We've spent the last couple of weeks talking about computers: types of operating systems, processor speed/hard disk space/memory, and laptops vs. desktops. Today, let's finish up with the essential external pieces of any good computer: monitors, optical drives, USB sticks, mice, and keyboards.
Your monitor is the screen. Whether you have a laptop or a desktop, the screen allows you to see what you're doing. Monitors are generally rectangular in nature (squares are so 2005), mostly because people tend to watch HD movies on their computers now. When comparing screen sizes, remember that it's measured along the diagonal - even if you have two 30" monitors, one may be square while the other may be wide and short. Also note that bigger is not necessarily better: programmers like big monitors so that they can do a lot of things at once, comparing multiple windows side-by-side to save on having to switch between windows taking up the whole screen. But the bigger screen also means your eyes get tired more easily. Be cognizant of what sort of work you plan to do and then pick the right screen for you. Also keep in mind that with laptops, a bigger monitor means a heavier machine!
Optical drives are what you use to play your CDs, DVDs, and/or BlueRay discs. A lot of netbooks don't have an optical drive, so keep that in mind before you buy one. These days, if you do choose to go with an optical drive, make sure it's at least DVD+/-RW (that means it both reads and writes CDs and DVDs). Most people tend to use USB sticks (aka "thumb" or "jump" drives), but if you are planning on making a CD that you can listen to in your car or you want to send your grandparents your home-edited movie of your graduation, then you'll want to have the right tools to do it!
Speaking of USB sticks, make sure your computer has USB slots. Nearly every accessory (mouse, keyboard, webcam, microphone, etc.) uses USB to hook up to your computer. Now, a USB stick is essentially an external hard drive - but tiny. They come in a variety of styles, but they all use the same connection. The real deciding factor is how big (space-wise) you want it. Larger USB sticks (i.e. 250GB) will be more expensive than smaller USB sticks (i.e. 1-2GB). Whatever you choose, they can now hold a LOT more information than CDs or DVDs. I'd highly recommend having one if you plan on sharing your data with other people regularly. (Or you can just put it in the cloud, but we'll get to that topic next week!)
Finally, it goes without saying: every computer needs some way to input information, i.e. mice and keyboards. If you're using a tablet, then your finger is your mouse and the screen is your keyboard (when necessary). But for every other computer, you're going to need a physical keyboard for typing and mouse for clicking around your environment. There isn't much to say about mice and keyboards, except to aim for mid-level priced devices. The difference between a $10 mouse and an $80 mouse is slight at best - wired vs. wireless, old school vs. new school, little rolly balls vs. laser tracking. For some people, this difference is crucial and worth the extra money. But for most, a $25 wireless mouse will do just fine. It's the same thing with keyboards: get what you need and move on. I recommend staying away from the cheap models, since they're generally poorly made and will break at some crucial heart-break-worthy moment (i.e. 2 hours before your term paper is due and you're not done yet).
So - those are the basic essentials. Everyone will need a monitor, mouse, and keyboard, but some people might not need the optical or USB drives. That's fine! Computers aren't supposed to be fashionable; they're supposed to be useful!
Next week, I'll go into the cloud - what is it, how does it work, and is it safe?!
If you have any questions/comments/etc, please leave me a note in the comments or send me a message - I will be happy to respond!