You are using your computer everyday, but are you aware of all the parts that are running in it? What are the latest standards and specifications you need to be aware of? Dive into the following glossary of PC hardware terms and find the correct meaning of the hardware devices that matter to you.
16-Bit, 32-Bit, and 64-Bit
Also known as a “bit number,” the terms 16-bit, 32-bit, and 64-bit refer to varying lengths of data that can be stored in a processor. A 32-bit processor used in older computers (16-bit is rarely used nowadays) can store 232 memory addresses, and a 64-bit processor can store 264 addresses and is known as an x64-based processor. On a Windows 10 device, you can find your bit number from “Device specifications” in the “About Your PC” settings.
All-in-one PCs (AIO) are an advanced version of desktop computers that integrate the entire computer casing and monitor into a single display unit for a reduced footprint. Apart from the keyboard and mouse, all other components are engineered in the display panel itself, including RAM, processor, motherboard, USB ports, and disk space. AIOs are generally of a wide resolution (1920 x 1080) and are heavily used by designers, video editors, and creative professionals.
BIOS stands for Basic Input/Output System, which refers to a firmware that is used to initialize your PC’s hardware while it’s booting and provide a runtime environment for the operating system and applications. It is available as a ROM chip on the motherboard. Even though it’s tightly coupled to the PC hardware, BIOS chips can be detached and replaced easily. To access the modern BIOS setup screen on a Windows device, you need to restart it in safe mode.
Cache memory is a high-speed memory access area within the proximity of the CPU on the motherboard. It is a reserved section of main memory within the storage device. Most computers today come with L3 cache or L2 cache.
Chromebooks are Google’s proprietary laptops and AIOs designed to run with Chrome OS as an operating system. Chromebooks are widely used in education and are popular with those who want a clutter-free computing experience within a Google apps ecosystem. They use what is known as a “molecular display,” Google’s proprietary LCD screen with faster response times and brighter colors than conventional panels. The storage in Chromebooks is in SSD format, and the RAM can vary from 4 GB to 16 GB.
A compact disk (CD) is a diminishing standard of PC data storage that contains a small plastic disk rotating around a core with writable data. A CD could contain 650 to 700 MB of stored data. The process of adding data to a disk was called “burning.” Many Windows computers used to insist on an installation CD, but it has become uncommon since Windows 10.
CPU stands for Central Processing Unit which is considered the brain of the computing device and does most of the arithmetic, logic, and input/output (I/O) functions specified by a program. Every CPU is equipped with an internal clock which determines the “Clock Speed,” the number of operations the CPU can perform in a single second. In modern language, the term CPU is used interchangeably with microprocessors which are integrated circuit semiconductor chips placed in the socket of a laptop, desktop, or AIO motherboard.
A desktop computer is the first variant of computing devices used in homes and offices and is largely responsible for the personal computing revolution. Apple-II, Mackintosh, and Commodore PET were the first desktop PCs launched in the 1980s for the consumer segment. Today, a standardized desktop PC comprises of at least a monitor, a casing with processor, motherboard, RAM, USB outlets, a keyboard, and a mouse.
In computing, firmware refers to a specialized class of software that provides low-level control of the computer’s hardware. It operates at a lower level than the operating system and provides coded instructions to turn on the device. An example of firmware would be the BIOS which is placed in the motherboard of an IBM-compatible computer.
Flash memory is an electronic, erasable memory format in EEPROM chips that is non-volatile and retains the memory irrespective of whether the computing device is turned on or off. This way it is different from the RAM or ROM memory of a computer which requires the device to be on to display itself. Flash memory is used in memory cards, USB flash drives, digital cameras, tablet computer cards, and more. It was invented by Dr. Fujio Masuoka in the 1980s.
Older PCs used to have floppy disk drives (FDD) which would import data derived from floppy disks, a removable magnetic square disk, and were available in 5 ¼ (133 mm) inch and 3 ½ inch (90 mm) formats. With the latest modular PC designs having fewer movable parts, floppy disks have become outdated and are only seen in legacy computers and industrial server systems.
A GPU or Graphics Processing Unit is an important electronic circuit assembly in a motherboard that enables the visual display of everything we do on a computer. The term was first coined by Nvidia and today is one of the leaders in GPU technology with various GPUs such as GeForce 6800 GT being used for attractive displays. You can usually download the relevant drivers for your GPU online to optimize the PC performance.
A hard drive or hard disk drive (HDD) is an electro-mechanical data storage medium which uses a magnetic head next to a flat circular plate coated with magnetic material. The data is stored in concentric tracks in the plate called “platters” and is available in Read-only Memory (ROM) format, which makes it different from Random-Access Memory (RAM.) The hard disk comes into play when you save data in your computer or install a program. It can carry a capacity of up to 1 TB or more.
PC hardware refers to the physical parts of a computer, which consist of the cabinet (case), CPU, motherboard, monitor, mouse, keyboard, graphics card, hard disk, speakers, USB ports, PC cards, and more. This is what separates it from software, which refers to a collection of codes installed on the computer’s hard drive. The firmware, on the other hand, is a specialized class of software that helps the initialization of the PC by interfacing with the hardware components.
HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) is an audio-visual interface which transmits high-definition audio and video between a port on your PC and another device, such as a smart TV, projector, DVD player, andBlu-Ray player using a connector and cable. The HDMI standard was designed by a consortium of companies, including Hitachi, Philips, Sony, Toshiba, and more. Most modern computers come equipped with HDMI ports which look just like a thinner version of a USB port. A specialized HDMI cable is used to transfer data.
A keyboard is a primary input hardware where information is typed on its keys, which work as an electronic switch to enter the desired symbol. Modern keyboards sometimes illuminate the letters and are called “backlit keyboards.” If the keyboard is a software which simply runs as a program on the screen, it’s called an on-screen keyboard.
A laptop is a portable personal computing device where all essential PC hardware – display monitor, keyboard, mouse (in the form of a trackpad), RAM, CPU, GPU, motherboard, hard disk drive/SSD, and ports are tightly integrated. Windows and Linux laptops can be interchangeable on the same kind of laptop hardware, whereas MacBooks are designed differently to support Apple’s operating system and programs.
MacBook is the latest evolution of Apple’s historic Macintosh computers in laptop format. It runs the macOS operating system. Mac Mini and MacBook Air are other common Mac devices. Some of the unique features of a MacBook, which separate them from other laptops, are Apple’s unique Retina display, a touch bar, and Apple’s own M1 chip, which was recently introduced. Apple’s MacBook devices are the largest alternative to conventional laptop devices available in the market.
A monitor on a PC or laptop is an output hardware device that displays computer program interactions in a visual format. For an AIO or laptop, the monitor is integrated with the remaining cabinet (case), whereas in a standalone desktop PC, the monitor is separate.
A motherboard is a printed circuit board inside a computer cabinet which physically connects the circuits to RAM, CPU, GPU, and other peripherals of the computer. It allocates power, facilitates booting, and can get heated easily on older devices. A motherboard contains expansion slots, such as PCI Express, fan connectors, heat sink, and more.
PCI Express, or PCI-e (Peripheral Component Interconnect Express) is a high-speed serial computer bus standard, which is seen as expansion slots on the motherboard. It is the most standard internal interface, allowing high bandwidth communication between the motherboard and the peripheral devices.
A printer is an external machine connected to a desktop or laptop computer on an internal LAN. Its objective is to print text or pictures based on the commands executed on a printing software. Usually modern-day printers come combined with photocopiers and scanners.
RAM (Random-Access Memory) is a place in the computer attached to the motherboard, which governs faster access time for temporarily used programs and is expressed in GB. Each computer has a maximum RAM capacity that it can expand to. All details on how to purchase RAM have been covered here.
Raspberry Pi is a low-cost, credit-card-sized single-board computer (SBC) which can be plugged into a computer monitor or TV display to explore budget computing and can be used for mainstream projects where a computing display unit is needed. You can do many things with a Raspberry Pi, such as using it as a video-conferencing station, as a desktop computer, or deploying it in IoT projects.
SATA (Serial AT Attachment) is the current standard for transferring data components inside the computer. It is a serial link on a bus, which contains at least one cable with four wires that form a point-to-point connection between devices. SATA hard drives are very common inside desktops, AIOs, and laptops. The successor to SATA is Non-Volatile Memory Express (NVMe), which is characterized by higher transmission speeds.
A sound card or audio adapter is used in recording and playing back sound by converting digital data on your computer to analog sound waves, which you can hear clearly. It can also be used to record audio with a microphone. Without the sound card, obviously, you can’t hear music or enjoy YouTube videos or games.
SSD (Solid State Drives) are flash storage similar to USB drives but much faster as they use NAND memory and are becoming a replacement for hard-disk drives (HDD). Another example is Solid State Hybrid Drives (SSHD), which use a cache buffer of SSD but come with the storage advantage of HDD.
Trackpad and Mouse
A trackpad and a mouse are hardware interfaces which allow you to scroll on a computer screen. There is an important difference, though: in a trackpad, your finger does the scrolling, whereas the mouse uses a surface on which it rests. In a mouse, you tap the left or right button to execute an action, whereas a trackpad lets you interface directly with the laptop device hardware.
A webcam is a video camera attached to a computer. In laptops, it is built in, such as a VGA camera, where it can be connected as an external camera on a regular desktop device.
USB Flash Drive
USB (Universal Serial Bus) refers to a form of flash memory (see above) that runs as a plug-and-play interface on a computer. It has currently two commonly used versions: USB 2.0 and USB 3.1, which vary in dimensional thickness. Most modern computers have USB ports for both standards.