Basic Computer Terms

Basic Terms you need to know. Computer instructions will use these terms repeatedly, and if you don't know them, you will be confused! This reference should help you know what they are talking about. Look through the list when you need a definition, some items are listed together for Mac and PC, so you may not find it under the word you are used to.

P.S. We tried to make our glossary as entertaining as possible, so that you won't get bored to death whilst trying to find out what the heck SCSI means. So, even if you know this stuff, you might get some laughs.

ADB Port - Apple Desktop Bus. Mac keyboard or mouse port. New Macs use USB.

Alias, (Mac) or Shortcut (Windows) - An icon that opens a file, but is not the file. You make an alias or shortcut for a file or program, and leave the original where it is, but put the alias or shortcut in a convenient place so you can get at it easily (You can think of it as being like a stargate, if you like). Deleting original does not delete shortcut, deleting shortcut does not delete the original. Shortcuts have a small arrow in a box in the corner, aliasses have italicized writing.

Apple Menu - Mac - Upper left corner. Looks like an Apple! Bet you couldn't guess that. You can put things into it to access them from any program. Also holds Control Panels, and Desk Accessories.

Application - A program file. Does the work on the file or document.

Applications Menu - Mac - Upper right corner, has an icon of whatever program you are running, or the little computer icon that represents the Finder.

Assistant (Mac) or Wizard (Windows) - A dialog box that is available in different places in different programs, but offers you a step-by-step basic setup on complex documents. Usually the results are hideous, but easy to change!

BIOS - PC Only. Special chip that stores information specific to your computer. This is what tells your computer that it is a computer, and what sort when you first turn it on, and tells it where to look for more information. Some BIOS chips are software upgradeable, some are not. Those that are are called Flashable, or Flash BIOS.

Buttons - You click on them onscreen to activate a command. If one is bordered with a heavy border, or selected with a rectangle around its name, then you can push Enter or Return instead of clicking on it to activate it.

Compatibility - Big word for cooperation. This refers to how well programs work with other programs, how hardware works with software, and how two computers share information.

CD-Rom - Like an audio CD, only it holds electronic information, like files and programs, sounds and images. Handle with care.

Click, Drag, Double-click, Right-click - What you do with the mouse. Clicks select an item. They also activate a button. Double clicks select and then activate a choice. Drags move items. Right clicks (using the right mouse button - PC only) activate context menus, regular left clicks select items from those menus. Control Clicking (Clicking with the mouse when you have the control key pressed) activates Context menus in Mac OS 8 or above.

Clipboard - An electronic holding area for whatever you copy or cut. It holds that item til it is replaced by another item. Pasting does not remove it from the clipboard - it stays until you put something else there by cutting or copying, or until you restart your computer, so you can paste the same item many times.

Close - Puts a file away, or closes a window, like your letter to Aunt Mildred. Also puts away control panels.

CMOS - PC Only. Special type of memory chip, and configuration program that lets you set information about your system, and stores that information by battery power. Can cause problems from not remembering the date, to an inability to start up when the battery dies. Get instructions to replace CMOS battery.

Commands - Instructions that you give to your computer. You have to speak its language, and do it in just the right way.

Control Panel - Mini programs that change the way your computer acts toward you. They offer a range of settings and choices. Rule: Don't mess with them unless you know what you are doing.

Copy - Puts an item from a document onto the clipboard without removing it from the document.

CPU - Central Processing Unit. Basically, the computer part of your computer. Sometimes means just the processor, sometimes refers the the entire box.

Cursor - The arrow, or I-beam or other thing that moves around when you move the mouse or type.

Cut - Removes an item from the document, and places it on the clipboard.

Desktop - The screen you see when you are not working in a program. Cute little pattern, maybe some icons scattered about. You can put your own pictures and patterns here.

Dialog Box - Dialog means conversation. You tell your computer what to do, and it pops up a rectangular box with choices in it to ask you just how you want it done.

Directory - The word for a folder in Unix or DOS platforms.

Document - What a program creates. Where your information is actually stored. This is what you make when you create something on the computer - letter, picture, budget, etc.

Drag and Drop - The name for a technology in Software that lets you select, then move things by clicking and dragging, then dropping the item where you want it moved to.

Drivers - Little pieces of software that your computer uses to talk to an added component, like a printer, modem, CD drive, and some monitors. If the driver is not present, the component won't work. Your computer may not even know the component is plugged in unless the driver is correctly installed.

Edit Menu - Lets you change document contents. Cut, copy, paste are here.

Email - Text based electronic file transfer. Sends only text across an internet connection, address to address. Can convert programs, files, and graphics to text code and send them along for the ride.

External Drive - Any storage device that transfers information to and from your computer from outside the case.

Field - A rectangular box that you can type into, used in dialog boxes, database programs, and on internet forms.

File - Any item stored on your hard drive. Documents and Programs are both file types. Any document you create is stored as a file. Files are pieces of data that have to be opened with a program. Different from Folders, which are just a storage place for files.

File Menu - Most programs have one, lets you manage files, open, save, print are almost always here.

File Type - Programs each label files with a code to identify which program created them. That is how they attach the right program to a file when you open it. Some files can be opened by programs other than their creators, but that ability has to be built into the program. Graphics get complex in this category. PCs do this by attaching a File Extension to the end of the name - .exe, .txt, and so forth. Macs do this by invisibly coding it with a 4 letter code.

File System - The way in which files are stored on a computer.

Finder - Mac - Where you are when you aren't doing anything and are ready to do the next thing. The Finder lets you access your programs and files, and will find the program to match the document you want to open. Get to the Finder by using the Applications Menu, or by clicking on the Desktop.

Firewire - More common on Macs than PCs. The next generation of SCSI: faster and more convenient. Used on higher-end devices like hi-res cameras and camcorders. Looks similar to a USB port, only slightly thicker, and rounded on one end (also, firewire is faster than USB). The Hummer of ports - it's harder to get, more impressive, and higher up on the silicon social scale.

Flash drive - A little hard drive that plugs into a USB port. A quick and convenient way to transfer between just about any computers. The Concorde jet of information transfer.

Floppy Disk - 3 1/2 inch diskette. Holds 1.44 MB of information, or 800k for older disks. Short lifespan, small space, mostly obsolete, but handy for transferring from an older computer. Protect from Dust!

Folder - A place on your computer to store files. Folders are used to organize your files and programs in a logical manner. Folders open a window which shows files. You can usually choose how your folders display the files, either as scattered icons, or as an alphabetical list.

Format - Changing the way a document presents the information in it. Changing margins, type sizes, columns, and all that.

Game port - PC joystick and toy port. Modern systems use USB ports.

Graphics, Images, Scans, Clipart - Graphic means visual - a Picture. Image means the same thing. Scans are pictures that have been converted to a digital format so you can store them on computers and play with them in your programs. Clipart is a collection of images that you buy, or get for free, that you can use in your own documents without paying each time you use them. Check copyright notices carefully on clipart, because restrictions vary.

Graphics Program - Where you put hair back on bald men, take a few pounds off of women, and turn babies into Klingons. Really just any program that lets you open up a picture, change it's looks or format, or that you can make a picture in. Variety of functions is different from program to program, but tools are similar.

Hard Drive - Sits inside your computer and holds your information, programs, etc. Like a great big, electronic closet. Works best if kept organized!

Hardware - The plastic and metal parts of your computer. Some components have software bits etched into them. Hardware and software use this to talk to each other.

Help Files - Accessable from inside a program, indexed files that help you find out how to do things. Help files are available depending on what you are doing. System files are available when you are working with the system software, application files are available from the application you need the information on. Some programs use this feature better than others!

Hierarchal menu - A menu arranged in an order that tells you which files are in which folders.

Icons - Little pictures that represent programs and files. You find them almost everywhere that you can access files or programs.

Internal Component - Any hardware that is inside your computer, most items you have a choice of external or internal. Most computers have very limited room to install internal components.

Keyboard - Not the musical kind. Several varieties, keys do all sorts of things you won't imagine from looking at them.

Launch - Open up a program.

Mail Merge - Combines a database full of addresses with an envelope printing option, or labels, whatever. Prints out letters, or envelopes or labels with different information in each position or on each page. Personalizes form letters.

Memory (RAM) - The kitchen counters or the workbench of the computer. Where it does its work, a moving electronic storage place, goes out when the power goes out. Nothing in memory is permanent till it is saved to the hard disk. Like people. If you want to remember it forever, put a copy in your closet.

Menubar - Runs across the top of the screen. Has cryptic words like "File, Edit, Font," etc. Sometimes has little icons too. Always present on a Mac. Only present inside programs on a PC.

Monitor - The TV part. Screen, the part that little kids like to put peanut-butter finger prints on.

Mouse - Hold up the parts of your computer by the cord. When you get one that faintly resembles what your cat left dead on the steps, that is the one. If you might forget, paint eyes on it.

Multi-Tasking - Using more than one program at the same time. When your computer is doing two things at once it is like a Mother - if she tries to do two things at once, she can, but neither gets done quite as well or quite as fast as if she just did one thing at a time! When you use more than one program at a time, or run two things at once, like typing and printing at the same time, your computer may be slower, or may run in spurts in what you are trying to do. This also causes special concerns for using available memory if you have very little in your computer.

Networking - Connecting two computers, by special cable, or by phone lines, to share resources. Not the same as the internet.

Palettes - Little windows that sit on top of your work, that you can move around. They typically hold tools, colors, and other customization options. Very popular in graphics programs. Not the same thing as a window, palettes are usually 'tied' to a program window. When their main window is inactive (grayed out, or behind another window) they usually disappear.

Parallel port - Standard PC printer port. Can hook Scanners and other things to it too.

Paste - Puts the item on the clipboard into a document.

Peripherals - Devices that hang around your computer, and are attached with a cord, like printers, scanners, etc.

Platform - The operating system you use - Windows, Mac, Unix, OS2, Apple II, DOS are all different platforms. Like people, some are fairly compatible with each other, while others can't even communicate.

PRAM - Perameter RAM. Mac Only. A chip that stores information that your computer uses to keep track of time, date, and some other changeable settings. These are maintained by a battery, which needs to be changed periodically. Can cause problems if battery goes dead, but is simple to replace.

Ports - Connectors in the back of your computer, or in computer parts that let you plug in a cable to connect two pieces.

Properties, Options, Preferences - Settings that you can use to customize your programs or operating system to work like you want it to.

Proprietary - When a manufacturer uses a format that is not a standard, and their stuff won't work with anybody else's stuff - like ink cartriges and printers. This happens with hardware and software both. They do this to force you to buy their product at their prices.

Quit, Exit - Puts away the application, along with the files opened that belong to the application. This command removes the program and files from memory, allowing you to open up other applications more easily. Use it when you are done using the program.

RAM - Random Access Memory. The technical term for the memory in your computer, it works like your computer's backpack. It temporarily holds the things you're using now. The bigger the backpack, the easier you can run large programs, or multiple programs at once. RAM can also be defined as the stuff you always wish you had more of, and never have enough of, and even after you upgrade it, you still want more, because the guy down the street just upgraded to twice as much as you have, and his computer is still faster than yours!

ROM - Read Only Memory. technical name for computer chips that cannot be written over, or for the ROM part of CD-ROM. ROM has a special meaning for Macs, as it is the chip that tells the Mac that it is a Mac, and where to look for the System Folder.

Scanner - Converts photos and drawings into a digital map of the picture. Read up on them before you buy.

SCSI Port - Small Computer Systems Interface. Pronounced Scuzzy. Fast port to hook peripheral devices to. Macs use this more than PC's. Newer Macs use USB or Firewire.

Serial Port - Different for PC and Mac. Round thingy that many printers plug into on a Mac. Rectangular thingy that modems, and only weird printers plug into for PC's. Newer systems use - you guessed it - USB.

Shortcut - See Alias.

Software - The programs that run your computer. Includes Operating System, and Drivers, and other parts that tell your computer and peripherals how to behave.

Spreadsheet - Program that lets you create a budget, make a chart, perform complex mathmatical calculations.

Start Menu - Lets you start tasks. Holds the same items as the Apple Menu, but sometimes calls them different things. Windows only.

System software - The files that your computer uses to do your work, open your programs and all that.

System Tray - Windows - Shows you what is running in the background. Lower right corner of the taskbar.

Taskbar - Windows - Runs along the bottom of the screen in most cases. Has Start menu, boxes for open programs, and the System Tray. Lets you get at what you want to do from many different circumstances.

Toolbar - Runs along under the menubar when you are using a program, has icons for frequently used commands. Sometimes there is one for the program under the menubar, and one for the document under the document titlebar. Not all programs use toolbars.

Upgrade Card - Inserts into a slot inside your computer. Adds nifty features like better graphics, sound, modems, and even some processor upgrades or accelerators. RAM also comes on small cards.

USB port - Universal Serial Bus. Faster than serial, can daisy chain peripheral devices to it. Used to attach all forms of peripherals, from keyboards and mice, to monitors, printers, scanners and digital cameras. Used exclusively by new Macs, and a popular item on newer PCs. The pickup truck of ports, it's a fairly easy to get, and does the majority of the work, as far as ports go.

Version number - How you tell if you have the latest and greatest. A number on software or system software that tells how up to date it is.

Web, net, internet, online - Using a modem to hook up, with an internet service, to communicate with special computers around the world. Can only communicate with a Server (computer set up with a special address), without special software and setup. Different than a network. Different security issues. Requires cooperation between many pieces of software, hardware, and many different computers other than your own to work properly.

Windows - Boxes on your screen that hold different kinds of information. File lists, folder contents, and program work areas are all in windows. The letter you just typed is in a window, with a little close box in the corner - Upper left for Mac, upper right for Windows (the little one with an X on it).

Word Processor - Any program that you can type into and change the way the typing looks. Good ones let you combine text and graphics.

Zip Drive - Like a floppy on steroids. Holds 100 MB or more, slightly more reliable. May be on its way to obsolecense, thanks to flash drives.

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