A digital device processes electronic signals into discrete values, of which there can be two or more. In comparison, analog signals are continuous and can be represented by a smooth wave pattern. You might think of digital (discrete) as the opposite of analog.
Many electronic devices process signals into two discrete values, typically know as binary. These values are represented as either a one (“on”) or a zero (“off”). It is commonly accepted to refer to the on state as representing the presence of an electronic signal. It then follows that the off state is represented by the absence of an electronic signal. Technically, the voltages in a system are evaluated with high voltages converted into a one or on state and low voltages converted into a zero or off state.
Each one or zero is referred to as a bit (a blending of the two words “binary” and “digit”). A group of eight bits is known as a byte (think of a byte as being a single character you can type from a keyboard). The first personal computers could process 8 bits of data at once. The number of bits that can be processed by a computer’s processor at one time is known as word size. Today’s personal computers can process 64 bits of data at a time which is where the term 64-bit processor comes from. You are most likely using a computer with a 64-bit processor.





Bits & Bytes
As the capacities of digital devices grew, new terms were developed to identify the capacities of processors, memory, and disk storage space. Prefixes were applied to the word byte to represent different orders of magnitude. Since these are digital specifications, the prefixes were originally meant to represent multiples of 1024 (210); this usage is referred to as a binary measurement but has more recently been rounded for simplicity to mean multiples of 1000, as shown in the table below.
Prefix Represents Approximate Examples
kilo one thousand bytes 1 typewritten page
mega one million bytes 1 digital photo
giga one billion bytes 1 Blu-ray movie 25GB
tera one trillion bytes Printed Collection of the library of congress 20TB
peta one quadrillion bytes Data generated on Facebook everyday 4PB
exa one quintillion bytes
zetta one sextillion bytes
yotta one septillion bytes





The speed of a computer is determined by many elements, some related to hardware and some related to software. In hardware, speed is improved by giving the electrons shorter distances to travel in completing a circuit. Since the first CPU was created in the early 1970s, engineers have constantly worked to figure out how to shrink these circuits and put more and more circuits onto the same chip – these are known as integrated circuits. And this work has paid off as the speed of computing devices has been continuously improving.
Multi-core processors, or CPUs, have contributed to faster speeds. Intel engineers have also improved CPU speeds by using QuickPath Interconnect, a technique which minimizes the processor’s need to communicate directly with RAM or the hard drive. Instead, the CPU contains a cache of frequently used data for a particular program. An algorithm evaluates a program’s data usage and determines which data should be temporarily stored in the cache.
The hardware components that contribute to the speed of a personal computer are the CPU, the Motherboard, RAM, and the Hard Disk. In most cases, these items can be replaced with newer, faster components. The table below shows how each of these contributes to the speed of a computer. Besides upgrading hardware, there are many changes that can be made to the software of a computer to make it faster.
Component Speed
measured by Units Description
CPU Clock
speed GHz (billions of cycles) Hertz indicates the time it takes to complete a cycle.
Motherboard Bus
speed MHz The speed at which data can move across the bus.
RAM Data
transfer rate Mb/s (millions of bytes per second) The time it takes for data to be transferred from memory to system measured in Megabytes.
Hard Disk Access
time ms (millisecond) The time it takes for the drive to locate the data to be accessed.
transfer rate MBit/s The time it takes for data to be transferred from disk to system.



Image of a USB port

USB Cable Connection Max Pixel CCO
In order for a personal computer to be useful, it must have channels for receiving input from the user and channels for delivering output to the user. Input and output devices connect to the computer through connection ports, which are generally part of the motherboard and are accessible outside the computer case. In early personal computers, specific ports were designed for each type of output device. The configuration of these ports has evolved over the years, becoming more and more standardized over time. Today, almost all devices plug into a computer through the use of a USB port. This has increased in its capabilities, both in its data transfer rate and power supplied.

Besides USB, some input and output devices connect to the computer via a wireless-technology standard called Bluetooth, which was invented in 1994. Bluetooth exchanges data over short distances of 10 meters up to 100 meters using radio waves. Two devices communicating with Bluetooth must both have a Bluetooth communication chip installed. Bluetooth devices include pairing your phone to your car, computer keyboards, speakers, headsets, and home security, just to name a few.
Input Devices

Input Devices
All personal computers need components that allow the user to input data. Early computers simply used a keyboard for entering data or selecting an item from a menu to run a program. With the advent of operating systems offering the graphical user interface, the mouse became a standard component of a computer. These two components are still the primary input devices to a personal computer, though variations of each have been introduced with varying levels of success over the years. For example, many new devices now use a touch screen as the primary way of data entry.
Other input devices include scanners which allow users to input documents into a computer either as images or as text. Microphones can be used to record audio or give voice commands. Webcams and other types of video cameras can be used to record video or participate in a video chat session.
Output Devices



Output devices are essential as well. The most obvious output device is a display or monitor, visually representing the state of the computer. In some cases, a personal computer can support multiple displays or be connected to larger-format displays such as a projector or large-screen television. Other output devices include speakers for audio output and printers for hardcopy output.



A 3-D printer allows you to print virtually any 3-D object based on a model of that object designed on a computer. 3-D printers work by creating layer upon layer of the model using malleable materials, such as different types of glass, metals, or even wax. 3-D printing is quite useful for prototyping the designs of products to determine their feasibility and marketability. 3-D printing has also been used to create working prosthetic legs and an ear that can hear beyond the range of normal hearing. The US military now uses 3-D printed parts on aircraft such as the F-18 (The Economist, 2013).


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