Tech Terms


Unfortunately computer geeks like me have come up with a confusing plethora of babble-speak in relation to computer use and security. While most of these terms have been created to exactly and specifically label computer parts, programs, and how they interact, the sheer number, and the sense of whimsy with which many were created can make it difficult to learn their meanings. Hopefully these help sort out the confusion a bit. If there is anything you’d like defined or better explained, feel free to contact me. You may also want to take a look at the jargon file for the full range of weirdness in a hacker’s vocabulary (the most recent copy of the Jargon File is here).


Attachment: A file (word document, picture, PDF) included with a message.

Beta: A computer program that is still in development but far enough along to be reasonably reliable, and made available for testing to catch bugs.

Bulletin Boards: Online message boards where people post messages on a topic and reply, not in real time. Along with comments, is a common “fan” element of many sites.

Cable Modem: Turns the broadband in your cable line into a network signal your computer can use. Not actually a “modem” but the marketing name stuck. Most recent cable modems are also routers and firewalls.

Driver: A small piece of software that tells your operating system how to communicate with a specific component inside of or attached to your computer and what features it has.

DSL Modem: Turns the broadband in your phone line into a network signal your computer can use. Most DSL modems provided by Bellsouth here in the Charleston, SC act as basic firewalls and routers. Also not actually a “modem.”

Firewall: A piece of hardware or software that accepts or declines certain types of internet messages and determines what can speak to your computer. Think of it as a guarded gate. Most home routers also act as fairly effective low-end firewalls for your home network.

Hub: A piece of hardware that allows you to connect more than one computer, switch, hub or router together into a single network. Difficult to find in stores as they have been replaced by the ready availability of cheap, faster, more reliable switches. Switches are also commonly referred to as hubs.

Malware: A type of spyware that changes how your computer works. Usually an active program constantly running in the background. They can record what you type, or redirect web traffic to sites you do not want to visit.

Operating System: The software that runs your computer. It allows you to copy files, run other programs, and allows programs to work with the computer hardware.

Repeater: A special feature of some Wireless Access Points (or WAPs) that can act as a base for your wireless network, or relay the signal from your base WAP to let your wireless network cover a larger area or portion of the house. Network performance may slow down because a lot of information gets duplicated, but the effect should not be noticeable for only a handful of users. Most repeaters do not deal with encryption schemes well and recommend running on open networks. The only one in my experience which does work with encryption is the Apple Airport series, and those have only been stable when using the more secure WPA encryption.

Router: A piece of hardware that connects two separate networks together and routes information between them. At home, it is commonly used to connect your computer(s) to your cable or DSL network, and thus the internet. Many also contain a built-in switch or wi-fi to allow more than one computer to connect to the same internet connection without buying additional switches or Wireless Access Points.

Spam: The internet term for junk e-mail. The name is taken from a Monty Python routine where everything on the menu has spam, even though the customer doesn’t want spam.

Spyware: Software that monitors what websites you go to. Also called Adware and Malware. Spyware can reset your home page and your search page, slow up your computer, pop up extra windows, and pop up ads when you are not browsing. In extreme cases it changes how you get online, and is effectively unremoveable without reinstalling Windows.

Switch: A piece of hardware that allows you to connect more than one computer, switch, hub or router together into a single network. Many home routers also contain a built in switch. Switches do the same thing as hubs, but far faster and more reliably. Often referred to incorrectly as “hubs.”

Trackpad: Pointing device most commonly found on laptops, used to move a cursor or pointer on the screen. Consists of a flat, touch-sensitive surface with a button or buttons “below” the pad. Due to it’s small size, it often requires lifting and repeatedly sliding a fingertip in the desired direction.

Trackball: Pointing device most commonly bought seperately to be used with desktops to move a cursor or pointer on the screen. Consists of a base with a ball socketed into the top of it, where rolling the ball moves the on-screen pointer.Requires less space than a mouse. Until the arrival of the trackpad this was the most common pointing device for laptops.

Virus: Program that reproduces itself, and causes damage to computer systems. Most commonly distributed through email. Most modern viruses randomly choose names from your address book for both “To:” and “From:” addresses, making it more difficult to trace the source when you receive one.

Wi-Fi: The general term to cover wireless networking technologies for desktops and laptops. This includes “wireless-B” and “wireless-G.” All “centrino” branded laptops have wi-fi built in, and Apple Computer uses the term “Airport.”

Wireless Access Point: Also known as a “WAP.” A box with a radio and antenna that connects computers wirelessly to a wired network using Wi-Fitechnology. Can be just an access point, or built into a home router.

Worm: Generally lumped under viruses, worms actively hunt local networks for computers to load themselves into.

Zombie: Computer taken over or “owned” by a virus or worm. Most often used to send Spam.