Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Microcomputer Basics

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Microcomputer Basics

Article excerpt

Microcomputer Basics

The last two columns have been devoted to using and customizing PC-Write. I have a few more tips for improving your use of that program, but this month I'd like to present an adaptation of the talk I gave at the Computers in Libraries '90 conference in March in Washington, DC.

The topic was "Microcomputer Basics," and it was given in the track for librarians who came to the conference with little or no experience using computers. The theme covers a lot of ground, and, as I thought about the program, I recalled my initial experiences with personal computers.

My first exposure to a PC came in 1980 when I was a teacher in New Hampshire. The school had a Radio Shack TRS-80 (affectionately known as the "Trash 80") and a Commodore Pet. These machines had 16 kilobytes and 8 kilobytes of RAM, respectively. Neither had disk drives, depending instead on cassette tape for saving and retrieving programs. I don't remember their exact cost, but it was in the vicinity of what we would now pay for an IBM compatible with 640 kilobytes of RAM (forty times that of the Radio Shack), a floppy drive, and a hard disk drive.

As I looked back at my own journey with PCs, I thought about all the things I wished someone had told me somewhere along the line. I think one of the most difficult things to pick up in the beginning is the language. It all seems so mysterious, not unlike the incantations a witch doctor might use. It may be easier for the true beginner than for the user with a little experience, because there are some good books and magazines to get beginners started. It may take awhile to feel comfortable with the machine, but at least the foundation for future learning is being laid.

The next step is harder. There aren't any books or magazines specifically written for the "advanced beginner." The beginning material tends to get boring, but the advanced texts seem to be written in a foreign language. For me this stage was reached when IBM brought out the PS/2. I read all the initial "first look" articles and and in-depth review articles, and I found myself thoroughly confused. I just did not understand all the technical details.

As we discuss computers, keep in mind that no matter what size computer you wish to examine, there are only five basic parts to each. Every computer has an input device, an output device, a storage device, a central processing unit, and memory. These five components do not vary, whether you are looking at a Cray supercomputer or a Commodore 128. From biggest to smallest, all computers build off the same basic structure. The differences revolve around the complexity of the machine. I don't need to point out that programming is more complex and output more sophisticated as you move up the size scale.

Most people will call any computer capable of handling more than a few users at a time a mainframe. In fact, the lines between all types of computers are rapidly becoming blurred. It used to be that a microcomputer was used by one person at a time, a minicomputer was used simultaneously by up to fifty people, and a mainframe took care of numbers larger than that. Now there are superminis handling loads once reserved for mainframes and state-of-the art PCs making a bid to supersede the mini.

Now let's examine a computer.

The Central Processing Unit

In the personal computer, the central processing unit is called a microprocessor. It is the chip that controls the operations of all the computer's devices and its memory. It tells the computer that information is coming in from an input device, usually a keyboard, and it tells an output device, either a monitor or a printer, to expect to receive some instructions. It stores information electronically in the computer's memory and keeps a record of what information is where.

Currently there are two major manufacturers of microprocessors, Intel and Motorola. …

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