PCs for Dummies® Windows 7®

Table of Contents


What’s New in This Edition?

Where to Start

Conventions Used in This Book

What You Don’t Need to Read

Foolish Assumptions

normals Used in This Book

Getting in Touch with the Author

Where to Go from Here

Part I: Hello, PC!

Chapter 1: Your Computer Won’t Explode

Clear Computer Concepts




Hardware and Software

The computer’s operating system

Other software

The stuff you make (files)

Boring PC History

An Important Thing to Remember

Chapter 2: Your Basic PC Tour

The Mundane PC

The Console Tour

There is no typical console

Major points of interest on the console, front

Stuff found on the console’s backside

The I/O panel

Helpful hints, hieroglyphics, and hues

Chapter 3: Computer Assembly

Unpack the Boxes

Set Up the Console First

A General Guide to Plugging Things into the Console


IEEE, 1394, FireWire

Gamepads, controllers, joysticks

Keyboard and mouse






Wireless gizmos

It Must Have Power

The mighty power strip

The UPS power solution

Using the UPS (a short play)

Chapter 4: On and Off

Turn On Your PC

Windows, Ahoy!

Turn the Computer Off

Log yourself off

Lock the computer

Switch users

Sleep mode


Restart Windows

Turn the darn thing off

Should You Leave the Computer On All the Time?

“I want to leave my computer off all the time”

“I want to leave my computer on all the time”

Chapter 5: The Windows Tour

Windows and Its Gooey, Glorious Graphical Interface

The desktop

The taskbar

The Start button and Start menu

The notification area

The Control Panel

Where Your Stuff Goes

Windows Tries to Help You

Part II: The Nerd’s-Eye View

Chapter 6: Deep Inside the Console

Console Guts

Looking under the hood

Going inside the console (not recommended)

The Mother of All Boards

The Processor Rules

What does the processor do?

Name that processor!

Processor muscle and speed

Which processor lives in your PC?

Expansion Slots

Your Computer Is Also a Timepiece

Viewing the date and time

Setting the clock

Using the Internet to set the clock

About the PC’s Battery

The Chipset

The Source of PC Power

Chapter 7: Connect This to That

It’s a Port

USB, a Most Versatile Port

Playing with USB cables

Connecting a USB device

Using USB-powered gizmos

Removing a USB device

Expanding the USB universe with hubs

The IEEE or 1394 or FireWire Port

Legacy Ports

Chapter 8: PC Memory

What Is Computer Memory?

Delicious Chocolate Memory Chips

Measuring Memory One Byte at a Time

Memory Q&A

“How much memory is in my PC right now?”

“Do I have enough memory?”

“Does my PC have enough memory?”

“Can I test whether my PC has enough memory?”

“Can I add memory to my PC?”

“Will the computer ever run out of memory?”

“What is virtual memory?”

“What is video memory?”

“What are kibi, mebi, and gibi?”

Chapter 9: The Mass Storage System

What Is Mass Storage?

Storage media roundup

Mass storage technical drivel

The Hard Disk Drive

The Optical Drive

Observe the optical drive

The speed rating (the X number)

All about optical discs

Put the disc into the drive

Eject the disc

Media Cards and Flash Drives

The media card reader

Media card roundup

Insert a media card or thumb drive

Eject a media card or thumb drive

When the media card is canceled

External Storage

Adding external storage

Removing external storage

Permanent Storage ABCs

Describing and naming storage devices

Assigning storage devices a drive letter

Chapter 10: The PC’s Display

The PC’s Display System

The monitor

The display adapter

Merry Monitor Mayhem

The physical description

Adjust the monitor’s display

The second monitor

Windows Controls What You See

Setting display size (resolution)

Going for a new look

Saving the screen

Chapter 11: Input This!

Meet Mr. Keyboard

The keyboard connection

A typical PC keyboard

Modifier keys

Keys that are also locks

Useful-key tour

Weird-key tour

Keys for doing math

Control the Keyboard in Windows

Say Hello to the Mouse

Connecting the mouse

Basic mouse parts

Other mouse species

Mouse Maneuvers

Control the Mouse in Windows

Making the pointer easier to find

Fixing the double-click

Using the mouse left-handed

The Fun Input Gizmos

Chapter 12: P Is for Printer

The Printer, the Paper, the Document Maker

Types of computer printers

The basic printer tour

The printer’s control panel

The printer drinks ink

The printer eats paper

Types of paper

Printer Setup

Connecting the printer

Finding the printer in Windows

Manually adding a printer

Setting the default printer

Basic Printer Operation

Setting the margins

Printing in reverse order

Stopping a printer run amok

Chapter 13: PC Audio Abilities

The Noisy PC

Speakers hither and thither

In your own world with headphones

Microphone options

Sound Control in Windows

Configuring the speakers

Configuring the microphone

Adjusting the volume

Windows Goes Bleep

Setting event sounds

Recording your own sounds

Chapter 14: PC Leftovers

Manage the PC’s Power

Choosing a power-management plan

Adding a hibernation option

Power-saving options for battery-powered PCs

Merry Modems

Modem speed

The dialup modem

Part III: Communications, Sharing, Networking

Chapter 15: Necessary Networking Things

The Network Arena

Network Hardware

Saint NIC

Network hoses

Not network hoses

The router

The modem

Network Software

Getting to Network Central

Connecting to a wired network

Connecting to a wireless network

Disconnecting from a network

Chapter 16: Basic Networking Stuff

Network Fun in Windows

Browsing the network

Turning on network discovery

Viewing the network map

HomeGroup Sharing

Creating a HomeGroup

Joining a HomeGroup

Using the HomeGroup

Disconnecting from a HomeGroup

Traditional Network Sharing

Configuring Windows to share

Sharing a folder

Accessing a network folder

Chapter 17: The Internet Quick and Dirty

What Is the Internet?

How to Access the Internet

Choosing an ISP

Configuring Windows for the Internet

Connecting to the Internet

It’s a World Wide Web We Weave

Browsing tips

Printing Web pages

Searching-the-Web tips

E-Mail Call!

Downloading an e-mail program

Getting the most from e-mail

Chapter 18: Flinging Files

Get Stuff from a Web Page

Saving an image from a Web page

Grabbing text from a Web page

Free Software on the Internet

Finding programs on the Web

Downloading a program

Installing from a Compressed Folder

E-Mail File Attachments

Receiving an e-mail attachment

Sending an e-mail attachment

Part IV: Basic Computing

Chapter 19: Be Safe Out There

Fight the Bad Guys

Internet Explorer Tools

Blocking pop-ups

Phighting phishing

The Action Center

Windows Firewall

Windows Defender

Antivirus protection

User Account Control warnings

Chapter 20: Know What a File Is

Behold the File!

The guts of a file

Things that describe a file

Files dwell in folders


Choosing the best name

Obeying the filenaming rules

File Types and normals

What’s a filename extension?

Filename extension details

How to see or hide the filename extension


How Files Are Born

Chapter 21: Organizing Files with Folders

About Folders

Famous Folders

The root folder

Subfolders and parent folders

A place for your stuff

Manage Your Folders

Using Windows Explorer

Working with folders

Working with libraries

Chapter 22: Files Managed

Files Ready for Action

Selecting all files in a folder

Selecting a random smattering of files

Selecting a swath of files in a row

Lassoing a group of files

Unselecting stuff

Stuff You Do with Files

Copying a file

Moving a file

Creating a shortcut

Deleting files

Bringing dead files back to life

Renaming files

Finding Lost Files

That All-Important Safety Copy

Chapter 23: Software Installed, Uninstalled,and Upgraded

Installing Software

Running a Program

The Start button menu

The pin areas

The desktop shortcut normal

Uninstalling Software

Updating and Upgrading

Windows Update

“Should I upgrade Windows?”

Part V: Your Digital Life

Chapter 24: Your Personal Disc Factory

Disc Creation Overview

Make a Data Disc

Preparing the disc for use

Working with a USB Flash Drive/Live File Format disc

Working with a CD/DVD Player/Mastered disc

Using the Burn button

Erasing an RW disc

Labeling the disc

Disposing of a disc

Chapter 25: The Whole Digital Photography Thing

The Digital Camera

Connecting a digital camera

Importing images

The Scanner

Introducing the scanner

Scanning an image

Picture Files

Storing pictures in Windows

Viewing pictures in Windows

Changing picture file formats

Image Resolution

Setting resolution

Choosing the best resolution

Chapter 26: Video on the PC

PC Movies

Storing video in Windows

Viewing a video

Getting the video into your PC

Editing video

Your PC Is a TV

Connecting a TV tuner

Configuring Windows Media Center

Watching television

Recording television

Watching recorded TV

Burning a DVD from recorded TV

Purging recorded TV

Chapter 27: Music to Your Digital Ear

Your PC Is Now Your Stereo

Running Windows Media Player

Inserting a musical CD

Collecting tunes

Creating a playlist

Taking your music with you

Making your own music CDs

The PC Can Talk and Listen

Babbling Windows

Dictating to the PC

Chapter 28: Sharing Your Life Online

Social Networking

Sharing your life on Facebook

Tweeting your thoughts

Share Your Photos Online

Finding a free site

Signing up for the site

Uploading images

Sharing your images

Your Video Life

Creating a YouTube account

Uploading a video to YouTube

Sharing your videos

Chapter 29: Kid-Safe Computing

An Account for Junior

Setting up your Administrator account

Confirming your Administrator account

Adding an account for Junior

Configuring Junior’s account

Parental Controls

Setting time limits

Controlling access to games

Blocking programs

PC Parenting

Spying on your kids

Dealing with a cyberbully

Part VI: The Part of Tens

Chapter 30: Ten PC Commandments

I. Thou Shalt Not Fear Thy PC

II. Thou Shalt Save Thy Work

III. Thou Shalt Back Up Thy Files

IV. That Shalt Not Open or Delete Things Unknownst

V. Thou Shalt Not Be a Sucker

VI. Thou Shalt Use Antivirus Software, Yea Verily, and Keepeth It Up-to-Date

VII. Thou Shalt Upgrade Wisely

VIII. Thou Shalt Compute at a Proper Posture

IX. Thou Shalt Keepeth Windows Up-to-Date

X. Thou Shalt Properly Shut Down Windows

Chapter 31: Ten Tips from a PC Guru

Remember That You’re in Charge

Mind Who “Helps” You

Give Yourself Time to Learn

Create Separate Accounts

Use a UPS

Consider Some Hardware Upgrades

Avoid Crying “Wolf” in E-Mail

Don’t Reinstall Windows

Shun the Hype

Remember Not to Take This Computer Stuff Too Seriously


About the Author

Dan Gookin has been writing about technology for over 20 years. He combines his love of writing with his gizmo fascination to create books that are informative and entertaining and not boring. Having written more than 115 titles with 12 million copies in print translated into more than 30 languages, Dan can attest that his method of crafting computer tomes seems to work.

Perhaps his most famous title is the original DOS For Dummies, published in 1991. It became the world’s fastest-selling computer book, at one time moving more copies per week than the New York Times number-one best seller (though as a reference, his book couldn’t be listed on the NYT Best Seller list). That book spawned the entire line of For Dummies books, which remains a publishing phenomenon to this day.

Dan’s most popular titles include Word For Dummies, Laptops For Dummies, and Troubleshooting Your PC For Dummies. He also maintains the vast and helpful Web page

Dan holds a degree in communications/visual arts from the University of California, San Diego. He lives in the Pacific Northwest, where he enjoys spending time with his sons and playing video games inside while they watch the gentle woods of Idaho.


Publisher’s Acknowledgments

We’re proud of this book; please send us your comments through our online registration form located at For other comments, please contact our Customer Care Department within the U.S. at 877-762-2974, outside the U.S. at 317-572-3993, or fax 317-572-4002.

Some of the people who helped bring this book to market include the following:

Acquisitions and Editorial

Senior Project Editor: Mark Enochs

Acquisitions Editors: Katie Mohr, Tiffany Ma

Copy Editor: Rebecca Whitney

Technical Editor: James F. Kelly

Editorial Manager: Leah Cameron

Editorial Assistant: Amanda Graham

Sr. Editorial Assistant: Cherie Case

Cartoons: Rich Tennant (

Composition Services

Project Coordinator: Lynsey Stanford

Layout and Graphics: Ana Carrillo, Ashley Chamberlain, Timothy C. Detrick, Christine Williams

Proofreader: Shannon Ramsey

Indexer: Potomac Indexing, LLC

Publishing and Editorial for Technology Dummies

Richard Swadley, Vice President and Executive Group Publisher

Andy Cummings, Vice President and Publisher

Mary Bednarek, Executive Acquisitions Director

Mary C. Corder, Editorial Director

Publishing for Consumer Dummies

Diane Graves Steele, Vice President and Publisher

Composition Services

Debbie Stailey, Director of Composition Services


Say hello to the nearly all-new 12th edition of PCs For Dummies!

This book was written just for you, someone who doesn’t want to turn into a computer nerd or fall in love with computers or technology. No, this book was written because something complex and mysterious, like a computer, can make a smart person like you feel like a dummy.

Computers are now commodity items, tossed into a big-box store along with the toaster ovens and plasma TVs. The PC is a commodity, yet it’s not any easier to use than it was a decade ago. The cheerful person in the store can’t help you. There’s no computer manual. And that toll-free phone number they gave you connects you with a foreigner who reads you a script in heavily accented English. Obviously, a book like this one is more than needed — it’s a necessity.

This book helps restore your confidence by explaining how computers work in a manner that’s simple, easy to understand, and, often, entertaining. Between this book’s yellow-and-black covers, you’ll find quick, helpful information about using your computer. This book uses friendly and human — and often irreverent — terms. Nothing is sacred here, and you’ll find no painful jargon or condescending tone. You and your needs are the focus.

The result is that, after reading this book, the computer, while still a technological marvel, will no longer intimidate you.

What’s New in This Edition?

There have been one dozen editions of this book, and you’re lucky enough to be holding in your hands the most recent, best edition. As is my tradition, I thoroughly update each edition of this book, adding information on new technology, removing obsolete stuff, and giving the text a gentle massage to keep the material light and fresh.

Specifically, this book has been updated to cover the Windows 7 operating system. Additionally, you’ll also find these new topics:

The latest information on the new computer designs, including the popular One PC

The latest on expansion options, including eSATA, plus tips on adding external storage to your PC

Updated and complete information on media cards, which provide the latest in removable storage for your computer

New information on computer security, which jibes well with the new Action Center in Windows 7

Lots of new material about your online life, including social networking sites and sharing photos and video on the Internet

Information on setting up your PC for your children, including ways to limit their computing time and restrict access to games and other software

The Cheat Sheet, which once appeared just inside this book’s front cover, is now available online:

General up-to-date and current information on all aspects of PC technology, hardware, and software — tidbits too numerous to mention here

As in years past, I present all the information in this book in a sane, soothing, and gentle tone that calms even the most panicked computerphobe.

Where to Start

This book is a reference. You can start reading at any point. Use the index or table of contents to see what interests you. After you read the information, feel free to close the book and perform whatever task you need; there’s no need to read any further.

Each of this book’s 31 chapters covers a specific aspect of the computer — turning it on, using a printer, using software, or heaving the computer out a window in the best possible manner, for example. Each chapter is divided into self-contained nuggets of information — sections — all relating to the major theme of the chapter. Sample sections you may find include

Turn the darn thing off

Using the Internet to set the clock

Eject a media card or thumb drive

Stopping a printer run amok

Downloading a program

Burning a DVD from recorded TV

Dealing with a cyberbully

You don’t have to memorize anything in this book. Nothing about a computer is memorable. Each section is designed so that you can read the information quickly, digest what you have read, and then put down the book and get on with using the computer. If anything technical crops up, you’re alerted to its presence so that you can cleanly avoid it.

Conventions Used in This Book

Menu items, links, and other controls on the screen are written using initial cap text. So if the option is named “Turn off the computer,” you see Turn Off the Computer (without quotes or commas) shown in this book, whether it appears that way onscreen or not.

Whenever I describe a message or information on the screen, it looks like this:

This is a message onscreen.

If you have to type something, it looks like this:

Type me

You type the text Type me as shown. You’re told when and whether to press the Enter key. You’re also told whether to type a period; periods end sentences written in English, but not always when you type text on a computer.

Windows menu commands are shown like this:

Choose FileExit.

This line directs you to choose the File menu and then choose the Exit command.

Key combinations you may have to type are shown like this:


This line says to press and hold the Ctrl (Control) key, type an S, and then release the Ctrl key. It works the same as pressing Shift+S on the keyboard produces an uppercase S. Same deal, different shift key.

What You Don’t Need to Read

It’s a given that computers are technical, but you can avoid reading the technical stuff. To assist you, I’ve put some of the more obnoxious technical stuff into sidebars clearly marked as technical information. Read that information at your own peril. Often, it’s just a complex explanation of stuff already discussed in the chapter. Reading that information only tells you something substantial about your computer, which is not my goal here.

Foolish Assumptions

I make some admittedly foolish assumptions about you: You have a computer, and you use it somehow to do something. You use a PC (or are planning on it) and will use Windows as that computer’s operating system.

This book was written directly to support Windows 7. Even so, notes in the text apply to Windows Vista. I even tossed in some stuff about Windows XP when I was feeling rather saucy.

Windows comes in different flavors, such as Ultimate, Business, and Home versions. Differences between them are noted in the text.

When this book refers to Windows without a specific edition or version, the information applies generically to both Windows 7 and Windows Vista.

This book refers to the menu that appears when you click or activate the Start button as the Start button menu. The All Programs menu on the Start panel is referred to as All Programs, though it may say only Programs.

normals Used in This Book

technicalstuff.eps This normal alerts you to needless technical information — drivel I added because even though I can’t help but unleash the nerd in me, I can successfully flag that type of material. Feel free to skip over anything tagged with this little picture.

tip.eps This normal usually indicates helpful advice or an insight that makes using the computer interesting. For example, when you’re setting fire to the computer, be sure to wear protective goggles.

remember.eps This normal indicates something to remember, like turning off the iron before you leave the house or not trimming your nose hairs with a butane lighter.

warning_bomb.eps This normal indicates that you need to be careful with the information that’s presented; usually, it’s a reminder for you not to do something.

Getting in Touch with the Author

My e-mail address is listed here in case you want to send me a note:

Yes, that’s my address, and I respond to every e-mail message. Note that I reply to short, to-the-point messages quickly. Long messages may take more time for me to reply to. Plus, I cannot troubleshoot or fix your PC. Remember that you paid others for their technical support, and you should use their services.

You can also visit my Web site, which is chock-full of helpful support pages, bonus information, games, and fun:

Where to Go from Here

With this book in hand, you’re now ready to go out and conquer your PC. Start by looking through the table of contents or the index. Find a topic and turn to the page indicated, and you’re ready to go. Also, feel free to write in this book, fill in the blanks, dog-ear the pages, and do anything that would make a librarian blanch. Enjoy.

Part I

Hello, PC!


In this part . . .

It’s been called a fast idiot, the ultimate solution for which there was no problem, a toy, Satan’s spawn, a godsend, Time magazine’s Machine of the Year 1982, and perhaps the most miraculous gadget ever invented. I’m speaking, of course, about the personal computer, the PC.

Loathe it or love it, the PC is now a part of everyday life, a gizmo as common as a desk lamp and with more uses than a Swiss Army knife. Whether you already have a PC or are looking to buy one in the near future, use this part of the book to bone up on basic computer stuff.

Chapter 1

Your Computer Won’t Explode

In This Chapter

Understanding computer basics

Admiring input and output

Knowing about hardware and software

Discovering the PC

Realizing that your PC is quite dumb

If you’re a fan of science fiction television or film, you’re probably quite familiar with the concept of the exploding computer. Sparks, smoke, flying debris — it all appears to be a common function of computers in the future. Sure, they could just beep and display error messages when they die or are thwarted by Captain Kirk’s irrefutable logic, but where’s the fun in that?

My point is to relax. Computers are not evil, and they’re not out to get you. In fact, you probably want to get the most out of your PC investment because you’ve heard about all the wonderful things a computer can do. The key to building a productive, long-term relationship with such technology is to understand the computer. You don’t need to have Einstein’s IQ to do that. You just need to read and enjoy the easy, helpful information in this chapter.

Clear Computer Concepts

A computer is the simplest of devices. It joins a long line of new technologies that originally might have appeared frightening but in the end turned out to be entirely useful.

For example, a coffee pot combines dangerous, scalding water with a legal stimulant to provide you with a delicious beverage. A lawn mower whirls sharp blades of metal around yet safely keeps the grass short. A microwave oven uses lethal beams of energy to cook food. And, the TV remote helps you gain valuable fat cells, vital to keeping you alive through lean times, by preventing you from walking the short distance to your television set. Truly, you have nothing to fear from modern technology after you understand it.

At its most basic level, the computer is a gadget that receives input, does something with that input, and then produces output. Figure 1-1 cheerfully illustrates this concept.

Figure 1-1: What a computer does at its simplest level.


The act of receiving input, modifying it, and then producing output is incredibly simple, but at the same time it’s bursting with enormous potential. That’s why the computer is capable of doing so many things.

The “input goes into computer and produces output” equation is the foundation of these three basic computer concepts:




The following sections expand on these notions, distilling for you what you could have learned in a computer science class, had you bothered to take one. Or, if you did take a course in computer science, the following sections explain what you missed while you were sleeping.


All computers are obsessed over the letters I and O. It’s IO as in “I owe,” not as in Io, the third-largest moon of Jupiter.

IO stands for input and output. It’s commonly written as I/O, which are the two things a computer does best. In fact, I/O is pretty much the only thing a computer does. Consider this popular nursery song:

Old MacDonald had a Dell


You get this whole I/O concept down and you’ve tackled the essence of what a computer is and what it can do.

The devices connected to your computer are divided into input and output camps. It has input gizmos and doodads and output doodads and gizmos.

The computer receives information from input devices. The keyboard and mouse are two input devices, as are scanners and digital cameras. They all send information to the computer.

The computer sends information to output devices. Output is anything the computer produces. The stuff displayed on the monitor is output, sound is output, and the pages the computer prints are output. The monitor, speakers, and printer are all output gizmos and doodads.

Some devices can do both input and output. Imagine! The computer’s storage system is considered both an input device and an output device. A gizmo known as a modem sends and receives information. (See Chapter 14 for information on what a modem is and why you should care.)

Ed McMahon didn’t say “I/O” on the old Tonight Show. He said “High-ho!”


What the computer does between input and output is processing. It’s what happens to the input to make the output significant. Otherwise, the computer would simply be a tube and computer science would be renamed Plumbing.

Processing can be as simple as doubling a number. Or, it can be as complex as converting a series of ones and zeros into a symphony or a full-length motion picture. The key to the computer’s success is that the processing takes place quickly. Also, the computer doesn’t mind doing the processing, especially on repetitive tasks that would normally drive a human being bonkers.

Processing is handled inside the computer by a gizmo known as (logically enough) a processor.

See Chapter 6 for more information on the processor.

remember.eps By itself, the processor doesn’t know what to do with input. No, the processor relies on instructions to tell it what to do. Those instructions are referred to as software. The topic of software is covered later in this chapter.


The final part of the basic computer equation is storage. Storage is necessary because the processor needs a place to perform its magic — a scratch pad for mad doodles, if you will.

Computer storage comes in two forms: temporary and long-term.

Temporary storage is supplied as memory, or RAM. Memory is where the processor does its work, where programs run, and where information is stored while it’s being worked on. RAM is the microprocessor’s playground, its workshop, its den.

Long-term storage in a modern computer is provided by storage media. Storage media includes hard drives, flash drives, media cards, optical discs, and CDs and DVDs. Long-term storage allows information to be saved and recalled for later use — like putting clothes in a closet or all your junk in a storage unit. It’s the place where things go when the microprocessor isn’t directly working on them — but from where stuff can be retrieved later, if necessary.

If you were a computer, your temporary storage would be your memory. So when someone tells you their phone number, that information is processed and temporarily stored in your head. Long-term storage is similar to a pad of paper: You write down a phone number on a pad of paper so that you can use it later.

All computers need storage.

RAM is an acronym for random access memory. It’s often just called memory.

The most popular form of long-term storage is the computer’s hard drive.

technicalstuff.eps The computers on the Apollo moon missions had lots of storage, for their day. The reason was so that the astronauts wouldn’t have to manually input the programs the computer needed to run. Even so, a lot more typing and programming were going on in the capsule than you would imagine.

Hardware and Software

Like many great teams throughout history — Abbot and Costello, steak and potatoes, death and taxes — a computer system is a blend of two different things. Those two things are hardware and software.

Hardware is the physical part of a computer — anything you can touch and anything you can see. The computer console, the monitor, the keyboard, the mouse — that physical stuff is hardware.

Software is the brain of the computer. Software tells the hardware what to do.

In a way, it helps to think of hardware and software as a symphony orchestra. For hardware, you have the musicians and their instruments. Their software is the music. As with a computer, the music (software) tells the musicians and their instruments (hardware) what to do.

Without software, hardware just sits around and looks pretty. It can’t do anything because it has no instructions and nothing telling it what to do next. And, like a symphony orchestra without music, that can be an expensive waste of time (especially at union scale).

To make the computer system work, software must be in charge. In fact, it’s software that determines your computer’s personality and potential.

If you can throw it out a window, it’s hardware.

If you can throw it out a window and it comes back, it’s a cat.

Computer software is nothing more than instructions that tell the hardware what to do, how to act, or when to mangle your data.

remember.eps Contrary to what most people think, between hardware and software, the software is more important. Just as a director tells actors what to do in a play, software directs hardware, telling it what to do, where to go, and how best to convey the emotional context of the scene. Software’s importance is especially valuable to note when first buying a computer because most people dwell on the new computer’s hardware rather than on the software controlling the hardware.

Without the proper software, your computer’s hardware has nothing to do. That’s when the powerful computer magically transforms itself into an expensive paperweight.

The computer’s operating system

The most important piece of software in your computer system is its operating system. It has several duties:

Control the computer’s hardware: Hardware does nothing without software to tell it what to do, and the operating system is that software.

Manage all the computer programs: The operating system isn’t the only software in your computer, but it is the software in charge of all the other software. It’s the head honcho, the big cheese, el numero uno.

Organize the storage system: The operating system is in charge of the computer’s memory, both long-term and short-term. For the long-term storage system, the operating system organizes and maintains, in files, the stuff you create on the computer.

Interface with you: The operating system must also provide a way for you, the human, to use the computer.

Doing all these tasks is a major feat. Be thankful that computer designers have seen to it that only one program does everything! The operating system is no slacker.

On PCs, the most common operating system is Microsoft Windows, or often just Windows. Other operating systems are available (though Windows dominates the marketplace), each of which does the things just listed and can handily control the PC’s hardware. This book assumes that Windows is your PC’s operating system.

How the operating system does its various jobs is covered elsewhere in this book.

remember.eps The operating system is the most important piece of software in your computer. It’s in charge, the hardware’s Fearless Leader, le roi.

The computer hardware surrenders control of itself to the operating system mere moments after you turn on the computer. See Chapter 4 for information on turning the computer on and off.

The operating system typically comes with the computer when you buy it. You never need to add a second operating system, although operating systems are updated and improved from time to time.

When you buy software, you buy it for an operating system, not for your brand of computer. So, rather than buy software for your Dell, Compaq, or Crazy Larry’s PC, you look in the Windows section of the software store.

Other software

The operating system isn’t the only software you use on your computer. The typical computer user has lots of software on the computer. Some of that software runs specific pieces of hardware, but a lot of it is productivity software, designed to get work done. Oh, and some of it is entertainment software, which is for the fun stuff.

Computer software is known by several different names. In addition to the general term software, you find

Program: An individual piece of software. To use a musical example, all software is like all music. A program is the “music” for a specific song.

Application: A category of software used for productivity or to create things. Applications are the software that does the work.

Game: A program for fun, of course.

Utility or tool: A program designed to help you manage the computer or diagnose or fix problems. For example, you may use a tool to optimize the performance of your computer’s storage system.

Driver: A special type of program that allows specific hardware to work. For example, a specific video driver program is required for the operating system to use your PC’s graphics hardware. This type of software comes with the hardware it supports.

Part IV of this book goes into more detail on computer software.

The stuff you make (files)

You use a computer to create things, such as a document in a word processor, a painting from a graphics program, a movie, or any of a number of interesting things. The stuff you create is stored on the computer in a digital container known as a file. You should understand the concept of files to get the most benefit from your PC.

A file is basically a storage unit for computer stuff. Files are created by computer programs. The file is born in the computer’s temporary storage area, or memory. That’s where the program, directing the PC’s processor, manipulates information. When you’re pleased with the results, the file is saved to long-term storage.

Programs can also open files you’ve previously worked on and saved to the PC’s storage media. After a file is opened, it’s read from long-term storage and placed back into memory. After the file’s contents are in memory, you can continue to work on the file, modify it, print it, or mangle it completely.

remember.eps Knowing about files and how they fit into the computer picture is vital to getting the most from your PC. Be sure to check out Chapter 20 for more detailed information on the useful topic of computer files.

Boring PC History

technicalstuff.eps Computers have been around for a long time. Ancient computers were programmable devices used mostly for entertainment value, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s knight, named “Leonardo’s Robot.”

The first modern, electronic computers appeared in the 1940s and were mostly used for government or military purposes. In the 1960s, computers found favor in screwing up people’s phone bills.

The PC was spawned from the microcomputer craze of the mid-1970s, as shown by the timeline in Figure 1-2. Though those microcomputer systems were generically known as personal computers, it was the IBM Personal Computer, or IBM PC, introduced in 1981, that proved the most popular.

Figure 1-2: Timeline of the personal computer.


The success of the IBM PC led to many copies, or clones, for many years. Almost 90 percent of the computer industry now develops personal computers modeled after the descendants of the original IBM PC. Because of that lineage, the computer systems are dubbed, generically, PCs.

The term PC is now used to specifically refer to any computer that can run the Windows operating system.

Though your car, sewing machine, or the kidney dialysis machine at the hospital may contain computer electronics, those devices are not PCs.

Curiously, IBM got out of the PC manufacturing business in the early 2000s.

The success of the PC is based on its use of off-the-shelf parts that are easily replaced. The PC can also be configured and upgraded with ease, which is another reason it’s so popular.

The only thing not officially considered a PC is Apple’s Macintosh computer. Although the Mac is a personal computer and can run the Windows operating system, Mac users go all verklempt when you call their computers PCs.

An Important Thing to Remember

remember.eps Computers aren’t evil. They harbor no sinister intelligence. In fact, when you get to know them, you see that they’re rather dumb.