Your computer has lots of applications ready for use. You won’t need them all. You won’t use them all. (You don’t want to use them all.) You don’t even need to learn everything about those you do use.

But there are quite a few applications that you’ll want to learn something about.

Learning to use your applications, and making sense of new applications you come across, is a lot easier with really basic knowledge of what types of applications are out there. For example, you may get some advice to write up something using a “text editor”. What’s that? A specific application? No, it’s a type of application. Oh. Well, what type is that? What does it do?

Spend a few seconds learning that tidbit, and you’ll now have an idea of what a text editor application can do, and what jobs might call for one, and even how to perform basic tasks with some brand new text editor application (called SuperWord TextPlus or whatever) that you’ve never heard of until now.

Below is a simple (and growing) “field guide” to application categories. Scanning through its categories should let you “place” familiar applications that are on your computer, and know what sort of things they can do for you. (If nothing else, reading the below should help you pick up lots of terms that’ll further demystify computing!)

Email applications

An email application is an application for writing, sending, receiving, and managing email messages. (You may also hear the techies call an email application an email client, which – super-short explanation here – means it’s the user’s application for writing and reading email, not an email server application which, somewhere out there on the Internet, shuttles email around like a post office.)

Not surprisingly, an email application will have some of the same features for writing that you’ll find in a text editor or word processor.

An example of an email app: the app named Mail.

The email app included with Mac computers is named (simply) Mail. (Nothing wrong with that, but to me it feels like naming your dog “Dog”…)

File managers

A file manager is an application for managing files on a computer: listing, deleting, renaming, grouping, and otherwise messing around with files. (You may hear the term file browser too. Same thing, different name.) If your computer is a Mac, the application called “the Finder” is your file browser.

A file manager is often something of a mystery to computer beginners. The term “file manager” may not ring a bell at all with you; in fact, “file” itself is an uncertain word for many computer users. Yet if you’ve used a desktop or laptop computer, it’s certain that you’ve had a little or a lot of interaction with the file manager and with files.

This is a good topic to pick up later in proper detail (but also proper brevity). Stay tuned. In the meantime, I promise this: If you get a basic grasp on what files and your file manager are all about, a lot of computer mysteries will suddenly fall away.

The Finder, the file manager in Mac computers. He's a friendly chap.

The Finder, the file manager app included with Mac computers. Why is he always grinning? What does he know?


There’s not much mystery about this one! Games are applications that fill your screen with cars to race, and aliens to shoot, and Scrabble tiles to slap down. Go forth and play.

Here’s one point that worth noting, though: More than most applications in other types, and even more than most dead-serious business applications, games can really push a computer to its limits. I don’t mean your typical puzzle game or simple action game; even an old, underpowered computer might not work up a sweat with one of those. I’m talking about the super-realistic car racers, shoot-’em-ups, battlefield simulations, and other games with movie-like realism, gorgeous detailed landscapes, and a zillion things happening at once on the screen. It’s hard for a computer to draw those scenes, especially ones with “3D” realism, and many games specify that your computer meet arcane-sounding requirements for computing power if you want to play.

The point is this: Before you buy that latest mega-realistic game, check the details (and ask questions) to make sure your computer can handle it!

This is Chess, the one game app that is included with OS X.

This is Chess, the one game app that is included with Mac computers.

Spreadsheet applications

A spreadsheet application is mainly used for crunching numbers and other data in tables. It’s good for financial or scientific record-keeping and analysis, or more down-home activities like making lists, tracking expenses, and even keeping a log of Junior’s monthly height (with a spiffy graph to go with it).

This Numbers, a spreadsheet app that Apple offers for free.

This is Numbers, a spreadsheet app that Apple offers for free.

Text editors

Text editor is nothing more than a name the techies use for a simple word processor (see below), i.e., a word processor application without the fancier features. A text editor isn’t so good for, say, designing an image-packed color newsletter, but is great for quick note-taking. If you aren’t hung up on footnoting and automatic tables of content and the such, it’s even fine for the first draft of your novel. (You don’t need fancy features to write a novel; remember, people used to type those onto actual paper! Or write them with pencils!)

This is TextEdit, a text editor app included with OS X.

This is TextEdit, a text editor app included with Mac computers.

Web browsers

A web browser, often shortened to just browser, is an application for viewing and interacting with web pages.

Backing up a bit: Of the many “parts” of the Internet, one of the most popular is the World Wide Web. This is the name that covers the millions and millions of web sites out there. A web site is made of one or more pages. A web browser is simply an application for displaying (and scrolling through, and otherwise messing around with) those pages. Or using common terms, it’s the application that you use to “go to” a web page (and then read articles, shop for books, watch kitten videos, etc. etc.).

Visiting web pages is such a big part of what people do on the Internet that many people call web pages themselves “the Internet”. That’s not right, but not so terribly wrong either, so we won’t worry about it. But for the record, the application that you use to visit web pages is not “the Internet” or even “the World Wide Web”; it’s a browser.

This is Safari, the web browser that Apple includes with OS X.

This is Safari, the web browser that Apple includes with Mac computers.

(Side topic: web applications)

Any discussion of web browsers calls for a quick side-trip into web applications. Sorry if this is a little wordy, but it’s becoming more important every day. Please read!

Back in the distant 1990s, web pages began as simple, gray pages of text with one exciting feature: links for jumping around to other web pages. But since then, web pages and web sites have grown into tools for news, shopping, selling, social interaction, games, funny cat photos, you name it. Web pages now dish up videos, sound, file downloads, and all kinds of funky interactions with visitors. That’s why the web browser has gone from a mid-90s curiosity to arguably the most important application on your computer today.

There are now countless web sites offering services that let your web browser itself act as a word processor, an email application, a game machine, or almost any other category of application! As an example, you could have an application on your computer that plays Scrabble, or you could find a web site that does the same thing – that is, a web site that, right there in your web browser, displays a Scrabble board on a web page and lets you play the game. Similarly, while word processor applications have been around for decades (there’s probably one or more on your computer), recently there are more and more web sites that will display a nice blank page right there in your web browser, and let you start typing up that resume, complete with headers and italicized text and page numbers and all that.

The word for these services offered on web sites is, not surprisingly, web services or web applications, and there are tech pundits who insist that before long, you’ll replace all your favorite applications with just your web browser and the web applications available on the Internet. Maybe that’ll happen, maybe not; but as you read about the other categories on this page, keep in mind that their descriptions apply to both traditional applications that sit on your computer, and web applications that you use through a web browser.

Word processors

A word processor is an application that displays a blank “page” for writing text. It’ll typically let you style your text, add images, set margins and chapter titles, and much, much more, even fancy layouts involving multiple columns, footnotes, and text flowing around images. A good word processor will offer all the tools you need for anything from a business letter or garage sale poster to a novel or color newsletter.

As noted above, text editor applications and word processor applications are really the same thing; “text editor” is just a common name for a word processor with limited, simple features.

This is Pages, a word processor app that Apple offers for free.

This is Pages, a word processor app that Apple offers for free.

Other applications

Stay tuned for upcoming overviews of the following and more:

  • Presentation applications: Applications for creating and showing “slides” for presentations.
  • Graphics editors: Applications for creating or modifying images.
  • Document viewers: Applications for viewing documents created by some other application (for example, viewing the content of a spreadsheet even when you don’t own an application for creating and editing spreadsheets).
  • Media players: Applications for playing music, videos, slideshows, etc.
  • Media organizers: Applications for managing collections of music, videos, etc.
  • Media editors: Applications for modifying music, videos, etc.
  • Social media and communication applications: Applications for connecting and communicating with other people.
  • Calendar and contact applications: Applications for managing events, schedules, and contact information.
  • Utilities: A broad category that generally covers tools for setting up, monitoring, and managing your computer, networks, other devices, and more.
  • Other information managers: Applications for creating, modifying,  storing, and otherwise handling information.
  • Other miscellaneous tools: Applications for everything else!

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