What Makes Up Your Computer
Part One: Operating Systems: Windows
Despite the fact that computers are everywhere, it can be surprising that many people rarely have a real idea as to how their computer – as well as the internet – works. Assumptions make up the majority of how people operate when it comes to computers, which are in turn backed up by ‘trusted’ relatives who in reality also have a vague idea as to how computers work. Most of the time, it is not enough of one to really explain.
This series of articles aim to give you, the reader, a basic understanding of how your computer works; we will also explore some of the things that are absolutely vital to the health of, and the parts that make up, your machine.
One of the major cornerstones of every computer is one on which we will start: the operating system, often referred to as an ‘OS’. What the operating system does is essentially, control every aspect of what makes your PC work.
When a desktop or laptop PC (personal computers) are bought from a store, they generally come pre-loaded with the Microsoft Windows (current version: Windows 7) operating system; whilst Apple Macintosh computers use their own Mac operating systems (Mac OS X). Though Windows and Mac OS are the two more popular operating systems around, there are others available, such as Linux and Ubuntu.
In a nutshell, an operating system is the glue that holds all of the hardware and software in your computer together and enables them to do their job. The Graphical User Interface (GUI) is what you see on your screen, made up of a desktop and a collection of icons (each one representing a difference piece of installed software) and these allow your PC/Mac to perform functions on your behalf.
A certain piece of important software, called a Driver, is what the operating system talks to in order to make each individual piece of hardware and external device work with your computer. The computer itself is a self-contained ecosystem of technology that has to talk with external devices in order to work well together and co-operate. An example would be if you were to install a digital camera or a webcam, the device usually comes with an installation disk that installs the driver onto your computer and allows both devices to talk to each other, and in turn make the device work.
Every piece of internal hardware (such as graphics/video and sound cards) all need drivers in order for the OS to recognize what they are, what they do and what resources to allocate in order to make them work.
Later in the series, we will talk about how the OS talks with hardware in your computer, but in this article we will go into more detail about the key mechanics of an operating system.
The most popular operating system on the market is Microsoft’s operating system Windows. Having been in this position for over two decades, Mac OS seems to be catching up, as the latest generation of Macintosh computers have become far more popular than before.
Windows 8, the latest version, has been released for review by the public, but has not yet been released for commercial consumption – though, it is slated for release by the end of the year. The operating system’s touch-screen capabilities have ensured Microsoft is able to compete in the tablet computer market – a rival against the incredibly popular Apple iPad.
The Windows operating system has gone through many, many iterations in the past, from Windows 3.11 right at the beginning, into Windows 95, 98, Millennium, 2000, XP, Vista and the newest commercially available version, Windows 7. Each version improved upon the last in numerous ways, but they all perform the same tasks:
- Processor management
- Memory management
- Device management
- Storage management
- Application interface
- User interface
There is a common misconception when it comes to computer operating systems. Though the Windows operating system is stored on your computer’s hard drive, it’s often believed that if their OS becomes corrupted by, for instance, a virus, then their computer is made unusable if it crashes often, or may find that it is unable to launch applications or perform basic tasks.
Unfortunately, it is for this reason that many people seem to treat computers as throw-away items, because they don’t understand that the OS is simply what makes you able to talk with the machine. While you may get ‘scareware’ or e-mails that warn you that certain viruses can harm your computer’s hardware, it really isn’t the case.
One of the most robust features of any PC’s OS is that it can always be fixed; it is, after all, simply a piece of software. It has no mechanical element that can actually break, but it instead can become corrupt and unable to do its job properly. A solution to any corruption of the OS is to simply reinstall Windows – which will, of course, lead to a loss of data, such as music, photos and Word documents if they haven’t been backed up. The result of which will lead to your computer working perfectly again.
The backbone of your computer, the operating system manages both the hardware and the software, as well as organizes files so that the system can run at optimal performance.
To ensure that it does, Windows operating system requires frequent updates and it’s advisable to never let anyone install Windows on your computer without a license. What this means is that there is a series of characters that are generally attached somewhere to your computer and typed into a box at installation, which tells Microsoft that your copy of Windows is a genuine version and not pirated. Versions of pirated Windows are not common in the US, but remain rife in countries such as China. If an illegal version of Windows is installed, then due to the lack of security updates from Microsoft, you will run a very real of contracting various kinds of malware, which literally means malicious software and refers to damaging software such as viruses and trojans.
While Windows OS is incredibly user-friendly and easy to use, there are a variety of functions that you will never, ever need to access. Deep within the hard drive are various Windows files and Program Files that, if you go into and start deleting things that you may think are unnecessary, it will cause your OS harm and prevent it from functioning normally. Every version of Windows has a Control Panel which controls various functions within the OS, such as uninstalling unwanted programs and personalizing the GUI.
Due to the fact that Windows is the most attacked OS by malware, it is highly advisable to install anti-virus software, such as AVG or Kaspersky, in conjunction with Windows Defender and Automatic Updates both turned on. These walls of defense add a few layers of protection – if they are regularly updated – as there are new viruses discovered daily. If your computer starts behaving like it shouldn’t and not working as well as it has been, then it may have contracted some form of malware.
OS protection and anti-virus software aren’t the only things to keep updated to ensure that no malware gets through, but also other third-party software, such as Adobe, Java, Word and your web browser – to name but a few – are all kept updated so that there are no holes in the protection for viruses or trojans to get through.
In summary, whichever version of Windows you have, what you are looking at right now on your screen is the Graphical User Interface, which is what you will use to control the many, many functions of the OS. Whether you’re streaming video, surfing the net, writing a letter or looking at your favorite photos, none of those things would be possible if it wasn’t for the operating system installed on your computer.