All About Computer Parts
Posted on March 12, 2008 by Jared
Whether you are interested in building your own computer or just have a genuine curiosity about how they work, you should have a basic understanding of all the different pieces of computer hardware. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but should get you well on the path towards computer enlightenment.
I spent several years working at Dell, putting these things together. Surprisingly, I was one of the few people who knew how these parts worked together. So, after reading through this post, you’ll probably have a better understanding of computer hardware than most of the folks out at Dell. ;) Read on!
The motherboard is the main circuit board to which all other computer parts connect. The motherboard also contains the BIOS (basic input / output system) as well as other connectors like USB ports. Many motherboards have the video and sound components built in (referred to as “on board”). This can save you a good bit of money down the road, but you’ll be sacrificing some power and versatility by not using dedicated components. More on that later. When building a computer, the motherboard you choose is going to determine what kinds of technologies you’ll have at your disposal. So take note of the motherboard specs before making a purchase!
CPU (The “Processor”)
The CPU (central processing unit) is the “brains” of your computer. How quickly your computer can complete a task is largely the result of how fast your processor is. You can tell how fast a processor is by its speed which is measured by how many cycles it completes in one second. One MHz (mega-hertz) is one million cycles per second. One GHz (giga-hertz) is one billion cycles per second. So, if a processor completes one instruction per cycle you could say that a 3 GHz processor completes 3 billion instructions per second! Some of the newer processors on the market today have more than one core, which is like having multiple processors on one chip.
RAM (random access memory) acts like temporary storage for your computer. Typically, any program or file that you open is stored in RAM until you close it. That’s why you lose all of that precious work in a power outage. That is, unless you’ve recently saved your work. RAM is measured in MB’s (megabytes) and GB’s (gigabytes). Most new computers come with at least 1 GB of RAM. Generally speaking, the more RAM your computer has the faster it will perform. This is because your computer starts to put things on your hard drive whenever it runs out of RAM. Pulling data from your hard drive is much slower than pulling it from RAM!
Your hard drive (sometims abbreviated as HDD) is where everything one your computer is stored. Unlike RAM, your hard drive is permanent storage. That is, once you have saved a document you will not lose it when you turn the power off. There are several “types” of hard drives which is determined by how it connects to your motherboard. First, there’s IDE which uses those wide “ribbons” to connect to the motherboard. IDE drives are slowly being phased out, but are holding on since they are now usually a great bargain, especially if you’re more worried about storage and performance. Next, there’s SATA drives which greatly outperform IDE. Last but not least there’s SCSI (pronounced “skuzzy”) which are typically found in high-end machines like servers. All hard drive storage is measured in GB’s (gigabytes, or one billion bytes) and now sometimes TB’s (terabytes, or one trillion bytes… which is equivalent to 1000 GB’s!). Hard drives have become so inexpensive now that many serious computer users have more than one. Its not uncommon to have 300GB of storage in a home computer.
CD and DVD Drives
CD and DVD drives allow your computer to read data from… you guessed it, CD’s and DVD’s. CD drives are becoming less popular since a DVD drive (which are now very inexpensive at around $50) can play a CD. If you get a DVD burner (a drive that can write data onto a DVD) you’re now able to write or “burn” data onto both CD’s and DVD’s. In my opinion, there is no excuse for a computer bought in the last couple of years to not have a DVD burner installed.
Some users, like graphic artists or gamers, need to have a little more power when it comes to video performance. Video cards take care of this need. A video card is a piece of hardware that is dedicated to all the complex video tasks like working with image/video files or rendering a complex 3D environment. This makes your computer run faster as it takes a huge burden off of your CPU. Video cards also usually have more than one output port which enables you to connect two monitors to your computer (called a dual screen setup).
A sound card is beneficial for audio much like a dedicated video card is for video. Sound cards also have more bells and whistles allowing you to enjoy things like a 5.1 surround sound set up. Unless you’re a huge audiophile, you’ll probably be happy with audio ports that are (likely) integrated onto the motherboard.
A computer’s power supply (sometimes called a PSU for Power Supply Unit) is what converts the AC coming from the wall outlet to the DC that your computer needs. Power supplies split up the current and deliver it to each of the different components in your computer. Power supplies are measured in wattage, with 400W usually being the minimum for a solid computer. If you’re out looking for a power supply, don’t get the cheapest one you can find. A good power supply will help protect your computer component from nasty power surges. However, that’s no excuse to not use a surge protector! Also, never, never take apart a power supply unless you’re an electrician. Power supplies can hold a charge long after they have been disconnected!
Well, I hope you are getting a grasp on the different parts that make up your computer. If you want a deeper understanding (I’ve barely scratched the surface!), spend some time reading any quality A+ Certification book. There will be very little that you don’t understand after reading through one of those!