The Non-Techie Dictionary

Computer Terms Explained for the Average Joe

Basic Terms

Address Bar
A text field near the top of a Web browser window that displays the URL of the current webpage. The URL, or web address, reflects the address of the current page and automatically changes whenever you visit a new webpage. Therefore, you can always check the location of the webpage you are currently viewing with the browser's address bar.

Software that shows advertising content on your machine. Similar to spyware, this type of software can prompt for consent, or just run without it. Typically adware isn't a security risk and is more of an annoyance, however it could potentially report back to a remote destination the information you are transmitting across the internet.

Android is a mobile operating system developed by Google. It is used by several smartphones, such as the Motorola Droid, the Samsung Galaxy, and Google's own Nexus One.

Antivirus software is a type of utility used for scanning and removing viruses from your computer. While many types of antivirus programs exist, their primary purpose is to protect computers from viruses and remove any viruses that are found.

The reason this term is in the glossary is because way too many people confuse "Apple" with "Macintosh." Apple is the company that makes Macintosh computers -- not the other way around.

An extra set or copy of computer files, that are essential for recovery when the original data is damaged or lost. Typically backups are kept separate from the originals to better protect the data.

Bandwidth describes the maximum data transfer rate of a network or Internet connection. It measures how much data can be sent over a specific connection in a given amount of time.

Banner Ad
Perhaps the most prolific form of Web advertising is the banner ad. It is a long, rectangular image that can be placed just about anywhere on a Web page. They may contain text, images, or sometimes those annoying animations that make it hard to focus on the page's content. Regardless of the type of banner ad, when a user clicks the advertisement, he or she is redirected to the advertiser's website.

A website where people can "web log" journal entries or commentary on a regular basis. Some people get paid to blog, others just do it for enjoyment or contribution to e-communities.

Blu-ray is an optical disc format such as CD and DVD. It was developed for recording and playing back high-definition (HD) video and for storing large amounts of data.

Wireless standards for short-range communication between wireless devices such as headsets, phones, PDAs, keyboards, etc. Usually to setup, devices have to "paired" between each other.

Bookmark aka "Favorite"
Similar to a real-life bookmark, an Internet bookmark acts as a marker for a Web site. (In Internet Explorer, they're called "Favorites".) When using a Web browser, you can simply select a bookmark from the browser's Bookmarks menu to go to a certain site.

You are probably using a browser to read this right now. A Web browser, often just called a "browser," is the program people use to access the World Wide Web. It interprets HTML code including text, images, hypertext links, Javascript, and Java applets. After rendering the HTML code, the browser displays a nicely formatted page

A byte is a unit of measurement used to measure data. One byte contains eight binary bits, or a series of eight zeros and ones. Therefore, each byte can be used to represent 2^8 or 256 different values.

Cable Modem
A cable modem is used for connecting to the Internet and is much faster than a typical dial-up modem. While a 56K modem can receive data at about 53 Kbps, cable modems support data transfer rates of up to 30 Mbps.

A cache stores recently-used information in a place where it can be accessed extremely fast. For example, a Web browser like Internet Explorer uses a cache to store the pages, images, and URLs of recently visted Web sites on your hard drive. That way, when you visit a page you have recently been to, the pages and images don't have to be downloaded to your computer all over again.

A small text file placed on your computer upon visiting web pages. These are commonly used to remember your settings & preferences so that when upon revisiting a web page; you can save time by not re-choosing the same options. By using cookies, companies can then customize advertisements to your liking through a technique called "targeted advertising." Cookies are not actually programs and can't read data or cause damage to your computer.

Control Panel
The Control Panel is a feature of the Windows operating system that allows the user to modify system settings and controls. It includes several small applications, or control panels, that can be used to view and change hardware or software settings.

CPU or Central Processing Unit
Essentially the brain of your computer. It processes everything from basic instructions to complex functions.

Default Program
A default program is an application that opens a file when you double-click it. For example, if you double-click a .TXT file in Windows and it automatically opens in Notepad, then Notepad is the default program for files with a ".txt" extension.

Defragment "Defrag or Defragging"
Process of reorganizing information on your hard drive so that drives can find data faster when it is needed. During a defragmentation, you hard drive will slow; however upon completion it should be quicker. This should only be performed on discs that spin and not solid-state drives.

Domain Name
A domain name is a unique name that identifies a website. For example, the domain name of the Computer Tuneups is "" Each website has a domain name that serves as an address, which is used to access the website.

DoS or Denial of Service
An attack typically on a server (fast computer) or network in which data floods in so quickly that the systems become overwhelmed and cease to function correctly. This can often lead to information leaks and data compromises.

These are the little text-based faces and objects that you often see in e-mail and online chat. They help give the reader a sense of the writer's feelings behind the text.

End User
An end user is the person that a software program or hardware device is designed for. The term is based on the idea that the "end goal" of a software or hardware product is to be useful to the consumer.

An executable file is a type of computer file that runs a program when it is opened. This means it executes code or a series of instructions contained in the file.

Expansion Card
An expansion card is a printed circuit board that can be installed in computer to add functionality to it. For example, a user may add a new graphics card to his computer to give it more 3D graphics processing power.

Ethernet is the most common type of connection computers use in a local area network (LAN). An Ethernet port looks much like a regular phone jack, but it is slightly wider. This port can be used to connect your computer to another computer, a local network, or an external DSL or cable modem.

File Association
A file association is a relationship between a file type and a supporting application. For example, a Word document may be associated with Microsoft Word.

The term "firewall" originally referred to fireproof walls that were designed to prevent the spread of fire from one room or building to the next. A computer firewall limits the data that can pass through it and protects a networked server or client machine from damage by unauthorized users.

Firmware is a software program or set of instructions programmed on a hardware device. It provides the necessary instructions for how the device communicates with the other computer hardware.

Flash USB
Flash drives have many names — jump drives, thumb drives, pen drives, and USB key-chain drives. Regardless of what you call them, they all refer to the same thing, which is a small data storage device that uses flash memory and has a built-in USB connection.

GPU or Graphics Processing Unit
Like the CPU (Central Processing Unit), it is a single-chip processor. However, the GPU is used primarily for computing 3D functions. This includes things such as lighting effects, object transformations, and 3D motion.

GUI or Graphical User Interface
Pronounced as "gooey." It refers to the graphical interface of a computer that allows users to click and drag objects with a mouse instead of entering text at a command line.

HTML or Hyper-Text Markup Language

This is the language that Web pages are written in. Also known as hypertext documents, Web pages must conform to the rules of HTML in order to be displayed correctly in a Web browser.


Computer hardware refers to the physical parts of a computer and related devices. Internal hardware devices include motherboards, hard drives, and RAM. External hardware devices include monitors, keyboards, mice, printers, and scanners.

Hard Disk

When you save data or install programs on your computer, the information is typically written to your hard disk. The hard disk is a spindle of magnetic disks, called platters, that record and store information.


While this term originally referred to a clever or expert programmer, it is now more commonly used to refer to someone who can gain unauthorized access to other computers.


The physical device or devices (typically RAM) used to temporarily store programs (sequences of instructions) or data on a temporary.


A concept , behavior, or phrase that spreads from person to person very quickly through the internet & social networks. Examples of memes include Tebowing, Planking, etc.


Short for "malicious software," malware refers to software programs designed to damage or do other unwanted actions on a computer system.


The amount of time it takes a packet of data to move across a network connection. When a packet is being sent, there is "latent" time, when the computer that sent the packet waits for confirmation that the packet has been received. Latency and bandwidth are the two factors that determine your network connection speed.

LAN or Local Area Network

LAN is a computer network limited to a small area such as an office building, university, or even a residential home.

Keyboard Shortcut

A key combination that performs a certain command, such as closing a window or saving a file.


A high-level programming language developed by Sun Microsystems. It was originally designed for developing programs for set-top boxes and handheld devices, but later became a popular choice for creating web applications.


Like Java, this is a programming lanuguage designed by Sun Microsystems, in conjuction with Netscape, that can be integrated into standard HTML pages.

IP Address

Also known as an "IP number" or simply an "IP," this is a code which consists of four sets of numbers from 0 to 255, separated by three dots that identifies a particular computer on the Internet.

Input Device

An input device is any device that provides input to a computer. There are dozens of possible input devices, but the two most common ones are a keyboard and mouse.

IMAP or Internet Message Access Protocol

Pronounced "eye-map." This is a method of accessing e-mail messages on a server without having to download them to your local hard drive.


In computing, overwriting refers to replacing old data with new data. There are two primary types of overwriting: 1) replacing text, and 2) replacing files.


For some people, fast is never fast enough. In the world of computers, a fast processor can be made even faster by overclocking it. Overclocking involves increasing the clock speed of the computer's CPU past the rate at which it was originally designed to run. Modifying these settings may allow the processor to run faster than set by the manufacturer, however the hardware may also have a decreased life expectancy due to the increased heat and wear.

Output Device

Any device that outputs information from a computer is called, not surprisingly, an output device. Since most information from a computer is output in either a visual or auditory format, the most common output devices are the monitor and speakers.

Operating System or "OS"

Software that communicates with the hardware and allows other programs to run. It is comprised of system software, or the fundamental files your computer needs to boot up and function. Every desktop computer, tablet, and smartphone includes an operating system that provides basic functionality for the device.

Motherboard or "Mobo"

The motherboard is the main circuit board of your computer and is also known as the mainboard or logic board. If you ever open your computer, the biggest piece of silicon you see is the motherboard. Attached to the motherboard, you'll find the CPU, ROM, memory RAM expansion slots, PCI slots, and USB ports.


Stands for "MPEG-1 Audio Layer-3." MP3 is popular compressed audio file format that helped popularize digital music downloads beginning in the late 1990s. Because of their small size and good fidelity, MP3 files have become a popular way to store music files on both computers and portable devices like the iPod.


This is a small amount of computer data sent over a network. Any time you receive data from the Internet, it comes to your computer in the form of many little packets. Each packet contains the address of its origin and destination, and information that connects it to the related packets being sent.


A partition is a section of a hard disk. When you format a hard disk, you can usually choose the number of partitions you want. The computer will recognize each partition as a separate disk, and each will show up under "My Computer" (Windows) or on the desktop (Macintosh).


When someone installs and uses commercial software without paying for the program, it is called "pirating" the software. Software piracy is committed by simply downloading or copying a program that a user has not paid for.

POP3 or "Post Office Protocol"

A standardized method of delivering e-mail messages. A POP3 mail server receives e-mails and filters them into the appropriate user folders. When a user connects to the mail server to retrieve his mail, the messages are downloaded from mail server to the user's hard disk.


When you reimage a hard disk, you restore the entire disk from a disk image file. Since this restore process involves erasing all the current data on the hard disk, it is typically used a last resort system recovery option.

Remote Access

Remote access is just what it sounds like -- the ability to access your computer from a remote location. Programs like PC Anywhere (Windows), Remote Access (Mac), and Timbuktu (Windows and Mac) allow users to control remote computers from their local machine.


This term can describe either how many pixels a monitor can display or how fine a printer can print.


This is a hardware device that routes data (hence the name) from a local area network (LAN) to another network connection. A router acts like a coin sorting machine, allowing only authorized machines to connect to other computer systems. Most routers also keep log files about the local network activity.

Safe Mode

Safe Mode is a way for the Windows operating system to run with the minimum system files necessary. It is commonly used for troubleshooting software or configuration issues within the OS.


As the name implies, this is software that "spies" on your computer. Spyware can capture information like Web browsing habits, e-mail messages, usernames and passwords, and credit card information. If left unchecked, the software can transmit this data to another person's computer over the Internet.

SSD or Solid State Drive

An SSD is a type of mass storage device similar to a hard disk drive (HDD). It supports reading and writing data and maintains stored data in a permanent state even without power. These are hard drives that should never be defragmented.


Troubleshooting is the process of diagnosing the source of a problem. It is used to fix problems with hardware, software, and many other products.

User Interface

A user interface, also called a "UI" or simply an "interface," is the means in which a person controls a software application or hardware device. A good user interface provides a "user-friendly" experience, allowing the user to interact with the software or hardware in a natural and intuitive way.

Video Card

Most of the processing done on a computer is done via the computer's central processing unit, or CPU. So in order to give the CPU a break and help it run more efficiently, a video card can be used to process the graphics portion of the processing load. Because most of today's programs are graphically oriented, the video card can help almost any program run more efficiently.

Zero Day Exploit

A zero day exploit is a malicious computer attack that takes advantage of a security hole before the vulnerability is known. This means the security issue is made known the same day as the computer attack is released. In other words, the software developer has zero days to prepare for the security breach and must work as quickly as possible to develop a patch or update that fixes the problem.

Advanced Terms

Access Point or Wireless Access Point "WAP"

Typically a device that allows access into a network and thus the internet. Through an access point, the user can then access remote resources such as files, servers, or printers. Common examples could be Switches or Routers. If you connect to a network wirelessly, you are actually connecting through a Wireless Access Point.


A software extension that adds extra features to a program. It may extend certain functions within the program, add new items to the program's interface, or give the program additional capabilities.


Apache is the most popular Web server software. It enables a computer to host one or more websites that can be accessed over the Internet using a Web browser. Apache's popularity in the Web hosting market is largely because it is open source and free to use. Therefore, Web hosting companies can offer Apache-based Web hosting solutions at minimal costs.


An applet is a small application designed to run within another application. While the term "applet" is sometimes used to describe small programs included with a computer's operating system, it usually refers to Java applets, or small applications written in the Java programming language.


An archive is a single file that contains multiple files and/or folders. Archives may be created by several different file archiving utilities and can be saved in one of several different formats. They may also be compressed to reduce the file size or encrypted for security purposes. The term "archive" can also be used as a verb, which refers to the process of creating an archive.


Stands for "American Standard Code for Information Interchange." ASCII character encoding provides a standard way to represent characters using numeric codes. These include upper and lower-case English letters, numbers, and punctuation symbols.


A program or script on a mail server that automatically replies to e-mails.


A group of computers that have been taken over and are controlled by one person or a group of people. Malware installed on users machines can then be used to send spam, grow the botnet, or launch denial-of-service attacks.

Domain Spoofing or Domain Hijacking


Encryption is the coding or scrambling of information so that it can only be decoded and read by someone who has the correct decoding key. Encryption is used in secure Web sites as well as other mediums of data transfer. If a third party were to intercept the information you sent via an encrypted connection, they would not be able to read it.


This strange term refers to the way Windows stores data on your hard drive. "FAT" stands for "File Allocation Table," which keeps track of all your files and helps the computer locate them on the disk. Even if a file gets fragmented (split up into various areas on the disk), the file allocation table still can keep track of it.

Fiber-Optic Cable

This is a cable made up of super-thin filaments of glass or other transparent materials that can carry beams of light. Because a fiber-optic cable is light-based, data can be sent through it at the speed of light.


A gateway is either hardware or software that acts as a bridge between two networks so that data can be transferred between a number of computers.

Sources & Additional Learning Resources

To Return Back to the Top of Page

To Return Back to