Shopping for new technology can sometimes feel like wading through a vat of alphabet soup. The number of new acronyms to describe features and metrics is imposing, and the pace at which new terms are introduced can be downright dizzying.
So to provide a helpful resource for those shopping for and using computing, mobile and video technologies I’ve compiled this technology glossary. The list will be updated as new terms become important. If there’s something you feel is missing from the list, feel free to send a note to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll work to add the missing pieces of the ever changing technology puzzle.
Here we have the basic breakdown of different device formats. All of these are a computer of one kind or another and in many instances the lines between these form factors are completely blurred by devices capable of transforming from one to another.
- Desktop: What most people think of as a computer. Typically a tower with all the computer’s internal parts connected to an external monitor, keyboard and mouse, but more commonly an all-in-one design with the tower integrated into the monitor.
- Docking station: A device designed to let a portable device power an external screen or set of speakers. A docking station can allow a smartphone to display video on a large screen or play audio through more robust speakers. Docking stations can also turn a tablet into a laptop via a keyboard it can connect to or a smartphone into a tablet via a larger screen it can be connected with.
- Dumbphone: A regular old cell phone. Calls and text messages, but nothing more.
- eReader: A tablet focused mainly on providing a platform for reading digital books. Often these have mono-color E Ink screens that make them easy to read in direct sunlight.
- Featurephone: A device in between with narrowly focused online abilities but no true web browser or the ability to add additional apps.
- Laptop: A full-scale computer in a portable package. The latest laptops are as powerful as any desktop computer from just a few years ago while still being lighter and faster.
- Nettop: A small, bare bones computer designed for basic tasks such as email and web browsing. Often these can be connected to HD TVs as well as traditional computer monitors.
- PMP: An acronym for Personal Media Player. Often tablet in format, these media consumption devices can be capable of playing only audio and video files or as powerful as a smartphone with full Internet capabilities but without the integrated cell phone.
- Smartphone: Essentially a computer in a cell phone’s clothing. Ostensibly pocket sized and capable of connecting to the Internet via mobile and WiFi networks, handling email, taking digital pictures and video, tackling other computing tasks, and occasionally making phone calls.
- Tablet: A flat computer with a touchscreen or stylus input and no standard keyboard or mouse. Apple’s iPad kick started the consumer market for tablets bringing these devices mainstream.
These are the nuts and bolts that power the computers and determine how fast it can work, how much data it can hold and how it can connect to other devices.
- CPU: An acronym for Central Processing Unit. This is essentially the brains of a computer and the part that does the computations that actually power the software. Modern CPU speed is usually expressed in Gigahertz, and generally the more GHz available, the faster the processor will function.
- Core: In computing terms this refers to a CPU that is actually made up of several linked CPUs for parallel processing capabilities and smoother computer operations.
- FireWire: A serial bus connection format developed by Apple and used to connect peripheral devices such as external hard drives to computers. FireWire never caught on beyond Apple’s devices and is becoming less common.
- GPU: An acronym for Graphics Processing Unit. A specialized computer chip aimed at optimizing the processing of graphical information for smooth rendering of complex images such as detailed 3D graphics.
- Hard Drive: The storage locker for computer data. Hard drives come in a range of formats and sizes, but have traditionally been based around a moving disc that uses magnetic signals to store information. Hard drives can be internal to a computer or externally connected to expand the amount of data that can be stored.
- Optical drive: A computer storage device that uses lasers to store and access data on external discs. CDs, DVD and Blu-ray discs are examples of optical storage media.
- RAM: An acronym for Random Access Memory. The basic memory capabilities of a computer today are often measured in Gigabytes. While RAM can be used as a metric to determine the speed at which a computer can operate, other factors including the processor speed and the operating system play a role, so a computer with 1 GB of RAM could actually be swifter than one with 2 GB, depending on these other factors.
- SSD: An acronym for Solid State Drive. A newer type of hard drive that does not involve any moving parts, which increases the reliability, reduces operating noise and increases the speed at which data can be saved and accessed from the drive.
- Server: A computer set up to provide data and software services to other computers on the same network.
- Thunderbolt: A serial bus connection for high speed data transfer developed by Intel and implemented on the latest Apple computers. Thunderbolt offers rapid data transfer to peripheral devices capable of connecting via the cable format.
- USB: An acronym for Universal Serial Bus. This has become the standard port for connecting computing devices via a cable to transfer data. USB 2.0 is still the most common type of USB port, but USB 3.0, which allows for faster data transfer is becoming more common.
Understanding what sets one computer screen apart from another is among the most difficult tasks. The best practice is to see them first hand because saying one screen format is brighter or clearer than another is somewhat of a subjective comment.
- CRT: An acronym for Cathode Ray Tube. This is the older technology used for TV screens and computer monitors. The technology cannot be used in a flatscreen format and is growing less common in the technology world, but is still valuable for video monitors among other uses.
- DisplayPort/Mini DisplayPort: A video connection standard used to connect a computer to an external screen. DisplayPort is similar to HDMI in many of its capabilities.
- E Ink: A proprietary type of screen technology commonly used in eReaders. It is designed to mimic the look of ink on paper, performs well in direct light and operates efficiently. E Ink displays do not handle video well due to their low refresh rate.
- HD: An acronym for High Definition. This typically refers to displays with displays of 1,280×720 pixels (720p) or 1,920×1,080 pixels (1080i/1080p).
- HDMI: An acronym for High-Definition Multimedia Interface. This is the standard connection for sending HD video content from one device to another. Many computers, laptops and even some smartphones are capable of connecting via HDMI cable.
- LCD: An acronym for Liquid Crystal Display. A common screen technology used for computer monitors, HD TVs and smartphones. These can be thin with crisp images, but can have limited viewing angles.
- OLED: An acronym for Organic Light Emitting Diode. This screen technology used in computer monitors and smartphones is lightweight, energy efficient and offers good viewing angles, but doesn’t always have the best color balance and can be difficult to view in direct sunlight.
- Pixel: A single point in the display. A single pixel is the smallest dot a display can render. Pixel density refers to how many pixels are fit into a square inch of the display. The higher the density the smoother the image rendering. A screen resolution displayed in pixels often has the number of pixels per side, thus multiplied together the two numbers equal the total number of pixels available in the display.
- Retina Display: An Apple brand name for a display with pixel density high enough that the average viewer will not be able to discern pixels from an average viewing distance.
- SD: An acronym for Standard Definition. This refers to displays with less pixel density than HD screens.
- Screen size: When presented as a number of inches, screen size is a measure of the screen at an angle from corner to corner.
- VGA: An acronym for Video Graphics Array. The 15-pin VGA connector is a standard cable connection for exporting video content from a computer to an external screen or a projector. While VGA screens support resolutions of just 640x400 pixels, the VGA connectors can be used for higher quality and even HD video connections.
The ways modern devices can connect to each other and the wider Internet without the need for cables is one driving force behind the spread of mobile computing. However understanding what the terms, network standards and speeds really mean can be extremely difficult, especially because they are constantly evolving.
- 3G: This term refers to 3rd generation mobile communications platforms. Smartphones really took off when networks offered connections on 3G networks. To be considered 3G, a network technology must meet the International Mobile Telecommunications-2000 (IMT-2000) specifications set by the International Telecommunication Union of peak data speeds of at least 0.2 Mbit/s. Most 3G technologies provide speeds far higher.
- 4G: This term refers to 4th generation mobile communications platforms. The International Mobile Telecommunications-2000 (IMT-2000) specifications for 4G networks require speeds of 100 Mbit/s, however current commercial 4G networks do not reach those speeds.
- AirPlay: Apple’s proprietary technology for wirelessly streaming audio, video and images from a computer or mobile device to a screen, set of speakers or other output device.
- Bluetooth: A wireless technology that allows computing devices and peripherals to connect over short distances. Bluetooth can be used to send data or to connect a computer to a wireless mouse or keyboard.
- CDMA: A network technology that carries voice and data transmission through the same system. Speeds on these networks can be around 1 Mbit/s
- Cloud: Delivery of computer storage and other data-based services via a wireless network. Cloud computing often refers to accessing stored media and content from servers located a great distance away.
- HSPA: A 3G network technology capable of download speeds up to 14 Mbit/s, although average user speeds are often far slower.
- HSPA+: Technically a 3G network technology, HSPA+ networks are often marketed as 4G because they can be configured to allow download speed of up to 168 Mbit/s.
- LTE: Quickly becoming the dominant 4G mobile network technology, this is an acronym for Long Term Evolution. LTE download speeds can reach 300 Mbit/s.
- Streaming: Viewing media such as audio and video from a remote server location.
- WiFi: A wireless network allowing computers and other WiFi capable devices such as printers and hard drives to connect with each other. WiFi networks are commonly connected to the larger Internet, thus allowing all the connected devices to connect to other networks outside of the local WiFi.
- WiMax: The first commercial network technology marketed as 4G, WiMax can provide mobile data speeds of 30 to 40 Mbit/s with fixed data speeds capable of reaching 1 Gbit/s
Understanding the guts of the systems we use is important, but it’s just as important to have some understanding of the software programs running on these devices.
- App: A shortened form of application, App is the common term used for any computer program. Apps can be wide in scope with numerous capabilities or simplified in order to allow the user to make the computer execute one specific task.
- Ecosystem: When used in reference to computers and technology, an ecosystem refers to the range of devices and apps available with a shared operating system. Devices from the same ecosystem can often share apps, and easily exchange data.
- GUI: An acronym for Graphical User Interface. GUI is the most common form of interfacing with a computer as it allows the user to view and manipulate icons to execute the apps and functions within an app.
- Operating system: Often abbreviated as OS, this is the heart of the computing environment and the platform upon which other applications will be run.