What is a computer

This might sound as a very simple question to you. Today anybody can easily look around and identify a computer. But if you are asked to define what a computer is then what will be your answer? In this tutorial our goal is to help you understand what a computer is so that you can learn that the term computer can be used for many other machines or devices and not just the ones you know to be computers.

Definition

A computer is an electronic device which

  1. Takes some input
  2. Does some processing on that input
  3. Generates some output or performs some logical operations
  4. Is capable of performing logical operations in a well defined step by step manner

If you see any machine which satisfies the above definition then you can put them in the category of a computer. There might be some differences in the type and number of operations different machines can perform, but if they are capable of taking some inputs, processing these inputs and giving an output or storing the output in some form then they can be put in the category of a computer.

Let’s find computers around us

Keeping the above definition in mind now try to look around you and identify computers. Let’s try with some common machines you see around you

Mobile phone

Does your mobile phone satisfy the above definition? Is it capable of taking inputs and processing them to give logical outputs? Yes, it does. So you can put it in the category of a computer.

Fully automatic washing machine

Does your fully automatic washing machine satisfy the above definition? Is it capable of taking inputs and processing them to give logical outputs? In this case logical outputs would mean washing clothes for a given duration and raising an alarm if something goes wrong.  Yes, a fully automatic washing machine can perform these operations. So you can put it in the category of a computer.

Smart TV

Does your smart TV satisfy the above definition? Yes, it does. You can give it some inputs using the remote control and it can perform operations accordingly. Therefore, you can put it in the category of a computer.

Hair dryer

Does your hair dryer satisfy the above definition? No, it does not. It does not take any input and does not do any processing. It just throws some hot air. So we cannot put it in the category of a computer.

General purpose and special purpose computers

You might find it difficult to understand that your fully automatic washing machine can be categorized as a computer. This is because from the very beginning you have been taught that only the machines which run Microsoft Windows  / MAC / Linux operating system and which you use to browse internet are called computer. This is true and it is also true that your fully automatic washing machine also falls in the category of a computer. But definitely there is a very big difference in both these machines being used as computers. A fully automatic washing machine is not a general purpose computer. You cannot use it to load and play songs or to watch a movie. But the laptop you use everyday can do all these functions. Why? Because your laptop is a general purpose computer and is capable of performing many different types of tasks. Whereas a fully automatic washing machine is a special purpose computer and can only perform those tasks for which it has been programmed. Also it is easy to write computer programs which can run on your laptop rather than writing computer programs which can run on your washing machine.

So what you need to keep in mind is that by definition many machines and devices can be put in the category of a computer. Some are general purpose computers and some special purpose computers which are capable of performing only specific jobs. But as long as a machine can take some inputs, process them and generate some outputs you can call it a computer. If you keep these concepts in mind then you can understand the general architecture of all such machine, how they are built and what all hardware components are used to make them function.

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