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Computer Terminology

Understanding Computer Definitions and Abbreviations

Use computer terminology and develop your computer vocabulary; understand computer definitions to build your own computer. A computer encyclopedia or computer glossary can provide commonly used terms, abbreviations and support your learning about systems.


Jump to your specific computer terminology definition using one of the above links.


A Microsoft technology that was originally created to link desktop computers to the Internet. ActiveX is used in Internet Explorer plug-ins, and in applications that are launched from a web page.
Accelerated Graphics Port. This is the graphics card port that replaced PCI, and has since been replaced by pci-e. Operates at 66Mhz and can transfer up to 528 MB/sec.
American Standard Code for Information Interchange. A standard for writing letters and other characters in binary code.
Advanced Technology Attachment. A type of drive that integrates the drive controller directly on the drive itself.
Advanced Technology Attachment Packet Interface. This is part of the IDE standard that allows drives such as DVD and CD drives to be treated like a hard drive by the system.
The most common motherboard form factor currently in use.
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The amount of data that can be transferred through a connection within a given amount of time. Measured in Kilobits or Megabits per second
Basic Input Output System. A pre-installed program on IBM machines that the computer uses to control its startup. It is used to setup connections to the system hardware.
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A bit is a single binary digit, either a one or a zero. The word bit comes from Binary digIT
An optical disc format similar to DVD or CD. Blu-ray was developed for use with high-definition video. Blu-ray discs can hold up to 50GB of data on a double layer disc. This is equivalent to around 4 hours of high definition video.
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Bootstrapping is the process of a simple system activating a more complex system. This is used when your computer boots, and is used to execute the software that starts up your operating system.
A small amount of data stored immediately before it is used. If you stream video or audio from the internet, the first 20-30% is placed in the buffer before it begins playing to provide for smoother playback.
A term used to describe the process of writing data to a DVD or CD disc. The term came about from the way a DVD/CD writer will "burn" data into the disc using a laser.
The communication lines on the motherboard that carry the signals from the CPU to all the system components. Bus speeds are measured in MHz - the higher the better.
A set of 8 bits. This is equivalent to one character.

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Pronounced "cash", this is storage location that stores recently used information that can be quickly accessed. A web browser will use a cache to store web page data for faster loading. The CPU uses cache for extremely high speed memory access.
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Compact Disc Read Only Memory. A CD that can be read by a computer. Designed to be written to one time, the CD is then finalized and can be read an unlimited number of times.
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Sets of specialized chips on the motherboard. These chips control communications between the different components of the motherboard, and the CPU.
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Normally termed as clock speed. The clock is the speed at which the processor can complete a processing cycle. Expressed today in Gigahertz, 1 Gigahertz = 1 billion cycles per second.
Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor. Usually referred to as the chip on the motherboard that holds the system configuration data, date, time, and other basic system settings.
Compact Flash
Abbreviated as CF, compact flash is a type of flash memory that is used mainly in digital cameras, PDA's, and MP3 players.
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A computer is a programmable machine that can execute a list of instructions, and respond to new instructions based on the results.
This is data sent to your computer by a web site you visit. This small file stores information such as your preferences. When you then visit the site again, it loads according to the way you set it up the last time you were there.
Central Processing Unit. The CPU is the brains of the computer. It receives data, processes information and executes actions.
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Cathode Ray Tube. The term CRT is used to refer to a traditional computer monitor. CRT displays are slowly being replaced by LCD flat panel monitors.

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Double Data Rate. A type of memory that can send and receive data at twice the clock speed of the processor.
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Double Data Rate 2. An improvement on DDR technology that allows greater amounts of data to be passed on each edge of the clock cycle.
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A process used to write data on a hard drive into a continuous chain of data to speed up retrieval, and make for better data storage.
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Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol. Network servers use this protocol to dynamically assign IP addresses to networked computer. When a computer connects to the network, the server will get an IP address from a master list and assign it to the computer that attached.
Dual Inline Memory Module. A circuit board that holds memory chips. Up to 2GB of memory can fit on a DIMM.
A standard set of instructions used by software developers, usually in video game development. The DirectX standard helps to keep games more uniform making it easier for users to pick up on how to play a game.
A program that is written for specific pieces of hardware that allows the operating system to communicate with the device.
Digital Versatile Disc or Digital Video Disc. A high capacity optical disc similar to a CD, but with greater storage capacity. Today a DVD is the default medium for video distribution.
Digital Video Interface. A video connection standard. On a computer, the modern graphics cards use DVI as the connection to the monitor.
Digital Video Recorder. A device that records video in a digital format to a disk drive or other memory medium within a device.

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Pronounced with a long "e", as in beep, this is the most common type of connection used in a computer to connect to a LAN. An Ethernet port looks like a phone jack, only wider.
Enhanced Integrated Drive Electronics. A set of standards that define the communication interface between secondary storage such as hard drives and DVD drives, and the computer.
Erasable Programmable Read Only Memory. A type of non-volatile memory that retains its data when the power supply is switched off. Once EPROM is programmed, it can only be erased by ultra-violet light. Used mainly in computers to hold the BIOS information.
A measurement of data. An Exabyte is equal to 2 to the power of 60, or about 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes. This data size is so large, that it is not often used.

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File Allocation Table 32. A method of file storage that a computer uses. The file allocation table keeps track of where all the data on the hard drive is located for faster retrieval.
Frequently Asked Questions. Usually pronounced as either F-A-Q or fak, it is a collection of answers to common questions that users may have about a particular program or component.
Fiber Optic
Fiber Optic is a type of cable that is made from super thin glass filaments. Fiber optic cables carry data on beams of light. A laser encodes the data into a series of flashes of light, ones and zeros. Fiber optic cable is extremely fast, as data is moving at the speed of light.
A firewall is a computer component or software application that is used to protect a network from unauthorized access.
A set of software instructions that are encoded on a hardware device. This is normally stored on flash ROM and is used to define how the device communicates with other components in the system.
Flash Memory
A type of electrically erasable programmable memory. Flash memory is used everywhere from BIOS chips, to external pen drives, to cell phones and PDA's.
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Floating Point Operations Per Second. A measure of a processors speed in performing calculations with floating point numbers.
Form Factor
A motherboard standard used to express the basic size and layout of a board. The latest form factor is ATX and was released in 2004. The different form factors are aimed at specific markets, and will vary greatly in size and available features.
Front Side Bus. The front side bus is the data pathway between the CPU and the northbridge. The speed of the front side bus in part determines the speed of the overall system.
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File Transfer Protocol. A software standard used to transfer files between computers with different operating systems.

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Graphics Double Data Rate. This is the type of memory that is used on graphics cards. The current specification is GDDR5 which has a maximum transfer rate of 20GB/s.
A unit of data measurement. One Gigabyte of data is equal to 1,000,000,000 bytes of data. The majority of data today is measured in Gigabytes.
A measurement of the speed of floating point calculations within the processor. 1 Gigaflop is equal to 1 billion operations in a second.
A unit of speed measurement use for CPU clock cycles. One Gigahertz refers to 1,000,000,000 clock cycles per second. Often abbreviated as GHz.
Graphics Processing Unit. Similar to a CPU, a GPU is used onboard a graphics card to provide 3D computing functions. This allows the GPU to take over processing on the graphics card and free up the CPU to be used elsewhere in the system.
Graphics Card
A computer component that is used specifically for graphics. Used mainly for computer gaming and photo or video editing. The graphics card market is extremely competitive and is dominated by Nvidia and ATI.
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Graphical User Interface. Pronounced "gooey", it refers to interface a computer uses to allow for human interaction by click and drag, double click etc... instead of using the command line.

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Hard Drive
The main secondary storage in a computer. The hard drive holds the operating system and the majority of the applications installed on the computer. It also stores all user settings and holds the internet cache.
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The components that make up a computer. This can include the motherboard, CPU, memory, computer case, monitor etc...
Heat Sink
A device, usually made from aluminum or copper that is attached to the CPU to dissipate heat. Heat sinks are also made for the northbridge, southbridge, graphics cards, and RAM.
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Hyper-Text Markup Language. A software language used in the creation of web pages and other information that can be viewed through a web browser. HTML uses "tags" to define the look of data, and actions that can be performed.
Hyper-Text Transfer Protocol. The primary method of transmitting information on the World Wide Web. HTTP is used to publish and receive HTML pages.
A hardware device that is used to connect multiple networked computers. A hub is usually Ethernet based and allows communication between any computer on the network.
Hyper Threading
Also called HT Technology, hyper threading was developed by Intel for use in Pentium 4 and Xeon processors. It is the process of executing two "threads" of information simultaneously. This allows the CPU to act as though it were 2 separate CPU's.

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Integrated Drive Electronics. Refers to how the drive controller is integrated into the drive itself. This removes the need to have a separate drive controller installed in the system.
Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. A nonprofit organization that defines standards for electrical and computer science. Their standards are usually accepted internationally. Some examples include IEEE 1284, the standard for communication through a printer port, or IEEE 1394, communication through Firewire.
Integrated Circuit
An integrated circuit is a small chip that can perform multiple tasks. Integrated Circuits are small silicon wafers that hold from hundreds to millions of transistors. They are used to perform calculations or to store data.
Internet Protocol. A standard that defines how data is sent and received through the Internet.
IP Address
Internet Protocol Address. A unique number, not unlike a phone number, that is used by computers on the Internet, or on internal networks, to identify themselves. This allows computers to know where data needs to be sent.
Integrated Services Digital Network. This is a data transfer technology that transmits over existing phone lines. ISDN is faster than a basic modem, and allows transfer speeds up to 384 Kbps
Interrupt Request. Computers use interrupt requests to manage multiple components. Sound cards, keyboards, modems can all send interrupt requests to the CPU when they have an operation they need to perform. This causes the CPU to stop what it's doing, perform the request, then continue back with what it was originally doing.
Internet Service Provider. Refers to a company that sells Internet access. AOL, Roadrunner, and EarthLink are a few examples.

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Joint Photographics Experts Group. One of the most common image formats, used mainly for photographs and art.
A small metal connector that acts as an on/off switch. A jumper is usually placed over 2 wires, which makes a connection and turns the connection "on". They are used to tell the computer how a certain device is configured. Jumpers are mainly found on Motherboards, but can still be found on IDE hard drives and DVD drives.

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Kilo Bits Per Second. This term is used to describe data transfer rates. A Kilobit is defined as 1000 bits. Speeds such as 384Kbps mean that 384000 bits of data are transmitted per second.
This is the foundation of an operating system. Most operating systems are built in layers, with each layer having a different function such as disk access and memory management. At the core of the layers is the kernel which provides hardware and software interaction, and memory management.
The main point of input for a home computer. Keyboard layouts are based on typewriter layouts. This layout is known as QWERTY, defined by the first 6 characters in the upper left of the keyboard.
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A unit of data measurement that is equivalent to 1000 bytes (Technically this is 1024 bytes for reasons explained in the more information link below). You will normally see this abbreviated as KB.

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Local Area Network. A high speed network that connects computers, printers, and other network devices. Mostly used by small business and home networks.
Liquid Crystal Display. An LCD is a very thin display used in flat panel monitors. LCD's are used in desktop monitors, PDA's, cell phones and many other portable electronics.
Refers to the local computer that the program is running on. A localhost has the IP address of
Logic Gate
Logic gates are the basic building blocks of an integrated circuit. They perform basic logical functions that return true or false results. Logic gates take 2 binary values as input, and return a single value of 1 or 0. The number of logic gates on an integrated circuit ranges from a few up to millions on processors.

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MAC Address
Media Access Control Address. This is a hardware identification number that uniquely identifies each piece of hardware on a network. MAC addresses are made up of 6 blocks of 2 hexadecimal numbers.
A computer that is used to control large databases and high volume transaction processing.
Master Boot Record. This is the first sector on a hard drive. The MBR holds the partition tables, and bootstrapping information that allows the operating system to take over operations during initial boot up.
A unit of data measurement, abbreviated as MB. 1MB is equal to 1,000,000 bytes of data. Most computer files are measured in Megabytes. An average MP3 is about 5MB.
This is a speed measurement of CPU clock cycles. 1 MHz is equal to 1 million cycles per second. Most commonly used to report processor speeds.
Refers to multiple areas within a computer that are used to store data. This data is stored in a digital format of ones and zeros.
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Memory Stick
A type of memory developed by Sony. Used mainly in digital cameras and camcorders. Memory sticks are proprietary to Sony, and are not compatible with other brands. Also used as a term to describe computer RAM, as in "2GB stick of memory".
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Often referred to as a processor, it is the brains of a computer. Common microprocessors are the Intel Core 2 Duo and AMD Athlon X2.
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A device that modulates a digital signal into analog for transmission over a phone line, then demodulates it back into digital for use by the target computer. The name comes from its actions - MOdulate / DEModulate.
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The most common device used for output on a computer. Allows a graphical interface between the computer and the user.
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Also called a mainboard or logic board, the motherboard is the main circuit board in your computer. The motherboard is the main connection point for all hardware in a typical home computer.
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A handheld pointing device. Along with a keyboard, it is the primary means of input on a computer.
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Mega Bits Per Second. One Megabit is equal to 1 million bits, or 1000 Kilobits. Used to measure high speed data transfers, like you would get on a cable modem or Ethernet connection.
Mean Time Between Failure. The average time between failures of a system, and is often used to show the average lifespan of a device.

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A unit of measurement that CPU's will normally use to measure performance. One nanosecond is one billionth of a second. The average operation will take 2 nanoseconds in today's processors.
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Network Address Translation. NAT will translate the IP address of computers within a local network into a single IP address. This IP address is then used by the router to connect out to the Internet.
A network is a group of computers that are hooked together through a common data connection that can share data. The Internet is one huge network that allows any computer attached to it to share data.
Network Interface Card. Pronounced "nic", this is the card that connects your computer to a network cable, and through that to the Internet. These cards come in speeds of 10, 100, and 1000 T-Base configurations. Meaning they can transfer data at 10, 100, and 1000Mbps.
Any device that is hooked into a network can be considered a node. Each device, or node, on the network has a unique MAC address that identifies it to the network server.
New Technology File System. Introduced by Microsoft for Windows NT, and used since then on all Microsoft operating systems. NTFS replaced FAT32 and adds improvements in error checking, disk control, and file recovery.
Null is a variable in software programming that has no value. This is different than zero or blank, although to a computer, both a 0 and null values will return false on a logic check.
Also referred to as nibble, a nybble is 4 bits, or half of one byte. Two nybbles always equal 1 byte. 1 nybble has 16 possible values within the 4 bits, so it is also referred to as a hex digit.

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Original Equipment Manufacturer. This refers to hardware that is produced by a company that then markets the hardware under a different name. For example, if Sony creates a DVD drive for Dell to use, it will have a Dell sticker on it, even though it was produced by Sony.
Operating System
The main software on a computer. This is what controls all hardware and software applications. The operating system is also the graphical interface between the user and the computer. The most widely used operating system is created by Microsoft, and includes Windows 2000, 2003, XP and recently Windows Vista.
Optical Drive
A term used to include DVD and CD drives. The term optical comes from the laser that the drives use to read the CD or DVD. The most recent addition is Blu-ray, with storage capacities up to 50GB.
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Optical Media
Refers to discs that are read by a laser. This includes DVD, CD's and Blu-ray discs.

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Parallel Port
An interface on older motherboards that uses a 25 pin connector for connecting devices such as a printer or scanner. This is becoming less and less common, being replaced by USB.
Printed Circuit Board. Usually made of fiberglass or a similar material, the PCB is "printed" with electrical wires that carry data from the CPU to other connected devices. Motherboards, RAM sticks, and NIC's are all examples of PCB's.
Peripheral Component Interconnect. A hardware bus that allows component cards to be connected to the motherboard. These are normally used for expansion cards such as sound cards, or NIC's, but are being phased out by PCI-E.
Peripheral Component Interconnect Express. This is a computer expansion card interface designed to replace PCI and AGP. PCI-E comes in different speeds and you will usually see it written as PCI-E x16. Speeds include x1, x2, x4, x8, x16, and x32.
Personal Computer Memory Card International Association. An association founded in 1989 that develops standards for portable computers. PCMCIA cards come in three flavors: Additional RAM, fax/modem cards, can be used to attach external hard drives.
Any device that is external to a computer that provides data input or output capabilities. Keyboards, mice, printers, and monitors are all examples of peripherals.
This is what you do to make a byte purr. Sorry, couldn't resist. A Petabyte is a unit of data measurement. A petabyte is 2^50 power, or 1,000,000,000,000,000 bytes. Since the largest hard drives are currently 1 Terabyte, and it takes 1000 Terabytes to make a Petabyte, it is currently not a common unit of measurement except in data storage farms.
Refers to a connection on the back of a computer that allows peripherals to be connected to the system. USB, Firewire, eSATA, and Ethernet are all examples of ports.
Power On Self Test. A test performed by the computer at boot up that tests the memory, CPU, and various I/O devices.
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Personal Video Recorder. A device that records video in a digital format to a disk drive or other memory medium within a device.

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Quad Core
A processor type made by Intel that incorporates 4 CPU cores on a single chip.
Pronounced "kwerty", this refers to the left 6 characters on the top row of a standard keyboard.

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Redundant Array of Independent Disks. RAID is a method that stores data on multiple disks. The computer sees all the disks included in the RAID array as a single drive. Since data is being written to multiple drives, this can speed up operations.
Random Access Memory. Pronounced like it looks, RAM is the main type of "fast memory" in your computer. Every time you open a program, it will get loaded into memory for faster access.
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This is a database used by Windows operating systems to store configuration information about installed software applications and user preferences.
Reduced Instruction Set Computing. Pronounced "risk", this is a type of computer processor architecture that is able to perform computations at extremely fast speeds.
Read Only Memory. ROM is memory that is written to once, and cannot be changed. Used in computers mainly for the BIOS instructions when booting up.
A network device that routes data. When data comes in from an external source to the network, the router will decide where that traffic needs to go. Think of a router like an air traffic controller. It directs traffic to ensure it gets safely to its destination.
Really Simple Syndication. Also known as RDF Site Summary, RSS is a method of providing website content such as news stories or articles in a standard xml format. RSS is distributed in "feeds" and read by your web browser or other programs designed to read RSS.

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Serial Advanced Technology Attachment. Also called serial ATA, SATA is an interface used to connect storage devices to your computer. SATA is replacing the IDE interface and provides a higher transfer rate.
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A sector is the smallest unit of measurement on a hard drive. On a hard drive platter, memory is organized into tracks and sectors. Large programs can take up thousands of sectors.
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Small Computer System Interface. Pronounced "scuzzy", it is a computer interface used to attach devices to your computer, usually used with hard drives. SCSI provides a faster interface then IDE and is used mainly in servers.
Secure Digital. A type of memory card used mainly in digital cameras, PDA's, and cell phones. The secure portion of SD comes from the copyright protection that can be placed on the card.
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Synchronous Dynamic Random Access Memory. This type of memory is synchronized with the CPU clock to allow for faster data transfer.
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Serial Port
A connection on the motherboard that allows devices such as mice, keyboards, printers, and other peripherals to connect into the system. Serial ports are being replaced by USB and Firewire ports.
Self-Monitoring Analysis and Reporting Technology. A technology that prevents hard drive errors. SMART technology monitors your hard drive and will report any errors that it finds.
Simple Mail Transport Protocol. SMTP is a text based protocol used for email and instant message exchange. One or more recipients are specified, verified to exist, and the message is sent.
The socket is the motherboard interface to the CPU. The type of socket defines which CPU's it is compatible with.
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Soft Boot
A way to reboot the computer without shutting down the operating system. This can be achieved normally by holding the reset button in for 4 seconds.
Solid State
Solid state refers to devices that have no moving parts. Flash drives are an example of a solid state drive. Because they have no moving parts, they have a much longer lifespan than other devices.
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A data transfer line that allows speeds up to 1.544 Mbps. This can be compared to a modem that transmits at .056 Mbps. T1 lines allow for hundreds of users to access the same internet connection and still maintain high speed data transfers.
A data transfer line that allows speeds up to 44.7 Mbps, roughly 30 times the speed of a T1 line. T3 lines are usually used by Universities and large businesses.
Tape Drive
A removable storage device that is used mainly for system backups. The benefit to tape backup is the cost, as they are normally cheaper than a hard drive of similar size. The downside is that searching for data on a tape drive is very slow.
Transmission Control Protocol - Internet Protocol. These 2 protocols allow computers to communicate over networks. The TCP portion verifies the delivery of the packets (clumps of information), and the IP portion determines where the packet needs to be sent.
A unit of data measurement. One Terabyte, abbreviated as TB, is equal to 1,000,000,000,000 bytes, or 1000 Gigabytes.
Thin Film Transistor. TFT is used in high quality flat panel LCD's. TFT has a faster refresh rate which gives the screen brighter colors and shows motion much better than a regular lcd screen.
Trojan Horse
Trojan horses are software programs that act like a regular program, but once they are executed on your computer can cause all sorts of havoc. Data loss, odd computer shutdown, and even data theft are common occurrences of a trojan horse.

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Ultra DMA
Ultra Direct Memory Access. A protocol developed for the transfer of data between the hard drive and memory.
Uniform Resource Locator. Also known as a web address, it is the standardized address for a resource on the World Wide Web. A resource can be a web page, a document, MP3 to download and more.
Universal Serial Bus. This is the most common computer port in use today. Most new computer systems will come with 4 or more USB ports. It can be used to connect keyboards, mice, digital cameras, printers, game controllers and more.

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Video Graphics Array. VGA is the standard monitor interface on most PC's. This is slowly being replaced by DVI. A standard VGA connection is a 15 pin connection.
Virtual Memory
Virtual memory is memory that is based off of your hard drive. Virtual memory is used if your computer runs out of space in its RAM. Virtual memory is much slower than RAM.
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Computer viruses are small programs or scripts that can cause serious damage to your data. Most viruses do not hurt the hardware in your system, but they can cause total data loss and system shutdown. A lot of viruses are transmitted through either email or by downloads off the Internet. A good anti-virus program will go a long way towards preventing system loss.
Voice Over Internet Protocol. VOIP, pronounced like it looks, is a means of using the Internet as a telephone. VOIP allows digital signals to be sent over the internet without the need for a telephone. This allows for international calling at very little cost. Programs like Skype or Vonage use VOIP.
Virtual Private Network. A VPN is a way of connecting to your company's network from outside the network. Data is encrypted for information security, and a key is often required, along with usernames and passwords to connect to the network.

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Wide Area Network. Similar to a LAN, but much bigger. WAN's are not limited to a single location, but are composed of many local locations connected by phone lines, fiber optic, or satellite links.
Wireless Encryption Protocol. Pronounced "wep", WEP is a security protocol used for wireless internet connections. Most WEP's will require a key code to access the wireless signal.
Wireless Fidelity. Wi-Fi refers to wireless network components that conform to the Wi-Fi Alliances standards. The current standard is 802.11i.
A Wiki is a website that allows users to upload information and to update current information. The largest site currently is Wikipedia, at

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eXtensible Markup Language. XML is a software language with the primary purpose of sharing structured data across multiple platforms and operating systems.
x86 is the generic name given to Intel processor architectures, which include the 286 - 586. This architecture is still in use today by both Intel and AMD.

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A unit of measurement that is equal to 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes, commonly abbreviated as YB. This is currently the largest measurement of data, and is rarely used.

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A unit of measurement that is equal to 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes, commonly abbreviated as ZB. 1000 Zettabytes make up 1 Yottabyte. This unit of measurement is very rarely used due to its size. It is estimated that by 2011, there will be approximately 1.8 Zettabytes of data in the world.
Zip Drive
A zip drive is a small drive with removable "zip" disks that are used primarily for system backups.

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