Part one: Operating Systems: Windows
Many people have no real idea of how their computer, or indeed the internet works. Many people operate on a variety of assumptions which are generally backed up by trusted relatives who also have a vague idea of how things work, but not enough of one to really explain.
In these series of articles, we aim to give you a basic understanding of how your computer works, why some things are absolutely vital to the health of your machine and the different parts that make up your device.
We’re going to begin with operating systems, which are necessary for you to be able to control everything that your computer does. You may sometimes hear these referred to as an OS, which of course is simply an abbreviation, but can be confusing if you’re not familiar with computer ‘jargon’ (of which there is plenty).
Desktop and laptop PCs (or personal computers) generally come pre-loaded with the Windows operating system, whilst Macs use their own version called Mac OS X. However, these are not the only operating systems available, some people use Linux and Ubuntu (which is based on Linux).
In simple terms, an operating system is what makes the hardware contained within your machine work. It’s known as a Graphical User Interface (GUI), which is the term for the collection of icons on your screen which allow you to ask the PC/Mac to perform functions on your behalf.
For the internal and external devices and hardware that your computer uses, the operating system makes them work by using a piece of software called a driver. Drivers tell the OS how to communicate with the hardware they are written for. As an example, you have just bought a nice new printer which comes with a disc that you insert into the machine and install; this tells Windows how to communicate with the printer and makes it work.
Every piece of hardware (such as your video/graphics or sound card) needs a driver in order for the OS to know what it is, what it does and how it should allocate resources to it.
Without going into too much detail about how the OS ‘talks’ to the hardware in your computer (which we will go into later on in this series), let’s have a look at the main functions of an OS.
Microsoft Windows is by far the most popular operating system in the world today, although Mac OS appears to be catching up as the latest generation of Macs have become far more popular than in previous years.
The latest version of Windows, 8, has just been released for review by the public but is not yet commercially available, although it’s expected to be by the end of the year. This has touchscreen capabilities in order for Microsoft to begin to compete in the tablet computer (such as iPad) market.
Before this came Windows 7, which many of you probably use now, Windows Vista, Windows XP, Windows 2000, Windows Millennium (thought by many to be the worst version ever to be produced), Windows 98, 95 and 3.11. All of them perform the same basic tasks.
- Processor management
- Memory management
- Device management
- Storage management
- Application interface
- User interface
The Windows operating system is stored on your computer’s hard drive and many people carry the misconception that if their OS becomes corrupted through, say, a virus, then their computer is rendered unusable as it may crash often, or you may find the computer is unable to launch applications or perform basic tasks.
It’s for this reason that many people treat computers as somewhat throwaway items as they don’t understand that the OS is simply what makes you able to communicate with the machine in the first place. Despite many instances of ‘scareware’ or emails that warn you that certain viruses can harm your computer’s hardware, this really isn’t the case.
Damage to your PC’s OS can always be fixed, it’s simply a piece of software, it has no mechanical element that can actually break but sometimes, it can become corrupt and unable to do its job properly. The solution is a simple one, a reinstallation of Windows – this will lead to a loss of data such as Word documents and photos if you don’t have them backed up, but it will also result in your machine working perfectly again.
Basically, an operating system is the backbone of your computer; it manages both the hardware and the software and organises files so that the system can run at optimal performance.
Windows operating systems require frequent updates to ensure that they continue to run smoothly and it’s advisable never to let anyone install Windows on your computer without a license. By this, we mean a series of characters that are generally attached somewhere to your computer and typed into a box at installation; these tell Microsoft that you have a genuine version and not a pirated version. Pirated versions of Windows are not as common in the UK as they once were, but remain rife in countries such as China. If you use an illegal version of Windows then you run the risk of becoming the target of malware (malicious software, such as viruses, trojans and so forth), as you will be unable to perform Windows updates, which often ‘fix’ security bugs.
Windows has a variety of functions which as a user, you will never need to access; it’s never advisable to go into the Windows or Program Files folders and start deleting things you may see as unnecessary. This can harm Windows and prevent it from functioning properly – every version of Windows has a Control Panel with which you should familiarise yourself with in order to perform functions such as uninstalling unwanted programs.
As Windows is the most attacked operating system in terms of malware, it’s advisable to have an anti-virus program such as AVG, Kaspersky or Norton installed as well as the Windows Defender and Automatic Updates switched on. This gives you a few layers of protection and these should be updated regularly – new viruses are discovered daily so it’s a constant game of catch-up for computer security vendors. Many people who take their machine which has suddenly begun acting up for no apparent reason will find that they have contracted some form of malware.
It’s also necessary to ensure that other, third-party software, such as Java, Adobe, Word and your browser, to name a few, is kept updated so that there are no ‘holes’ for malicious programs to enter.
To sum up, whichever version of Windows you have, this is the graphical interface which allows you to perform functions on your PC. So whether you’re surfing the net, watching streaming video, writing a letter in Word or looking at your holiday pics, none of this would be possible for you if your computer didn’t have an OS installed, it would just be a confusing box full of electronic and mechanical equipment and perhaps a few screens generated by the mainboard which would allow you to enter complicated commands.