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1.1: Computer Basics

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    Applications, or software, allow users to complete tasks via a graphical, user-friendly environment. Some applications come pre-installed on computers, but additional software must be installed by the user. There are various types of software that allow users to complete all different types of tasks, from office productivity software like Microsoft Word and Excel to multimedia editing software like Adobe Photoshop and Premiere Pro, to virus protection software like Norton and McAfee. For almost any task imaginable on a computer, there is likely a software application for it.

    Operating Systems

    An operating system is the most important software that runs on a computer. It manages the computer’s memory and processes, as well as all of its hardware and software. A computer’s operating system allows the user to communicate with the device. Without an operating system, a computer is useless.

    Watch this video to learn more about a computer’s operating system:

    When a computer is purchased, an operating system is usually pre-loaded on it. Think Microsoft Windows on a PC. Most people use the operating system that comes on their computer; however, the user can upgrade or change operating systems.

    The three most common operating systems for personal computers are:

      • Microsoft Windows
      • MacOS
      • Linux

    Modern operating systems use a graphical user interface, or GUI (pronounced gooey). A GUI lets you use your mouse to click on icons, buttons, and menus. Everything is clearly displayed on the screen using a combination of graphics and text. The following gives a brief overview of the three most common operating systems, designed for desktop or laptop computers.

    Microsoft Windows

    The Windows operating system was created by Microsoft in the mid-1980s. There have been many versions over the years, the most recent the Windows 10 that was released in 2015. Microsoft Windows typically comes pre-loaded on most new PCs which makes it the most popular operating system in the world.


    The macOS is a series of operating systems created by Apple. This operating system comes pre-loaded on all Macintosh, or Mac, computers. The most recent versions of the macOS were released in 2016, 2017, and 2018. Big Sur (2021) is the newest macOS available. Most people like the look and feel of the macOS over the Windows operating system, however, Mac users account for a much smaller percentage compared to Windows users. Mac computers are higher priced, which may account for a smaller percentage.

    Operating systems are continually updated and with each update, the features and design are intended to enhance. However, the basics of working with computing devices have largely remained the same over the past decade. The Windows and Mac OS operating systems are fairly similar, at least at the user interface level. Below is a table showing how the shortcut keys align between the two:

    Windows and Microsoft keyboard shortcut comparisons


    Linux (pronounced LINN-ux) is a family of open-source operating systems. This means that they can be modified and distributed to anyone around the world. Linux is different from the proprietary operating systems like Windows that can only be modified by the company that owns it.

    Operating Systems for Mobile Devices

    Mobile devices such as iPads, tablets, and smartphones, run on operating systems that are designed specifically for mobile devices. Examples of mobile operating systems include Apple iOS and Google Android.

    Apps, as commonly used for mobile device applications, are purchased from the Apple App Store or Google Play (for Android). Apps can be installed for free or paid.


    A computer file is a self-contained piece of information available to the operating system and any number of individual programs. It’s always important to know what type of file you are working with on a computer.

    Just like within Microsoft Office applications, media generating applications typically have proprietary file types (the files only work on their software) but can also export to various other generic formats. For example, Adobe Photoshop, the leading photo eduting application used in industry today, has proprietary tile of .psd. But many other photo editing programs will not open a .psd file. There are certain advantages to being able to save a file in its proprietary format, but if another application will need to open the file, it should be saved to one of the more universal image file types.

    Today there are many different categories of files and many different speicifc types within each category. The following table is an example of some of the different categories and the more commonly known types:

    File Types

    Read this article from Khan Academy to learn about computer files, file types, and file sizes.

    File extensions tell your computer which applications to use when opening that file.

    Portable Document Format (PDF)

    The PDF file format is used when you need to save files that cannot be modified but still need to be easily shared and printed. PDF is a file format that operates independently of software, hardware, and the operating system. The PDF will present and exchange documents reliably, regardless of the software, hardware, or operating system. For example, if I create a flyer using the fonts and design elements that I have available on my computer, but then send it to another computer, there is a good chance it will not look the same on the other computer because of various hardware/software differences. If instead, I save the flyer as a PDF and open it on another computer, it will look the same. It is for this reason that PDFs are so commonly used on the Internet. Now, you know why teachers use PDF documents often! The Adobe Acrobat Reader is the default program to read PDF documents and is available on almost all computers.

    The PDF format was created by Adobe along with the software to view PDF files, Adobe Acrobat. There are various levels of Adobe Acrobat starting from the Reader, which is free and will allow you to open PDF documents. The Acrobat reader is typically pre-installed on most computer devices and it only allows you to view PDF files. Then there are additional versions of Adobe Acrobat that can be purchased which allow a user to actually create PDF files including fillable PDF forms. For more information on the Acrobat family, refer to Though the Reader may have come pre-installed on your computer, it will need to be updated from time to time. Adobe Reader can be downloaded or updated from the following website: .

    More current applications now include the ability to create PDF files directly from the application itself. For example, starting in 2007, the Microsoft Office programs like Word, PowerPoint, and Excel included the option to choose a PDF file format during the Save As process. Google Chrome now includes the ability to print to a PDF file from the Print menu. And the operating system on an Apple computer has the option to Save As a PDF from its standard print menu.


    Applications are a form of software, but not all software is an application. System software controls the operational and processing functions on your computer. Also called a program, application software is designed to perform a specific task. Some applications are pre-installed on computers, but additional software must be installed by the user. Examples include programs like databases, word processing like Microsoft Word and Excel, multimedia editing software like Adobe Photoshop and Premiere Pro, to virus protection software like McAfee.

    Driver software empowers your computer to communicate with your operating system (OS), as well as your files. programs, connected components, and external add-ons like your keyboard, mouse, and printer. This is important to understand to ensure you have the proper driver installed on your computer when connecting to additional hardware. It is best practice to consult the technology support at your school if issues arise.

    Application software is often designated between desktop and web-based or mobile applications. Desktop and web-based applications generally have broader functionality. Mobile applications are designed to perform on mobile devices.


    Software prices range from free to very expensive. Typically the more robust the application, the more it costs. When purchasing software a user must decide how many features they are looking for and how much they want to spend. There are various technologies and applications that exist that are both free and paid.

    Installing Applications (Software)

    Application software can be purchased from a physical store or can be purchased online. When purchased from the store, you typically receive a box with directions and an installation CD. Installation this way is fairly user-friendly, you simply insert the CD and follow the installation wizard.

    Currently, the most common way to get software is to download it from the Internet (purchased). When getting software directly off the Internet, whether it is open source or purchased software, the installation is similar. Software is installed on your computer using the installer file, typically a .exe file on a PC or a .dmg file on a Mac. The installer file will be made available on the website and must first be downloaded to the computer. Once downloaded, the installer can be run and installs the application to the hard drive.

    Installation on a Mac is a little different than installation on a PC. Further, installation can vary depending on the specific software. But a basic understanding provides the tools and techniques for installing most products.

    The two applications types are:

    • Commercial (Paid)
    • Open Source (Free)


    Software updates frequently update and updates are typically available for free on the web. This is the advantage of getting software by downloading it from the web; you get the most recent version. In reference to software updates, each improvement of software is assigned a number. So when the established software version, let’s say 1.5.3 gets improved, the next version will be 1.5.4. Generally, the following describes changes:

    • A major number or first number change indicates changes in overall functionality (1.5 to 2.1)
    • Minor number changes or second level numbers indicate minor changes or fixes (1.5 to 1.6)
    • Revision number, or third level, changes indicate minor bugs or fixes (1.5.3 to 1.5.4)


    A browser is a computer program with a graphical user interface for displaying and navigating between web pages. This software allows a computer user to find and view information on the Internet. Web browsers interpret the HTML tags in downloaded documents and format the displayed data according to a set of standard style rules (Gregersen, E., 2016).

    Video: HTML Explained in 5 Minutes

    • Video: What is HTML, CSS, and Javascript?
    • The next video is longer and provides more detail to HTML, CSS, and Javascript.

    Each browser may have slightly different options available. It is important to know what the browser offers and what capabilities you desire. Browser tools can play a part in your decision. Examples of tools on some of the top browsers include: Save passwords and./or sync passwords, bookmarking, tabs, voice-reading of websites, etc. Chrome offers extensions, which are small programs that add new features to your browser and personalize your browsing experience.

    Many different types of browsers exist. As long as the computer meets the browser requirements, a computer can have more than one browser installed. A list of the most common Internet browsers is listed below:

    Additional Internet browsers exist. In the world of Big Tech, one may prefer to search the Internet without personalized browsing, often seen in major search engines (Google, for example). In this case, DuckDuckGo is a good option for an Internet browser. Read this article from CNET on how to use the DuckDuckGo search engine.


    • What file types are you familiar with you? What file types are new?
    • In your experience, what file types have you used before, and for what purpose(s)?
    • Browser Wars! Make a chart comparing the three best Internet Browsers (in your opinion). Do your research for this assignment! A few things that you can start with include: What are the similarities between browsers? What makes one stand out over the other? Which OS is the browser compatible with? How fast is the browser? Which one would you choose for your students?
      • Google Chrome
      • Mozilla Firefox
        • Mozilla Firefox is a free browser for both Mac and PCs, it functions very similar to Microsoft Edge (the replacement for Internet Explorer) which comes pre-installed on Windows machines and Safari which comes pre-installed on Mac devices. Each browser has it’s advantages and disadvantages; but two is better than one. One of the first steps to try when troubleshooting Internet problems is to try a different browser. Having two browsers installed allows you to do this. Since both Macs and PCs have a pre-installed browser and Firefox works on both, it’s a good solution as a second browser.
      • Opera
      • Apple Safari
      • Microsoft Edge
    • How to use DuckDuckGo to search the web privately on your phone and computer.

    This page titled 1.1: Computer Basics is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Susan Dumler via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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