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The Non-Expert

Computers

Experts answer what they know. The Non-Expert answers anything. This week we explain what’s inside a computer and how it works, how you can determine if you need a laptop model or a desktop, and the true difference between PCs and Macs.

Have a question? Need some advice? Ignored by everyone else? Send us your questions via email. The Non-Expert handles all subjects and is updated on Fridays, and is written by a member of The Morning News staff.

 

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Question: I’m in the market to buy a new computer. Any advice on what I should get? —Robert F.

Answer: The world of computers is so futuristic you can hardly believe it’s here. Computers make our everyday lives easier in a thousand ways, especially when we want to surf the internet or send email. Before computers, these things were practically impossible. Now they are merely no fun anymore.

Why? Because your computer is too slow or too small or too old or smells like skin oil. Fantastic amazing new computers come out so frequently now—so often, in fact, it would take a computer to keep track of them all—you may as well plan to buy a new one every six weeks instead of spending the same money on something more worthwhile, like nine-pocket designer jeans.

It’s no lie: Computers are expensive. But either buy one now, or spend the rest of your life elbowing Nigerian identity thieves off the free workstations at the library. Which is cheaper? The brand-new computer, or your ransom out of Lagos? You’re right: Lagos. But you wanted a computer, didn’t you?



The BASICs

What is a computer system, exactly? Well, there’s the keyboard (a typewriter, without the ribbon), the monitor (a television that gets none of the good stations), and the CPU. The CP-who? That’s right: the CPU, or “Central Processing Unit.” That’s the other part of the computer, the one under your dining-room table, the beige thing, you know. But what’s really contained in that CPU, generally speaking, is the hard drive, memory, the microprocessor, and possibly a herd of ants.



The Hard Drive

You’ll be storing lots of things inside your computer—word-processing documents, digital photos, mp3s (which we understand are completely illegal), ex-girlfriends’ social security numbers—and you’ll want to make sure you have ample room for all that precious data. Your hard drive is where all of that will live. In simple terms, a hard drive is no more than a digital cargo hold that, for most of us, sits unseen inside the computer and houses your digital life with a quiet whirring sound.

In complex terms it’s the very same thing, but can be submissible as courtroom evidence against you.



Memory

Now that you’ve got all this stuff on the hard drive, how do you get to it? Can you simply crack open your hard drive and take a look? You can, but experience tells us you will not see all your photos or emails or spreadsheets, because they are way too tiny.

You need RAM, or “Random Access Memory.” RAM is a lot like the tiny muscles in your friend Bennie’s brain, the ones allowing him to instantly recall who played backup ukulele on that one CSNY song, or what the color blue meant to the Mayans. That’s right: RAM is totally mystical and entirely unknowable, yet not very expensive. Thus, you should buy a lot of it. Though not from Bennie.



The Microprocessor

So you’ve got digital information on your hard drive and the RAM enabling you to get to it. Now what’s making this machine really pump?

Well, there’s a tiny engine inside, called a microprocessor. Its role is to shoot little sparks around inside that retrieve and send data and command the computer to process things.

That’s all well and good, but how do you choose which processor? Well, you select it based on processor speed, which is measured in hertz, and which ultimately means zip because every few years the people who build processors get together and start making up new terminology.

—”Oh yeah? Well this bad boy can do 700 mega-hertz…”

—”Yeah? Yeah? Because I’ve got a 1.8 giga-hertz here… eat that!”

—”Buddy, I’ve got two words and six syllables for your measly ass: pentillamondo-hertz.”

See? These words aren’t even real…



Herd of Ants

Because ants can eat your circuitry it’s worthwhile to give your computer a good shake every few weeks to make sure none on them are munching on your Justin Timberlake vidcaps.

When you do that, if anything labeled “Intel” falls out, it may be time to call a professional. Or an exterminator.
 

Make Things Happen With Software

Software are the programs that you install on your computer to make it do things. At one point—in the computer dark ages—this was relegated to shoot-em-up games and accounting software for balancing your checkbook. Now, however, the realm of applications has grown to include shoot-em-up games with exploding drug-dealer heads, and checkbook-balancing programs with nifty pie charts.

And Photoshop too.
 

Laptop or Desktop?

Say you want to take your computer to the park or coffee shop or your nephew’s bar mitzvah—where are you going to put the desk? Welcome to mobile computing, where you can have all the processing power you would find in a standard-sized computer (read: about the size and shape of a monkey holding a brick) stuffed inside a “notebook” computer (read: about the size and shape of a notebook).

Notebook computers are especially useful for those computer users who want to tote their computer from the desk to the couch, then back, then maybe head to the kitchen for a snack. Desktop computers are good for anyone in solitary.
 

Mac vs. PC

We’ve all heard the arguments over which is better: the Macintosh, built by Apple Computer, or the standard-issue, hardworking PC, built by IBM, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and that guy who sells weed out of your garage. How to choose? Let’s have a look at the histories of these two popular breeds of computer.

The first Apple computer was built in 1975 or 1976, by Steve Wozniak or Steve Jobs, while listening to the Bay City Rollers or the Steve Miller Band. The details are murky, the Steves are many, but the reason for all that tinkering could not have been clearer: It would be a killer way to score chicks.

The PC was invented for the very same reason, but its various inventors got really into their hardware and installed a whole lot more power. They wanted to build a computer that could do more calculations, and could perform multiple functions more rapidly. But it was at that very moment—when computer inventors became more interested in their computers than sex—that the “computer geek” (or “nerd,” for short) was born.

So…that choice is yours, really.
 

biopic

Andrew Womack is a founding editor of The Morning News. He is always working on the next installment of the Albums of the Year series at TMN. More by Andrew Womack