The Basics of PC Hardware

pc hardware

PC hardware refers to the physical components inside of a computer that enable it to run software applications. These include memory and storage drives, as well as expansion cards like video and audio cards.

Cache memory is high-speed storage that speeds up processing by storing instructions and data the CPU is likely to use frequently. It is volatile, meaning the stored data disappears when the computer shuts down.


The motherboard is the central backbone of a computer on which other modular parts like the CPU and RAM are installed. It also serves as the platform for installing expansion slots and peripheral connectors. It regulates the distribution of power among the various add-in components and keeps an interface between them.

There are many different types of motherboards depending on the type of computer system you have. These include standard ATX (Advanced Technology extended) boards, which are the most common for desktop computers, mini-ITX boards that fit into smaller form factor PCs and microATX boards that are less expensive than ATX but still offer great performance.


The CPU (also called the central processor unit) interprets and executes most of your computer’s commands. It does this by arranging billions of microscopic transistors on a computer chip to function as tiny switches that alternate between “on” and “off” states, conveying the binary ones and zeros that form the basis for every action performed on your device.

While the CPU originally only had a single processing core, many entry-level computers today feature two to four physical cores. Some even have virtual cores, which appear to the Operating System as multiple physical cores and thus allow a CPU to process instructions faster. The CPU also acts as a ringmaster, feeding data to other hardware devices such as the graphics card or solid-state drive.


RAM is your computer’s internal memory, where it stores the data it uses to work. The CPU gets instantaneous access to the information in RAM, unlike storage on a hard drive.

RAM comes in the form of chips integrated onto a circuit board soldered directly to the motherboard or in modules that plug into sockets on the board, also called expansion slots. Most computers have two RAM slots and room to upgrade them.

Older DRAM (dynamic random access memory) works by storing an electrical charge in capacitors and draining it as the computer processes data. Newer SDRAM (synchronous dynamic random access memory) syncs to the CPU clock cycle, boosting performance.

Graphics Card

Graphics cards are responsible for turning the information sent by the CPU into the images we see on our monitors. They have one connector for the monitor and another for the computer motherboard. They also have their own memory modules and a dedicated processor called the GPU, short for graphics processing unit.

A GPU has the most impact on a PC’s performance for gaming, video and photo editing, and other visual tasks. The more power a GPU has, the better. A GPU’s memory speed and capacity are important as well. Check to see how many peripheral component interconnect express (PCIe) power connectors it has and that your power supply can provide enough wattage to run it.

Sound Card

A sound card is a computer component that processes audio signals. It typically has an input port for a microphone or another external source and output ports that connect to speakers. It also includes a circuit that produces synthesized sounds, freeing up CPU resources that can be used for other purposes.

A computer’s sound card takes on the specialized task of parsing signals into quality sound, a job that the CPU is not always the best tool for. It is possible to get a basic card from brands like Creative Labs or Turtle Beach, or opt for an advanced model that provides extra functionality for audiophiles.

Network Card

A network card is a computer hardware component that connects your desktop PC or laptop to a local area network. It translates data that is sent over the cable into a form that the CPU can read, and vice versa.

Depending on the type of card you have, it might connect to your motherboard via a Peripheral Component Interconnect (PCI), PCI-X, or PCI Express slot. Those that are directly integrated into the motherboard are known as internal NICs.

There are also external NICs that can be plugged into the back of your laptop or PC case using an ethernet cable, and then plugged into a router or network switch. There are also wireless NICs that use an antenna to offer reception via radio waves.