Computer hardware is the physical components inside a personal computer (also known as a PC). A desktop pc has a motherboard, CPU, RAM, hard drive and a video card.
Computer hardware also includes expansion cards that plug into a motherboard’s expansion slots. For example, you might want to add a USB 3.0 expansion card or upgrade the video processing unit in your PC for faster rendering and gaming performance.
You don’t need to hang out with tech professionals to know the word “motherboard.” This flat piece acts as the skeleton upon which other components plug in. It’s the heart of your computer, routing power and managing how the components work with each other.
A motherboard’s circuit board has copper connecting traces and holes that allow for expansion slots. It also houses a chipset, which manages communication between the CPU and other parts of the system.
Motherboards usually include USB ports for connecting peripherals like headphones, cameras, and mouses, as well as ethernet and firewire connections. Some may offer advanced audio codecs and built-in amplifiers that can deliver crisp, clear sound.
Often called the brain of the computer, the central processing unit (CPU) completes calculations so that you can call your friends, open your web browser or write an email. It’s also found in other modern devices like tablets, smartphones and smart washing machines.
The CPU works by fetching, decoding and executing machine instructions that are encoded as sequences of ones and zeroes – or binary code. It then transmits data back and forth to other components using the system bus.
The fingernail-sized CPU is held tightly against the motherboard by a lever mechanism and packaged with thermal paste, which helps conduct heat up to its (not shown) heat sink.
Computer RAM works closely with the CPU to store data so it’s immediately accessible. Unlike the brain, this memory is not permanent; when you close a program it loses the information it used to hold.
The fingernail-sized chip is packaged in a metal cover, helping to conduct heat up to the CPU’s (not shown) thermal paste. The chips are packaged on a card known as a DIMM that plugs into the motherboard. RAM speeds, densities and generations affect your overall PC experience. You can also find SSDs that are non-volatile and keep your data stored even when the computer is turned off. Upgrades can include adding more RAM to boost performance.
The hard drive is the computer’s data storage device. It consists of a series of rotating disk platters that hold information, and an arm with a read/write head.
The head reads digital data as ones and zeroes by detecting the magnetism of tiny portions of the platters. The drive can also write data by changing the magnetism of those portions, making it a very versatile device.
HDDs can store a large amount of data at a relatively low cost, and are extremely durable under normal use. They are also non-volatile, meaning that they retain data even when the power is off. They are the primary data storage method in most desktop computers.
The graphics card (also known as a video card or display adapter) is responsible for rendering the images on your monitor. This includes everything from high-end computer games to the regular text you type in a file folder.
It takes binary data from the CPU and converts it into pixels, which are tiny squares that make up an image. It also rasterizes (fills in the straight lines) and adds lighting, texture and color.
There are two types of GPUs, integrated and discrete. Integrated cards are built into the motherboard, and you can find them in most thin-and-light laptops and standard desktop computers. Discrete cards are standalone components that can be upgraded, and you can find them from companies like AMD and Nvidia.
A sound card, also called an audio adapter, translates digital code into the analog waves that travel through speakers to reach our ears. The sound card also provides input ports for microphones and other external devices.
Early PCs had built-in sound cards that used FM synthesis to produce music or other sounds. These cards were typically rated by the number of voices (or channels) they supported.
Today, a computer’s motherboard typically incorporates a digital audio codec that supports stereo or multichannel output. More advanced sound cards offer features that are important to computer musicians, such as MIDI in/out ports and support for higher sampling rates.