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Hardware: Some Definitions and Descriptions

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The following are some definitions that may be useful when you are dealing with potential technology hardware acquisitions:



Central Processing Unit (CPU)

Many computer users mistakenly refer to the whole computer set as the CPU.  In reality, the CPU itself is only about 1.5 inches square.  The CPU does exactly what it stands for. It is the control unit that processes all of the instructions for the computer (though in most of the computers today, video cards, sound cards and other media also help process instructions). 


It is considered the "brain" of the computer.  It does all the thinking.  So, would you like to have a fast or slow brain?  Obviously, the answer to this question makes the CPU the most important part of the computer.  The speed here is the most significant. The processor's (CPU's) speed is given in a MHz (Megahertz, which is the primary measure of a CPU’s speed.  One Megahertz is one million clock cycles per second) or GHz rating. 3 GHz is roughly 3,000 MHz.



The hard drive is the primary communication device to the rest of the computer.  It serves as the storage of most of a computer's information including the operating system and all of the software programs you have.  Having a fast CPU is not of much use if you have a slow hard drive.  The reason for this is because the CPU will just spend time waiting for information from the hard drive. During this time, the CPU is just basically doing nothing until information from the hard drive is delivered.


The hard drive also serves as the storage of all the data or information on your computer - your text documents, pictures, programs, etc.  If something goes wrong with your hard drive, there is a great possibility that all your data or information could be lost forever. Nowadays, hard drives have become much more reliable, but hard drives are still one of the components most likely to fail because they are one of the few components with moving parts.



All programs, instructions, and data must be stored in the computer system memory before they can be used.  The computer will hold recently used programs, instructions, and data in memory if there is enough room. This provides quick access (much faster than hard drives) to information.  The more memory you have, the more information you will have fast access to and the better your computer will perform.


Memory can be likened to the short-term memory in your brain. It holds your most recent information for quick access. Just as you want to accurately remember this information in your head, you want your computer's memory to have the correct information as well, or problems will definitely arise. Having bad memory is one of the more common causes of computer crashes, and also the most difficult problem to diagnose and therefore prevent. Because of this, making sure you get good RAM (i.e, component that holds recently accessed data for the CPU to have quick access to and it is much faster than reading from a hard drive, so having a lot of RAM makes it quick to retrieve recently accessed files, applications, and other data) the first time around is very important.



Monitors are the devices that display what is going on in your computer.  They can run at various resolutions and refresh rates.  640x480 is the default resolution for the Windows operating systems (this is a low resolution where objects appear large and blocky).  640x480 just means that 640 pixels are fit across the top of your monitor and 480 up and down. Most users prefer higher resolutions such as 800x600 or 1024x768 (which can be used for good video or presentation graphics) all the way up to 1600x1200 (and higher for graphics professionals).

The higher resolutions make objects smaller, but clearer (because more pixels are fit in the screen). You can fit more objects on a screen when it is in a higher resolution.  Larger monitors are better for running at the higher resolutions.  If you run a high resolution on a small monitor, the text may be hard to read because of its small size, despite the clarity.

The refresh rate refers to how fast the monitor can refresh or redraw the images on the screen. The faster it can do this, the smoother your picture will be and the less "flicker" you will see. 


The printer is the device that outputs data from your computer on a piece of paper.  There are many different types of printers (most common are laser and inkjet), and many printers are better than others for different tasks (printing photographs, clear text, etc.).  Laser printers aren't necessarily better quality than inkjets anymore (and they tend to also be more expensive), although they once were.  If you want to be able to print in color, inkjet printers are the best option for the cost conscious too.  Some of today's "office inkjet" printers also have other functions including scanning, faxing, copying, etc.  While the scan and copy quality usually aren't that great, the quality is generally good enough for most office / home office situations.   Some of the printer brands that you can consider are HP, Epson and Canon.  Lower priced models include Columbia and Lexmark.



CD-ROM drives have become necessary today for most programs. A single CD can store up to 700 MB of data. All of today's CD-ROM drives are sufficiently fast.  The speed can play a big role if you do a lot of CD burning at high speeds or some audio extraction from audio CDs (i.e. converting CDs to MP3s).

CD-R/RW (which stands for Recordable / ReWritable) drives (a.k.a burners, writers) allow a user to create their own CDs of audio and/or data.  These drives are great for backup purposes (backup your computer's hard drive or backup your purchased CDs) and for creating your own audio CD compilations (not to mention other things like multimedia presentations, home videos, etc.).


DVD-ROM drives can store up to 4 GB of data or about 6 times the size of a regular CD.  DVDs look about the same and are the same size as a CD-ROM. DVD drives can also read CD-ROM drives, so you don't usually need a separate CD-ROM drive.  DVD drives have become more affordable nowadays that more people tend to purchase a DVD-ROM drive instead of a CD-ROM drive and a separate DVD-ROM drive.  Some companies even make CD burner drives that will also read DVDs (all in one).  The DVD's most practical use is, of course, movies. The DVD format allows for much higher resolution digital recording that looks much clearer than VCR recordings.


DVD recordable drives are available in a couple of different formats - DVD-R or DVD+R with a RW version of each. These are slightly different discs and drives (although some drives support writing to both formats).  One is not much better than the other, so what really will spell the difference is the price of the media (as well as the availability of the media). 

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