Basic terms

hardware: the physical computer and its parts

PC (Personal Computer): a computer in the form of a desktop (medium-sized box on top of or next to your desk) or laptop (portable computer with built-in screen and keyboard)

software: digital instructions to be run by the computer

program: piece of software

The most commonly used types of programs today:

·         word processor: creates and edits text documents

·         spreadsheet: produces calculations and charts from rows and columns of data (primarily used in business)

·         web browser: views web pages from the internet

·         email client: sends and receives email

·         instant messenger: sends text messages instantly

·         media player: for playing audio and video

·         image editor: for creating and manipulating digital images

·         games


operating system (OS): program for running other programs. When a computer boots (starts), it first loads the OS. The OS provides an interface for starting and managing other programs.

Microsoft Windows: a series of OS’s from Microsoft. The most recent versions of Windows are WindowsXP (2001), Windows Vista (2005), and Windows 7 (2009).

Linux: a Free Software OS. Only used by a small minority of users.

Apple Mac Os X: (the ‘X’ is read as ‘10’). An OS only available when buying an Apple computer. Mac OS X is the only real distinguishing factor between an Apple computer and a non-Apple computer.

The mouse

The mouse is a pointing device for moving the cursor on the screen. Mice typically have two or three buttons and often a scroll wheel. How the mouse is used in different programs may differ, but most programs follow these conventions:

                left button:

§  press button under cursor

§  select thing under cursor

§  give focus to thing under cursor

                middle button:

·         no common use

                right button:

·         show the “context menu” of the thing under the cursor

                scroll wheel:

·         scroll up/down 

double-click (tap left button twice quickly):

·         “open” thing under cursor

                click-and-drag (click and hold left button, move mouse, then release left button):

·         move thing under cursor

·         drag selection box

drag-and-drop (same as click-and-drag, but release button over a target):

·         triggers action involving the thing dragged and the target

If you find the cursor moves too quickly or too slowly, you can adjust your mouse “sensitivity” in the Control Panel. (Or in the Start Menu, search for “mouse”.) If you still have trouble moving the mouse, try practicing with a game, like Solitaire, Hearts, Minesweeper, or Chess (all of which come included with Windows).

When we say “click”, we mean push the left button. Only when we say “right-click” or “middle-click” do we mean push the right or middle buttons.  When you right-click on different things, you get different context menus, hence the name: a context menu shows actions relevant to the context of what you right-clicked on. You shouldn’t hesitate to right-click on things when learning a program. Very often, important functionality is most conveniently accessed via context menus.

The keyboard

The keyboard keys can have entirely different meanings to different programs, but programs usually follow conventions:

ESC (escape):

·         get me out of here

·         deselect whatever is selected

F1 - F12 (function keys):

·         Use varies from program to program

CTRL (control):

·         used in key combos, e.g. CTRL-w

ALT (alternate):

·         “accelerators”: like key combos, but used to effectively ‘click’ on buttons on the screen

Windows key:

·         show the “Start” menu

·         used in Windows key combos

right-click key

·         equivalent of clicking mouse’s right button

print screen:

·         captures a screenshot

scroll lock:

·         unused


·         unused


·         toggle text-entry mode


·         delete character immediately after cursor


·         jump to start of line


·         jump to end of line

page up:

·         scroll up one whole screen height

page down:

·         scroll down one whole screen height

cursor keys:

·         move up, down, left, right

numpad (“number” pad):

·         faster way to enter numbers and math symbols

·         toggled by num lock


·         hold shift to type uppercase letters and alternate symbols

·         used in key combos

caps lock:

·         toggles caps lock: any letter typed is uppercase


·         insert tab character

·         cycle keyboard focus


·         start new text line

·         push button


The desktop and windows

The visible part of a program is presented to the user as a “window”, which is a rectangle which can be moved around and resized. Multiple windows can be seen at once, and they may overlap.

To move a window, click-and-drag the title bar (the top portion of the window where the title is displayed). To resize a window, you can click-and-drag the edges and corners of the windows.

When typing keys on the keyboard, your keystrokes only go to one window at a time, the window with “keyboard focus”. Clicking on a window gives it keyboard focus, so the window which you last clicked on has keyboard focus.  (Clicking on a window also brings it forward so that it is displayed on top of any other windows.)

Some programs display more than one window to the user. Often, these other windows are “dialog” windows, which prompt the user to answer a question or specify certain options before continuing. For example, in most programs that allow you to print something, clicking the print button will present a dialog window that asks you to specify how exactly you want to print. To get rid of such dialogs, you can click the Cancel button to abort the action (clicking the red X in the top right corner is equivalent to clicking Cancel), or you can answer the question(s) then click the OK button to carry out the action.

The surface behind the windows is called the “desktop”. The desktop is either a solid color or has an image (a “wallpaper”). On the desktop, you may have some number of icons. Most of these icons are actually files (as discussed later).

At the bottom of the screen, you should see the taskbar. On the taskbar, each window is represented as a button. You can click one of these buttons to bring the window it represents forward (so it’s on top of all other windows) and to give it keyboard focus.

In the top-right corner of a window, you should see three buttons:

(Dialog windows usually don’t have minimize and maximize buttons.)

The common elements you see used in all sorts of different programs are called “widgets”. For example, a scroll bar is a kind of widget: many different programs have a need for displaying a scrolling area to the user, so they all use the same mechanism, a scroll bar.

Here in this dialog window you can see other kinds of widgets (you don’t really have to memorize the names of these things, but it wouldn’t hurt):


In Windows 7, a program can be pinned to the taskbar, meaning a button for that program sits on the taskbar even when that program isn’t open. Programs which are actually open are highlighted on the taskbar. You can pin and unpin a program from its context menu (right-click on its button).

If an open program has multiple windows, it is highlighted on the taskbar to indicate this. To select one of the program’s open windows, you first click on the button to display thumbnails of each window and then click on the thumbnail of the desired window. (A “thumbnail” is a reduced-size version of a picture.)


The clipboard

The clipboard is a feature of the operating system for copying data from one program to another. The data can be text, images, files, folders, among other kinds. The clipboard is used with three actions:

copy: copy data to the clipboard

paste: copy data from the clipboard to a program

cut: like copy, but removes the data from the original location (so this is used when you want to move something rather than copy it)

The clipboard always only holds whatever was last copied or cut, so copying and cutting effectively overwrites whatever was previously in the clipboard. Pasting doesn’t wipe the contents of the clipboard, so you can paste the same thing from the clipboard as many times as you like.

By convention, most programs support these keyboard combos:

o   cut                          ctrl-X

o   copy                      ctrl-C

o   paste                     ctrl-V


o   undo                     ctrl-Z

o   redo                      ctrl-Y


o   save                       ctrl-S

o   select all               ctrl-A


The Start Menu

The Start Menu is opened by clicking the Start Button (on the left side of the taskbar) or by hitting the Windows key on your keyboard (the key left of the spacebar with the Microsoft Windows logo). The Start Menu is where you can open programs, open the control panel, open folders (discussed later), or shut off the computer.

 The pinned programs are commonly used programs which have been explicitly selected to appear at the top of the list. You can pin and unpin programs in the context menu that appears when you right-click on a program.

The recent programs list contains programs which have been opened recently. This list is automatically updated; you don’t have direct control over what appears in it.

For the complete list of every program available on your system, click “All Programs”. This presents a scroll list of every program.

The text box at the bottom is for searching. As you type in the box, the list above changes to show any programs or files that match what you type. For example, if I type “wo”, Microsoft Word should show in the list because the name contains that sequence of characters. Searching for programs in this way is often the easiest way to find a program. Say I want to play Hearts but don’t want to find it in the menu. If I just type “hearts”, Hearts will probably appear at the top of the list. In fact, I probably don’t have to finish typing the whole word before it appears because it’s unlikely that other programs also begin with “hea”.

To turn off your computer, you should hit the shutdown button in the Start Menu. This allows Windows to shutdown every program in a way that avoids losing data. If you have programs open with unsaved data, Windows will ask you if you want to save that data before shutting down.

The system tray (“notification area”)

On the right side of the taskbar is an area called the “system tray” or “notification area”. It consists of small icons representing mainly open programs which run “in the background” (meaning programs which do stuff which the user can’t directly see or which the user doesn’t need to interact with frequently). Because it doesn’t make sense for each of these programs to take up space on the taskbar like other programs, they are reduced to these small icons.

Some icons in the system tray are not programs, per se. The speaker icon, for example, is a volume control slider. It’s simply a convenient way to change the volume level without going into the Control Panel.