What is a computer?

A computer is a programmable digital electronic machine capable of carrying out computation.


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Computers are everywhere, enhancing lives in ways both subtle and obvious. They can help you send emails, write documents, play video games, browse the Internet, maintain your home’s temperature, and cook your food to perfection. They’re also working behind the scenes to find you something to watch on Netflix, navigate through traffic, travel safely in an airplane, sharpen your investment portfolio, and much more.  

What is a computer in simple words?

Computers come in different shapes and sizes with varying degrees of processing power, complexity, and features. But what is the defining characteristic of every computer? Well, at its core, a computer is a programmable digital electronic machine that can execute computation.

Examples of computers

Desktop computer

Found in offices and homes, desktop computers are personal computers which usually remain stationary because they’re typically heavy and unwieldy. They normally sit under a desk and connect to a monitor to display output.

Desktop computers are usually more powerful per dollar than mobile computers like laptops. Video gamers prefer desktop computers over laptops because they can support the latest graphics cards and run cooler than mobile computers with similar specifications. Examples of desktop PC include Alienware Aurora computers, Mac computers, or custom-built machines.

Laptop computer

A laptop computer is a portable computer that’s powered by a battery and usually features a keyboard, monitor, processor, motherboard, and webcam all in one unit. Laptops are designed for convenience and can fit inside a briefcase. Typically, laptop computers are used by students, office workers, and professionals that require mobility. Examples of laptop computers include Dell XPS laptops, MacBooks, and Microsoft Surface computers.   


Servers are usually large computers that carry data for other computers to access through a network. When you browse the Internet, your computer downloads information from a server. At a workplace, your computer may connect to a local server to read files or upload new ones to the company database.  


Modern smartphones are basically small computers that can fit inside your pocket. Like larger computers, smartphones allow you to browse the Internet, download software, play games, send emails, write documents, and video conference. Like some laptop computers, smartphones also feature touch screens for input. However, some smartphones have miniature keyboards, while others can connect to desktop keyboards via Bluetooth technology or a micro-USB connector. Examples of smartphones include Samsung Galaxy phones and iPhones.


Tablets are essentially large smartphones. They carry almost all the same functions and feature similar hardware.

The main difference between laptops and tablets is that tablets feature touchscreens instead of keyboards, are smaller, and aren’t attached to monitors. Smartphones and tablets are also more foolproof and intuitive than typical desktops and laptops. However, they’re less ideal for tasks like word processing, gaming, etc., because of their size and other limitations. The most commonly recognizable example of a tablet is the iPad.

Videogame consoles

A decade or so ago, video game consoles were specialized computers that only allowed users to connect to a TV to play games. But modern videogame consoles are also home entertainment units that let people stream movies and videos, browse the Internet, and connect with friends.

Smart TVs

Like videogame consoles, smart TVs offer many computer-like functions. They can connect to the Internet, download apps, and stream entertainment content from the Internet or a local network. Many smart TVs also feature Internet browsers.

Software vs. hardware

Computers need both hardware and software to function. Software provides instructions while the hardware executes them. A computer may malfunction if there is something wrong with either. Here are some common types of computer software:

  • Operating system
  • Firmware
  • Word processor
  • Web browser
  • WiFi app
  • Videogame
  • Computer drivers
  • Video streaming app
  • Video conferencing app

What are the basic parts of a computer?

Computer case

A computer case is a box that houses other computer components. Computer cases come in different forms but are commonly rectangular in shape. Computer cases designed for performance carry extra fans to keep the hardware cool. They may also feature convenience options like USB, microphone, and audio ports on the front.


A motherboard is a circuit board that hosts other components of a computer. Some of these components fit on the motherboard like pieces of Lego, while others, like an audio chip, may be built-in. Other components, like a hard disk drive (HDD), reside in the computer case but connect to a motherboard. However, modern solid-state drives (SSDs) can fit on a motherboard’s expansion slot.


A processor, or CPU, short for Central Processing Unit, executes instructions from your software. Alongside the operating system, a CPU is the brain of the computer system. CPUs even help run parts of video games like the artificial intelligence (AI), though most of the heavy lifting is done by the Graphics Processing Unit (GPU).

Modern CPUs usually have integrated GPUs. These components help render video and computer graphics. Integrated GPUs have come a long way and are capable of running new games at lower settings.  

Graphics card

A graphics card is a special add-on component that looks like a miniature motherboard. It carries a discrete GPU and helps run demanding applications like videogames. Not all computers feature graphics cards, though.

Storage drive

A computer’s data is typically kept in its storage drive. The most common examples of storage drives are hard disk drives (HDDs) and solid-state drives (SSDs). Many people ask: “Is a hard disk better than SSD?” The simple answer is that HDDs are cheaper, but SSDs can be 5 to 25 times faster. Some computers though, like Chromebooks, store most of a user’s data on the cloud.

RAM (Random Access Memory)

A computer’s memory is a temporary space that holds a copy of data for immediate access. All data from RAM disappears whenever you restart or shut down your computer. However, the data remains on your storage drive.

Network component

Your computer’s network component helps you connect to an Internet-connected router to access the Internet. Modern motherboards feature built-in networking hardware that can connect to the Internet wirelessly or through a cable. Older motherboards may require a networking card. Smartphones, tablets, and laptops all have built-in WiFi capabilities.

Not only do computers come in many shapes and sizes, but configurations too, allowing users to select the ones that suit their needs best. The customizable nature of computers also makes them suitable for all sorts of applications. From the depths of Earth’s oceans to interstellar space, there’s a human-made computer working diligently to aid humanity.