Computing devices have become commonplace in almost every business and home in the developed world. Children are learning about computer technology as early as middle school as their usage is becoming ubiquitous. Designers and engineers have created an enjoyable end-user experience that focuses strongly on user interface and ease of access, but important insights can be learned from understanding how a computer processes information. Computers contain hundreds of parts, but the most important to understand are input, processing devices, output, and memory devices.
Input devices are user-controlled hardware that sends data to the computer to be processed. These devices are sometimes classed as the "periphery" of a computer because they are not a central component needed to make the system work. Input is the first step in an “input-output” processing loop which begins and ends with the user. Examples of such devices include a keyboard, mouse, gaming controller, or scanner. All of this hardware can be physically manipulated by the user and may have their data sent for processing.
After data is sent from input devices and transmitted through cables, it is brought to a processing unit. Most data to information translation is done inside a computer's central processing unit (CPU). A CPU is found in every computer and is made up of various smaller parts. The control unit is the part that controls the flow of data in and out of the CPU. An arithmetic/logic unit (ALU) is a vital part of the CPU that executes mathematical equations (i.e., adding, subtracting, and multiplying) as well as logical operations (i.e., comparing two integers or characters). These two operations are fundamental to processing as most computer programs are based on logic and arithmetic. Therefore, understanding these components is vital in comprehending the four steps in processing.
The final step in this input-output loop is output devices. Output refers to the hardware that receives the resulting data and converts it into something that the user can interpret. The product of output devices can be visual (monitors), auditory (speakers), or functional (printers).
This cycle of data processing could not exist without some form of computer memory. Memory, or storage, in computing is classified as primary or secondary. Primary storage usually refers to random access memory (RAM) which is the main storage component of the computer. RAM gives different applications and programs a place to store data that the CPU can quickly access. The capacity of RAM correlates directly with computer performance as more of this storage allows for quicker processing of applications. It is important to understand that for efficiency purposes, RAM only contains memory on applications currently being used and erases it once the application is closed or the computer is shut down. Secondary memory is used for the long-term storage of information. Examples of such memory devices include flash drives, hard disk drives, and optical disks. While this method of storing data can contain a substantial amount of information, it is slower than primary memory because it needs to be copied before the CPU can access it.
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