory peripherals on the front, buttons that allow you to switch the computer on and off, as well as a certain number of indicator lights that allow you to verify the computer’s operating state and the activity of the hard drives. On the back, the casing has openings facing the expansion boards and the I/O interfaces, which are connected to the motherboard.

Finally, the casing houses an electrical power supply (commonly called the power), which is in charge of providing a stable and continuous electrical current to all of the elements that make up the computer. The power supply converts alternating current from the power grid (220 or 110 volts) into a direct voltage of 5 volts for the computer components and 12 volts for some internal peripherals (drives, CD-ROM drives, etc.). How powerful the electrical supply is determines how many peripherals the computer is capable of supplying. The power supply is generally between 200 and 450 Watts.

The “central processing unit” includes the casing and all the elements it contains. The external elements of the central processing unit are called peripherals.

The central processing unit must be connected to a whole set of external peripherals. A computer generally comprises at least the central processing unit, a screen (monitor), a keyboard and a mouse, but it is possible to connect a wide range of peripherals on the I/O interfaces (serial portsparallel portsUSB portsFireWire ports, etc.):

  • a printer
  • a scanner
  • an external sound card
  • an external hard drive external storage peripheral
  • an external storage peripheral
  • a digital camera or video camera
  • PDA
  • etc.

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