The Operating System and the User Interface

The operating system is the master program that runs the computer behind the scenes while you work. It translates your instructions into actions by the machine. It also heads off conflicts between one part of the machine and another, making them all take turns. The most common operating systems are: The User Interface is what you see on the screen at the beginning. You can come back to this screen anytime you need it. Sometimes a part of it is always visible. The simplest user interface is a Command Line. The line is shown by a Prompt, some symbols that tell you where to type your commands (e.g. C:\windows> ...); this is not so common today, but it is easy to use -- if you remember the Commands. Since most people can't remember a lot of commands or don't want to be bothered, the alternative is a GUI, graphical user interface: a pretty set of little pictures called 'icons' with printed labels on them that appear on the screen to remind you of the commands.

The Mouse is used to 'click' on an icon or label to issue a command. The most common commands are the ones to start new programs. The programs then give you more choices of specialized commands to edit text, draw pictures, access the internet, etc.

The operating system usually knows what program goes with what file (this is called an 'association'), but sometimes you have to tell it. Sometimes a program cannot use a file of information until it has been 'converted' to work with that program. If you have a paper you wrote on a Mac and want to print it on a PC, it has to be converted first. If you have a paper you wrote with the MS Word program and you want to edit it with the WordPerfect program, it has to be converted first. Always keep a copy of the original version, just in case something goes wrong. This safety rule is called 'backing up' the file, i.e. keeping a spare copy of the old version in case the new version doesn't work or is accidentally lost or ruined.

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Programs, Commands, Folders and Files

An 'application program' is the most common kind of program. A word-processor is an application program for writing, reading, and editing text. A paint or draw program is for making, viewing, and changing pictures. A calculator program is for doing arithmetic. Almost everything you want to do with a computer is available, for a price, as a program or set of connected programs. Every program appears on screen as an icon, or has a command to start it.
Once you start a program, there are special commands that work only in that program to make it do things, or there are special icons that appear to help you do these things. Many programs have a linked Help program that tells you what to do. Some have Wizard programs that walk you step by step through something. There are also Tutorial programs to introduce a new program to you. And there are program manuals, printed books that explain how to use the program. To use any program you have to LEARN how.
Most programs create, read, and modify information. This information is then stored in a FILE. There are text files, picture files, sound files, video files, multimedia files, and others. All information in a computer is stored in some kind of a file. To keep track of all these files, there is a Filing System, a special program built into the operating system. What you see are Folders (also called directories or subdirectories), and inside a folder there are files. There can also be folders inside other folders. To locate a particular file of information, the computer, and sometimes you, need to know the Path to the file, which consists of telling what DRIVE it is stored on, what folder it is in, what folder that folder is in, and so on. Usually each drive has a letter, or an icon. C: is the main hard disk drive (where most of the files are kept permanently), and other letters can be other disk drives and CD-ROM drives. A path might look like C:\windows\system\audio.dll -- this is the path to a file called audio.dll that contains information that the windows operating system uses to communicate with the speakers and play music or sound; it is in a folder called System and that is in a folder called Windows and that folder is permanently stored on the C: hard drive.
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The operating system: is the master program that runs the computer behind the scenes while you work

Word Processor: reads, edits text files; sometimes can add pictures or tables

Paint or Draw: creates, shows, and changes pictures and images

Database: stores and organizes information, helps locate needed information

Spreadsheet: does simple math calculations

Communications: helps connect to other computers by modem and telephone

Browser: connects to the Internet to show web pages

Email: write, read, send, receive, store, and organize electronic mail messages

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