This writeup is subtitled: ...and how much of a tool using them will make you sound like.
There are many different names for "computers", and using the wrong ones may make you look technically unskilled. As the official flowmaster of Free Geek, I am paid to deal with the public and their misconceptions about computers. However, on the issue of what the word is for computers, some slack should be cut, since none of the terms is either technically accurate or widely accepted. Your best bet is to use all of them in rapid order, to make sure people know what you are talking about.
- CPU. One of the most common, and one of the least accurate. Of course, a computer possesses a Central Processing Unit, and of course it is perhaps the most vital part of the system, but most people are probably unaware of what a central processing unit actually looks like, and how much of the weight of their computer it takes up (probably less than 1%). I think people like to use it because it sounds vaguely technical, with that TLA and all. The largest problem with CPU is that it refers to something other than people usually use it for: the actual, one inch square, CPU. So, when people say "I have six CPUs in my trunk", I think "Why didn't you put them in your glove compartment?"
- Disk Drive: This one is about the opposite of the last one, in that most of the weight of a computer is the CD, floppy and hard drives. However, in a general computer system, the drives just provide the CPU with data. Of course, this doesn't just lose points for inaccuracy, it also has the ambiguity factor: when I hear "disk drive", I usually think of an external hard drive.
- Modem: I occasionally heard this when I did technical support for an ISP. To many people, this made sense: their main usage of a computer was internet access, and they put the phone cords into the computer, so that made it the modem, right? Luckily I don't hear this anymore, but if I did, it would cause the same problems as the above two.
- Tower: Some student of the history of computing could probably tell me a more accurate version of events than my guess, and they would still be wrong. My version of events is that when computers turned into four foot tall behemoths, some marketing person decided to make this lack of convenience a plus by subconsciously appealing to people's phallic pride. Tower isn't that bad of a term, besides of course the fact that many towers are now hardly towering. Nevertheless, this is a term not often used by people who know much about computers.
- Box and/or boxxen: a favorite term amongst geeks, and a somewhat ironic reminder that no matter what marketing spin and terrible contoured shapes corporations put on computers, they are still basically beige boxes. However, using this term is now perhaps anti-pretentious pretentious, and who can keep track of all of that, anyway?
- System: the official term at Free Geek, and one that is fairly accurate in its vagueness. Yes, a computer is a type of system. Not the type of system with planets in it, or the type you rise up against, but a system of some sorts, nevertheless. Also, the term coincides with the Armenian. Using this won't make you sound stupid, but people might not understand you.
- PC: not a bad choice, and one of the more widely used. It has that use of initials that means you are a serious technophile, after all. It has a few problems: first, PC also stands for Phil Collins, politically correct and other such things. Also, some people still use PC to mean "not an Apple", or else to mean "an original IBM PC" or else to mean "an Apple, from the Power PC era". The original meaning of the term PC is also just about lost, since there really aren't a lot of room sized computers out there to compare it to these days.
- By the brand name: "I have a Dell/Compaq/HP/IBM..." Yes, and by switching that piece of annoyingly contoured plastic on the front, you could have any of the others.
- Desktop: a very useful, recognizable name, even though many computer systems don't rest on desks. The confusions here, of course, is that desktop also refers to the role of a computer used for general home or office work, and that many systems with similiar architecture and size are actually high powered, expensive servers that are locked in closets running the world.
- Computer: the obvious might still be the best.