How PCs Work

PC Operating Systems

Microsoft Windows continues to be the most popular operating system in the world.
Microsoft Windows continues to be the most popular operating system in the world.
© Kujansuu

After a PC boots, you can control it through an operating system, or OS for short. As of this writing, most non-Apple PCs run a version of Microsoft Windows or a Linux distribution. These operating systems are designed to run on various kinds of PC hardware, while Mac OS X is designed primarily for Apple hardware.

An operating system is responsible for several tasks. These tasks fall into the following broad categories:

  • Processor management -- breaks down the processor's work into manageable chunks and prioritizes them before sending them to the CPU.
  • Memory management -- coordinates the flow of data in and out of RAM, and determines when to use virtual memory on the hard disk to supplement an insufficient amount of RAM.
  • Device management -- provides a software-based interface between the computer's internal components and each device connected to the computer. Examples include interpreting keyboard or mouse input or adjusting graphics data to the right screen resolution. Network interfaces, including managing your Internet connection, also fall into the device management bucket.
  • Storage management -- directs where data should be stored permanently on hard drives, solid state drives, USB drives and other forms of storage. For example, storage management tasks assist when creating, reading, editing, moving, copying and deleting documents.
  • Application interface -- provides data exchange between software programs and the PC. An application must be programmed to work with the application interface for the operating system you're using. Applications are often designed for specific versions of an OS, too. You'll see this in the application's requirements with phrases like "Windows Vista or later," or "only works on 64-bit operating systems."
  • User interface (UI) - provides a way for you to interact with the computer.

From there, make a note to see our article How Operating Systems Work for more details about how an OS functions on a PC. Also, check with HowStuffWorks when you want to know how specific applications and devices work on your PC.

Now let's look at the future of PCs overall and the way that PC manufacturers have conquered the portability challenges of mobile computing.