Aug 6, 2008
Computer A device that receives, processes, and presents information. The two basic types of computers are analog and digital. Although generally not regarded as such, the most prevalent computer is the simple mechanical analog computer, in which gears, levers, ratchets, and pawls perform mathematical operations—for example, the speedometer and the watt-hour meter (used to measure accumulated electrical usage). The general public has become much more aware of the digital computer with the rapid proliferation of the hand-held calculator and a large variety of intelligent devices and especially with exposure to the Internet and the World Wide Web. See also Calculators; Internet; World Wide Web. An analog computer uses inputs that are proportional to the instantaneous value of variable quantities, combines these inputs in a predetermined way, and produces outputs that are a continuously varying function of the inputs and the processing. These outputs are then displayed or connected to another device to cause action, as in the case of a speed governor or other control device. Small electronic analog computers are frequently used as components in control systems. If the analog computer is built solely for one purpose, it is termed a special-purpose electronic analog computer. In any analog computer the key concepts involve special versus general-purpose computer designs, and the technology utilized to construct the computer itself, mechanical or electronic. See also Analog computer. In contrast, a digital computer uses symbolic representations of its variables. The arithmetic unit is constructed to follow the rules of one (or more) number systems. Further, the digital computer uses individual discrete states to represent the digits of the number system chosen. A digital computer can easily store and manipulate numbers, letters, images, sounds, or graphical information represented by a symbolic code. Through the use of the stored program, the digital computer achieves a degree of flexibility unequaled by any other computing or data-processing device. The advent of the relatively inexpensive and readily available personal computer, and the combination of the computer and communications, such as by the use of networks, have dramatically expanded computer applications. The most common application now is probably text and word processing, followed by electronic mail. See also Electronic mail; Local-area networks; Microcomputer; Word processing. Computers have begun to meet the barrier imposed by the speed of light in achieving higher speeds. This has led to research and development in the areas of parallel computers (in order to accomplish more in parallel rather than by serial computation) and distributed computers (taking advantage of network connections to spread the work around, thus achieving more parallelism). Continuing demand for more processing power has led to significant changes in computer hardware and software architectures, both to increase the speed of basic operations and to reduce the overall processing time. See also Computer systems architecture; Concurrent processing; Distributed systems (computers); Multiprocessing; Supercomputer.
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