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What is a Computer?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated Feb 13, 2015
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We are all familiar with what a computer is in a specific, contemporary sense. Personal computers (PCs) are found in most aspects of daily life, and for some it is hard to even imagine a world without them. But the term means more than simply the Macs and PCs we are familiar with. A computer is, at its most basic, a machine which can take instructions, and perform computations based on those instructions.

It is the ability to take instructions — often known as programs — and execute them, that distinguishes a computer from a mechanical calculator. While both are able to make computations, a calculator responds simply to immediate input. In fact, most modern calculators are actually computers, with a number of pre-installed programs to help aid in complex tasks.

Computers range from the very small to the very large. Some are capable of doing millions of calculations in a single second, while others may take long periods of time to do even the most simple calculations. But theoretically, anything one computer is capable of doing, another will also be able to do. Given the right instructions, and sufficient memory, a computer found in a wristwatch should be able to accomplish anything a supercomputer can — although it might take thousands of years for the wristwatch to complete the operation.

At one time, computers were extremely large, and required enormous amounts of power. This made them useful only for a small amount of tasks — computing trajectories for astronomical or military applications, for example, or code breaking. Over time, with technological advances, they were scaled down and their energy requirements lowered immensely. This allowed the power to be harnessed for a staggering array of uses.

As prevalent as PCs are, they do not nearly begin to scratch the surface of computer use in our world. Interactive devices of all sorts contain their own computers. Cellular telephones, GPS units, portable organizers, ATM machines, gas pumps, and millions of other devices all make use of them to streamline their operations, and to offer features which would be impossible without one.

A computer like this is often referred to as an embedded computer. The embedded type is differentiated from a PC because it is essentially static in its function. While a PC, some cellular telephones, and some personal organizers are able to have new software installed, and make use of a wide range of features, an embedded computer usually has only a few purposes, which are relatively fixed once the device is manufactured.

Embedded systems vary in the amount of change that can happen to them after production. An MP3 player, for example, is an embedded computer, but can have quite a bit of interaction and changes made to it. It may allow the user to alter the colors used, change the clock, update firmware, and change the songs or playlists in memory. One within a traffic light, to take another example, is probably quite fixed. It is set to respond to a few certain programs — time of day, a trigger when a car approaches, and perhaps input from a central database in the case of more advanced systems. These programs are not built for interactivity, and will likely never be changed over the system’s life.

The computer is one of the most powerful innovations in human history. With their use, people are suddenly able to perform a staggering amount of computations at dazzling speeds. Information can be crunched, organized, and displayed in the blink of an eye. As technology continues to advance, the computer will no doubt become even more pervasive — and in many cases, likely even less recognizable.

EasyTechJunkie is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By anon352539 — On Oct 23, 2013

A computer is a nice thing that makes life easier.

By anon316611 — On Jan 29, 2013

I'm glad I came across this article because this computer stuff is all new to me but I'm willing to give it a go. What I have learned and accomplished so far has been great!

By anon295575 — On Oct 07, 2012

Computers are only a waste if you allow them to be. They have allowed me to teach my kids way beyond their grade level and makes working from home possible.

By anon291150 — On Sep 12, 2012

I think that this article is all the info you need to understand a basic computer. The thing I like about it is that it does not go into a lot of details so you do not get confused. A lot of other websites go into so many details that there is not a main point. I like the article a lot because the point is given straight and simple and right away.

By anon290524 — On Sep 10, 2012

Charles Babbage, known as the father of computers, found this very interesting machine in the late 1970's. What the world is waiting for is the complete introduction of Artificial Intelligence and its behavior. How artificial intelligence is going to influence man is a big question in everybody's mind. With such newly introduced technologies, let us hope the artificial intelligence will be the best for mankind.

By anon270724 — On May 23, 2012

I want to know something: how do computers vary from one another?

This is something I want to know, but why are computers so laggy? Mine lags way too much. Is there anything I can do to fix it? No matter how many anti virus things I run, it won't work properly! Help me out. What can I do?

By anon235382 — On Dec 17, 2011

will computers think for themselves or they will have a mind of their own? --Heaven

By anon214687 — On Sep 15, 2011

I completely disagree with anon7338. Email, games, personal social outlets have taken over past times and normal work hours and turned them into productive hours. It helps the imagination and most kids don't know how to copy and paste. A lot of people use computers for research, homework or to gain knowledge. -LilNava

By anon169836 — On Apr 23, 2011

It is your fans that makes the noise, not the CPU.

By computer1 — On Mar 25, 2011

Nice article about computers. Thanks.

By computer1 — On Mar 25, 2011

How to reduce the sound from CPU? It is too noisy in my CPU.

By tejam — On Feb 24, 2011

Computers because of their high speed processing, reliability, display and networking capabilities are very useful. But they can only do softwork like maintaining information, playing movies, visual computer games, songs etc.

By anon137604 — On Dec 28, 2010

I have p3 intel. can i run windows 7 on it without any problem.

By anon135837 — On Dec 20, 2010

On embedded computers: a computer outright is a machine that can process or compute data. An electronic computer is an electronic machine that runs software and accepts user input of data or commands.

You then have machines that are micro processor (uP) controlled by an embedded software. Even with a computer the heart of the machine is the Micro Processor or refereed to the CPU which can be an array of them.

Today's equipment is integrated with uPs that either run from ROM or PROMs. They do not really run software like the PC's or mainframes do. Automated equipment is controlled this way. Some times equipment is run from computers. Cars and trucks have these systems.

In some specialized uses uP are integrated in systems like flight controls that can run specialized software but are not considered computers or PC. The technicians and engineers that work on these systems are not considered as computer people but avionics systems workers. They do employ computer software and hardware engineers to integrate the systems to uP control.

Then you have factory or other automated systems that may interface with computers but the people who maintain or design them are not computer people. --Scottar

By anon127979 — On Nov 18, 2010

A computer is an electronic machine capable of accepting data from an input device, processing through the means of the processor, presenting data as information through output devices,storing through storage memory and retrieving back the store data. it is also a fast machine that is use for every day activity in banks, commerce, government parameters and the public in general.

By anon127884 — On Nov 17, 2010

computers are there to make our work easier. it is not something that we should abuse so please make full use of it.

By anon121382 — On Oct 24, 2010

is there any one who can give me the details of the history of the computer?

By anon101340 — On Aug 02, 2010

A fatal error means the computer is about to amputate your brain (I mean this in a mostly metaphoric sense). Actually it means that software has encountered an error (usually due to user-interference) that it cannot recover from on its own.

Computers cannot replace humankind: we make them. They don't make us.

And, finally, this article did nothing to help me research my assignment, though this website is usually fairly informative. I agree, it is a hard task to speak of computers without getting into the specifics of the many operations they carry out. Oh well, the search continues.

By anon88750 — On Jun 07, 2010

It's a very useful site which gives us information about computers.

By anon84893 — On May 18, 2010

Computers are just some stupid device thing you waste your money on.

By anon83225 — On May 10, 2010

when did the first computers appear?

By anon68518 — On Mar 02, 2010

a computer is a magic 8 ball. you ask, it answers.

By temple22 — On Feb 17, 2010

what are the major advantages and disadvantages of a computer and how does the windows xp help in the computer?

By anon60381 — On Jan 13, 2010

I agree with anon48209: a simple explanation is all we need! A computer is a machine that accepts data, processes it, and then outputs information.

eg. lloeh --process-- hello

(input) (output)

By anon54729 — On Dec 02, 2009

You all sound like you're from the 1300's. If you don't understand what a computer is now in 2009, then go churn some more butter.

By nimer7c — On Nov 09, 2009

I have learned that computers range from the very small to the very large. Some are capable of doing millions of calculations in a single second, while others may take long periods of time to do even the most simple calculations.I also learned that an mp3 player is embedded. Once, computers required large amounts of power to work and were used for code breaking. Computers are like calculators but bigger and better. Cellular telephones, ATM machines, gas pumps and millions of other devices all make use of computers to work and without a computer, making these machines work would be impossible.

By anon51407 — On Nov 05, 2009

A computer is what will replace mankind in the coming years, without a doubt.

By prav04 — On Oct 30, 2009

I learned that computers are something that we really need in our everyday lives. If one computer can do a job, then any other computer in the world can do the same job, though it can take different times for each computer to do it. For example, it can take one computer one second and a different computer maybe even a few years. I also learned that long ago, you needed a lot of energy to use a computer, so you could only use it sometimes. But, these days most people can't live without a computer. Pravnit-7C

By anon50684 — On Oct 30, 2009

I learned that computers use to be really large and uses up massive amounts of energy so they were only used for a small number of tasks like military operations and astronomical purposes. but now they decreased in size, the power need has lowered immensely and this allowed the power of the computer to be harnessed for a staggering array of uses. The computer is one of the most powerful innovations in human history. With the use of computers, people are suddenly able to perform a staggering amount of computations at dazzling speeds.

By manjot7c — On Oct 30, 2009

I learned that a computer is a machine which can take instructions and perform computations based on those instructions. Computers can be small and large. Once, computers required large amounts of power to work and were used for code breaking. Computers are like calculators but bigger and better. Cellular telephones, ATM machines, gas pumps and millions of other devices all make use of computers to work and without a computer making these machines work would be impossible.

By harchet — On Oct 30, 2009

A computer has the ability to take instructions. Some computers can do a 100 calculations in one second others take hours for a simple calculation. But anything one computer is capable of doing, another computer will also be able to do it. At one time, computers were extremely large, and required enormous amounts of power. That is why they weren't really useful but now some people can't live without them.

By anon50681 — On Oct 30, 2009

A computer is a machine that helps get information and learn it too. Computers are something very useful and important to many people. Many things are stored in a computer like: music, games, e-mail,etc. The computer is a technology we use in our daily lives. The computer is made of very small parts. There are many types of computers such as personal and super. Everyone around the world uses a computer. In the end I would like to say computers is something we need in our daily lives.

By anon50676 — On Oct 30, 2009

computers are very handy sources of information. They can be used as calculators, televisions and many more things. Small computers are easy to use.

By anon50675 — On Oct 30, 2009

I know now that even the simplest of objects that do the simplest of jobs like calculators and digital watches are computers. I understand that a computer takes instructions and does the job. I did not know that computers used to be really huge and took a lot of power. Even a gasoline pump is operated by a computer. I see that computers have made the world an easier place, but if you do not handle them with care, they could be hazardous to a child's health.

Anmol S Sangha 7C

By anon50674 — On Oct 30, 2009

Computers are really helpful. Most people use them today. There are many electronics and other technologies that have come from computers including: Ipods, MP3's, and video games like the PlayStation 3. Computers are great!

By gunwantk — On Oct 30, 2009

Computer is an electronic device that processess your information.

By anon49846 — On Oct 23, 2009

A computer is a device that takes information and data and then outputs it and stores it.

By anon48209 — On Oct 10, 2009

I am befuddled. How can we relate this simple definition of a computer, i.e a machine that accepts information, processes it and then gives/stores results: to all the uses that computers are put to. I don't understand it. :(

By anon47721 — On Oct 06, 2009

thanks that helped a lot. :)

By anon46734 — On Sep 28, 2009

you're good.

By anon46498 — On Sep 26, 2009

what is error code 0000009?

By anon46497 — On Sep 26, 2009

what is error code 0000008?

By anon46419 — On Sep 25, 2009

computers can be either good or bad if not harmful, depending on the usage.

By anon46316 — On Sep 24, 2009

Nice stuff man!

By anon43456 — On Aug 28, 2009

what do you mean by DNS?

By anon38889 — On Jul 29, 2009

are computers healthy?

By anon38015 — On Jul 23, 2009

Why do we use computers?

By anon34513 — On Jun 23, 2009

How do you know which card to buy? I will be using it mainly to log onto the golf channel's website and to process credit cards. My computer model is the Averatec 3200.

By anon25280 — On Jan 26, 2009

where i can find the cookie, my mozilla internet browser always crashes. thnx

By anon21870 — On Nov 23, 2008

a very good description....but as a teacher, I cannot explain in that manner, they would not understand such "big words." therefore, I would say that: A computer is a device that takes information(DATA), does something with it called processing and gives output/storage.

A modern computer has two(2) components. They are called Hardware & Software.

Hardware: All the physics parts of the computer; example:Monitor, C.P.U., Keyboard, Mouse.

Software: The instructions that run a computer; example:Windows XP, Word, Lotus notes.

Is it good? I certainly hope so......:)

By theni — On May 28, 2008

what is a fatal error?

By theni — On May 28, 2008

we use computers in order to do a lot of work in shorter time, because computers can do millions of work in shorter time.

By theni — On May 28, 2008

computer is a device capable of interpreting, executing program commands.

By anon13327 — On May 24, 2008

computers been around a long time, most computers process data faster then older machines, computers are interesting machines...

and the history goes on....

By anon12980 — On May 17, 2008

Why do we use computers?

By anon12802 — On May 14, 2008

what is error code 7?

By anon7338 — On Jan 24, 2008

Computers and mainly the internet have become a vast waste of time and resources. Email, games, personal social outlets have taken over past times and normal work hours and turned them into non productive hours. The worst part is how it has turned kids into copy/paste zombies without imagination.

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