When a computer is turned on it searches for instructions in its memory. These instructions tell the computer how to start up. Usually, one of the first sets of these instructions is a special program called the operating system, which is the software that makes the computer work. It prompts the user (or other machines) for input and commands, reports the results of these commands and other operations, stores and manages data, and controls the sequence of the software and hardware actions. When the user requests that a program run, the operating system loads the program in the computer’s memory and runs the program. Popular operating systems, such as Microsoft Windows and the Macintosh system (Mac OS), have graphical user interfaces (GUIs)-that use tiny pictures, or icons, to represent various files and commands. To access these files or commands, the user clicks the mouse on the icon or presses a combination of keys on the keyboard. Some operating systems allow the user to carry out these tasks via voice, touch, or other input methods.
To process information electronically, data are stored in a computer in the form of binary digits, or bits, each having two possible representations (0 or 1). If a second bit is added to a single bit of information, the number of representations is doubled, resulting in four possible combinations: 00, 01, 10, or 11. A third bit added to this two-bit representation again doubles the number of combinations, resulting in eight possibilities: 000, 001, 010, 011, 100, 101, 110, or 111. Each time a bit is added, the number of possible patterns is doubled. Eight bits is called a byte; a byte has 256 possible combinations of 0s and 1s.
A byte is a useful quantity in which to store information because it provides enough possible patterns to represent the entire alphabet, in lower and upper cases, as well as numeric digits, punctuation marks, and several character-sized graphics symbols, including non-English characters such as π. A byte also can be interpreted as a pattern that represents a number between 0 and 255. A kilobyte-1,024 bytes-can store about 1,000 characters; a megabyte can store about 1 million characters; a gigabyte can store about 1 billion characters; and a terabyte can store about 1 trillion characters. Computer programmers usually decide how a given byte should be interpreted, that is, as a single character, a character within a string of text, a single number, or part of a larger number. Numbers can represent anything from chemical bonds to dollar figures to colors to sounds.
The physical memory of a computer is either random access memory (RAM), which can be read or changed by the user or computer, or read-only memory (ROM), which can be read by the computer but not altered in any way. One way to store memory is within the circuitry of the computer, usually in tiny computer chips that hold millions of bytes of information. The memory within these computer chips is RAM. Memory also can be stored outside the circuitry of the computer on external storage devices, such as magnetic floppy disks, which can store about 2 megabytes of information; hard drives, which can store gigabytes of information; compact discs (CDs), which can store up to 680 megabytes of information; and digital video discs (DVDs), which can store 8.5 gigabytes of information. A single CD can store nearly as much information as several hundred floppy disks, and some DVDs can hold more than 12 times as much data as a CD.
The bus enables the components in a computer, such as the CPU and the memory circuits, to communicate as program instructions are being carried out. The bus is usually a flat cable with numerous parallel wires. Each wire can carry one bit, so the bus can transmit many bits along the cable at the same time. . For example, a 16-bit bus, with 16 parallel wires, allows the simultaneous transmission of 16 bits (2 bytes) of information from one component to another. Early computer designs utilized a single or very few buses. Modern designs typically use many buses, some of them specialized to carry particular forms of data, such as graphics.
Input devices, such as a keyboard or mouse, permit the computer user to communicate with the computer. Other input devices include a joystick, a rodlike device often used by people who play computer games; a scanner, which converts images such as photographs into digital images that the computer can manipulate; a touch panel, which senses the placement of a user’s finger and can be used to execute commands or access files; and a microphone, used to input sounds such as the human voice which can activate computer commands in conjunction with voice recognition software. “Tablet” computers are being developed that will allow users to interact with their screens using a penlike device.