Computing Basics I

This is a reprint that originally appeared in my ‘Ask a Geek’ column for the Register-News. This is written for a general audience, and I hope you enjoy it.

Your computer is stupid. Yes, for all the wonderful tricks you can accomplish with it, your computer only understands two things ‘1’ and ‘0’. On and off. Yes or no. Computers at their simplest are binary switches that do a certain thing in response to 1, and another in response to 0. That’s it. There’s your explanation of how a computer works. Everything that you accomplish with a computer is based upon those ones and zeros.

The first part of your computer to use those ones and zeros is the Power On Self Test (POST). When you power on your PC the first thing you usually get is a tiny beep before anything happens most people understand. That beep is your POST completing successfully. It signals that ‘all systems (or pieces) are go’ and the computer can start loading information from the next part.

The Basic Input/Output System (BIOS) is the second phase of your computing experience and may be completely hidden from you. As noted above, your computer is stupid. The BIOS contains simple commands that tell your hard drive, monitor, and everything else connected to the computer how to ‘talk’. You could almost call it a ‘translator’ for making everything communicate.

Once the basics are out of the way, your BIOS points to a ‘bootloader’ that then points to your operating system – Windows, Apples’ OSX, Linux, or even BSD. At this point, most of you will see your operating system’s loading screen showing the Windows or other logo.

From there you will be taken to your graphical user interface (GUI) where most everyone is used to interacting with their PC. This is where you open your email, surf the web, write on the Register-News forum, or perform any other task you need to get done.

When you add a printer to your PC, you must usually install drivers. Drivers are instructions to tell the operating system how to talk to the BIOS so that the printer or other device will do what you ask. So, the path of communication goes – Program > Operating system > Driver > BIOS > Device. I warned you that the computer is stupid, and that long trip to print a report or picture proves it. Four steps to accomplish one task. Still, I think we all can agree that computers make our lives much simpler and easier.

There you have a simple explanation of how your computer talks to itself. There is a lot more ‘behind the scenes’ action, but hopefully this will get you a working understanding of how your computer operates on the inside.