Merriam-Webster defines a computer as “a programmable usually electronic device that can store, retrieve, and process data.“1Merriam-Webster However, up until the 1970s, jobs were still looking for people to be computers.2 BBC News Therefore a more complete definition would read: something or someone that computes data.
So then what is a modern computer? It sounds like a no brainer, we use them every day; however, there is a lot of terminology used and much of it is used incorrectly. Let’s take a look at some of the big terms: PC, processor, and operating system.
PC or Computer?
Back in 1975, all computers were under one name: Personal Computer, PC. In those simpler times Apple’s Mac systems fit into the description and were, by definition, a PC. They were after all, a personal computer.
However, all this changed in 1981 when IBM released the “IBM PC.” From this point on, only computers compatible with the IBM system were considered to be a PC. Since Macs were not compatible, they lost their PC status.
Generally today, only Windows and Linux machines are considered to be PCs. The ‘Get a Mac’ campaign from 2006 – 2009 by Apple made it clear Mac was not part of the PC world. However, despite the differences between PC and Mac, both use the same hardware to accomplish the same job.
Computer or Processor?
Many times the term processor is used interchangeably with computer; however, this would be technically incorrect, and since this a technical article, wrong. A processor or CPU (Central Processing Unit) is inside of the case and does all of the processing, or “thinking,” for the machine. The processor takes in all of the data from various components and user input and produces a result.
A computer generally comes in two major types: desktop and laptop. There are others, but these are the most common. The laptop is exactly what it sounds like: it’s small, portable, and you can use it on your lap.
Because of their small compact size, they are great for travel and general use. The laptop is the most common type of computer today, even though it did not come to market until 1981, a full 6 years after the desktop, and did not hit popularity until the 90s. 3IDC
The desktop computer is your more “traditional” computer and sits on the desk or floor. Typically depicted sitting next to an external monitor, desktop computers have become known for their tall and narrow design. While generally more powerful and larger than it’s laptop counterpart, the price is typically lower due to less constraints on space inside the case.
Windows, Mac & Linux
The Operating System, OS, is the main workhorse of any computer and it ties all of the hardware and software together into one neat package. According to GlobalStats almost 75% of personal computers run the Microsoft Windows OS as of February 2019.
Apple’s OSX comes in at 13% and Linux with only 1.5%. Various other operating systems make up the remaining 10.5%. While all perform the same task, they look very – and function very – differently.
The Building Blocks
Every computer needs a basic list of components to work no matter what OS or manufacturer.
- Memory (RAM)
- Storage (HDD, SSD)
- Input (Keyboard, mouse, buttons, etc)
- Power Supply Unit
Once collected, a basic computer can be built with these parts. There are definitely other components that can be added to make the user experience better, but they are not necessary.
So What is a Computer?
A modern computer is an electronic device used to input, update, delete, and read electronic data. Various hardware components work with the operating system, no matter the type, to create a user experience for interacting with the digital world.