Input devices allow us to enter raw data into a computer. The computer processes the data and then produces outputs that we can understand using an output device. Input devices can be manual or automatic.
The processing is mainly handled by the Central Processing Unit (CPU).
Manual input devices
The most common manual input devices are the keyboard and mouse.
Each button on a concept keyboard relates to a particular item or function. Buttons can be labelled with text or a picture. Fast food restaurants often use concept keyboards because very little training is needed to operate them and they're efficient - a single button can order an entire meal.
Used as an alternative to a mouse. To operate it the user rotates the ball which moves the pointer on screen. They are particularly easy to use for those with limited movement in their hands and are often used in Computer Aided Design (CAD) for their increased precision over a mouse.
Joysticks used to be popular with gamers but have slowly been replaced by other types of game controller. In construction, joysticks are used to control machinery such as cranes.
A digital camera takes pictures and can usually record video too. The pictures it takes and the videos it records are stored in files. These files can be copied to a computer and later edited.
Microphones are used to input sound. In computing they can be used with voice recognition software and a word processing application to enter text. Webcams commonly have microphones built-in too.
A touch sensitive visual display unit (VDU) or screen has a grid of light beams or fine wires criss-crossing the screen that are used to detect touch. Many mobile phones use touch screens and do away with the keypad entirely. They're often used on cash machines and in shopping centres too. Touch screens are robust, easy to operate and easy to reprogram.
A video digitiser takes an image from a video camera or television and digitises it so it can be read by, and stored on, a computer. Video sequences captured using a video digitiser are often used in multimedia presentations.
A scanner can be used to digitise images. They're similar to a photocopier but they make a digital copy instead of a physical copy. They can also be used with optical character recognition (OCR) software to scan in text that is then editable
A graphics tablet consists of a flat pad (the tablet) on which the user draws with a special pen. As the user draws on the pad the image is created on the screen. Using a graphics tablet a designer can produce very accurate on-screen drawings as if they were drawing on paper.
Automatic input devices
Sensors are often used as part of a feedback cycle. They collect data continuously and are typically linked to a control program that specifies acceptable levels, eg the minimum and maximum temperature in a green house. The control program decides what to do next based on the data it's fed by the sensors.
Barcodes are represented by black vertical bars and are read by a barcode reader. Barcodes are printed on nearly every product you buy, each product has a unique code. When read, information stored in the shop's database is recalled, such as the product name and price. This information later appears on your receipt. The scanning process also assists in stock management, reducing the stock by one each time a product is scanned/sold.
Magnetic strip (or stripe) reader
Magnetic stripes are built into many plastic cards such as debit or credit cards and personal identity cards. The magnetic strip on the back of the card can hold the personal details of the card owner and, with the necessary PIN, will allow access to secure information, eg bank account details. Data stored on the strip is scanned and input into a computer system by a magnetic stripe reader.
Magnetic Ink Character Reader (MICR)
Magnetic ink characters appear at the bottom of cheques. Banks use MICR to read the numbers from the bottom of cheques to obtain data such as account numbers and bank sort codes. A particular font is used that makes it easy for the machine to discriminate between characters. The ink is magnetised, this makes it immune to creases and dirty marks.
Optical Mark Reader (OMR)
An OMR reads marks made by pencil on a printed form into the computer. OMR systems are suited to reading pre-printed forms and check boxes such as National Lottery number selection sheets and multiple choice exam papers
Central Processing Unit
The CPU (Central Processing Unit) is the part of a computer system that is commonly referred to as the "brains" of a computer. The CPU is also known as the processor or microprocessor.
The CPU is responsible for executing a sequence of stored instructions called a program. This program will take inputs from an input device, process the input in some way and output the results to an output device.
CPUs aren’t only found in desktop or laptop computers, many electronic devices now rely on them for their operation. Mobile phones, DVD players and washing machines are examples of equipment that have a CPU.
Common output formats are printed paper, sound, video and on-screen documents. They let the computer communicate with the user.
The most common output device is the monitor or VDU.
Modern monitors, where the case isn’t more than a few centimetres deep, are usually Liquid Crystal Displays (LCD) or Thin Film Transistors (TFT) monitors.
Older monitors, where the case is likely to be around 30 cm deep, are Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) monitors.
Laser printers are quite expensive to buy and run but produce a high quality output and are quiet and fast. Ink-jet printers offer black and white or colour printing with reduced levels of quality and speed. Colour ink jet printers are cheaper to buy than colour laser printers. Dot matrix printers are not so common today. They are comparatively noisy and low quality but are cheap to run and are used when carbon copies or duplicates need to be made, such as for wage slips. Also, they are useful in dirty environments such as a garage because they are much sturdier than the other two types of printer.
A plotter can be used to produce high quality, accurate, A3 size or bigger drawings. They are usually used for Computer Aided Design (CAD) and Computer Aided Manufacture (CAM) applications, such as printing out plans for houses or car parts.
Other output devices
Many other types of output device exist including:
- switched outputs
- mechanical devices, eg a robot arm