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An Introduction to Hardware for Beginners: Bits, Bytes and Beyond

written by: Ashwin Satyanarayana•edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 6/4/2009

A computer is an electronic device. Having said that, it is now obvious that we need to develop a basic understanding of how it works. Starting at the root concepts of Bits and Bytes, let's take a look at the rather simple and minimalistic, binary lifestyle of a computer. See how it works.

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    Information is all about the exchange of data, isn’t it? We receive loads of information everyday and this information comes in all possible forms -- text, numbers, pictures, and videos. These are picked up by our senses in everyday life. Computers have a simple way of taking in all the information you give them (in simple binary format) which is all they understand. The binary format consists of just “0” and “1” and everything they taken in is converted into this format for them to understand.

    The “0” and “1” in the binary system are like our everyday switches that tell the computer to do something -- on or off at the simplest level. Each of the millions (not quite a billion, now-a-days) transistors in a central processing unit (CPU) can process these commands and it all leads to incredible computing power.

    One of the basic building blocks of the Binary System is the bit, which stands for Binary Digit. The number of zeros or ones within a binary number would be named as such. For instance “1” is one bit; “0” is a one bit number. However, 1001 is a 4 bit number. And 10011001 is an 8-bit number.

    We are very familiar with our decimal number system which consists of numbers from 0-9. Binary number system, by contrast has only 0 and 1 as its functional numbers.

    ASCII, which stands for the American Standard Code for Information Interchange, is the industry standard for assigning our mind-boggling range of characters (all the alphabets, numbers from 0-9, special characters, foreign characters, etc) and is divided into 3 sections:

    • Systems codes between 0-31
    • Lower ASCII for 32- 127
    • Higher ASCII for 128 - 255, for foreign letters, codes and symbols.

    An ASCII table exists which forms an easy reference for us to convert any binary number into the equivalent character. For instance, look at the binary number series as given below.

    00110001 00110010 00110011

    When dissected into 8 bits per part, it would read as 49, 50 and 51. These numbers when referred to the ASCII denote nothing but our decimal numbers of 1, 2 and 3.

    A bunch of 8 bits together is called as a byte.

    Now, user data and program code, which together allow the computer to run are input to the computer as a string of code (in binary format) which then allows the CPU to process this data and produce results. So, everything you do with the computer is translated into data which is sent to the CPU telling it exactly what needs to be done.

    For instance, if you type in any letter on the keypad, the binary 8 digit number would then be produced immediately which will be sent to the CPU which decides that a character (which was input on the keyboard) has to be displayed on the computer screen.