Computer hardware is all the physical parts that make up a computer system. It includes things like motherboards, graphics cards, CPU (Central Processing Unit), ventilation fans, and memory.
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Typically found on the motherboard, memory is a hardware component that stores temporary data for your computer. Your computer needs it to operate properly and provide you with a smooth experience.
When you open multiple programs or access many files at once, your computer uses RAM to run them all. You’ll also need it to complete complex tasks like video editing or playing new games at high graphics settings.
The operating system manages memory by identifying pages that it can free up for use by processes. When these pages are no longer needed, the system moves them to a swap device or partition on disk. This paging in and out activity takes CPU cycles and can impact performance.
As the name suggests, hard drives store your computer’s data in a set of disc-like objects called platters. The platters rotate consistently, and a read/write drive head moves across them to access information stored on the tracks within the sectors of each platter.
The hard drive case holds the platters and actuator arm, and it protects them from mechanical failure. The earliest HDDs had a storage capacity of several hundred MB to a few GB, and current models can hold more than 2 TB.
A hard drive can be external, plugged into a USB port or mounted in a standard 3.5-inch IDE or PATA bay in the computer case. Some are hybrids, which can connect with both SATA and USB. Hard drives can also connect to a computer through eSATA and FireWire.
A graphics card is a circuit board with specialized hardware that speeds up the display of images and video. It contains random access memory, or RAM, chips that store data about each pixel, and a specialized processor chip known as a GPU (graphics processing unit).
The GPU calculates all of the triangles or vertices needed for a 3-D image, rasterizes it, adds lighting and texture and then outputs an analog signal to the monitor. It must do all of this about 60 to 120 times per second for a fast-paced game.
Dedicated GPUs are commonly associated with video gamers looking for the best performance out of their gaming computer, but they’re also useful in many professional applications like photo or video editing. Some laptops include discrete graphics cards as well, allowing them to perform at the level of desktop computers.
Network cards, or NICs, let your PC connect to the internet and communicate with other devices connected via a home or office network. They can also connect your PC to a modem or wireless router for a wired internet connection.
Generally speaking, a network card is plugged into one of the motherboard expansion slots. The card then translates data into signals that can travel over network cables and identifies each cable’s unique address.
Different network cards have varying transfer speeds and setup options. Gigabit Ethernet NICs, for example, offer more efficient data transmission, while server NICs provide high-speed connectivity and low CPU occupancy rates. Other popular types of NICs include USB and wireless NICs. They plug into the computer’s external ports or use a USB-C or RJ-45 connector to connect to the internet.
Sound cards are rectangular pieces of hardware that come with many ports on their side for connecting audio devices like speakers. They fit into a PCI or PCIe slot on the motherboard.
While a computer can easily store audio file code as digital information, it needs a sound card to translate those data into physical sound waves that travel through the air and impact our ears.
The sound card connects the microphone, speaker, headphones and other audio equipment to the motherboard via a series of colored jacks. Some sound cards also have their own DAC and other components to improve the overall audio quality. For serious audiovisual pros and gamers, a good sound card is crucial to their setups. But for everyone else, it’s a luxury add-on that can provide a little extra something.