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Definitions of Computer Hardware: The Basics

written by: Rebecca Scudder•edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 2/1/2010

In the third article of this series on computers and hardware and terminology, we look at the definitions of computer hardware which are needed for a basic computer.

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    Computer components

    Computers and hardware and terminology!

    Lions and tigers and bears!

    Computer hardware terminology need not be frightening.

    There are many, many components in a computer system, and it can be confusing to understand and hard to remember what they do. This article goes through a list of the main components most computers have, and provides definitions for computer hardware.

    The main difference is in the number of pieces that you need to have a working computer. Mobile computers can travel; although some ultralarge laptops are not very portable, they are still self contained.

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    Both types have a motherboard. This is where the heart and brains of a computer are put. A motherboard contains many important components of a computer, and is the connection to all parts of the computer. A motherboard has the CPU, the RAM and the chipset and the BIOS. Optional items on the motherboard which are still necessary for a functioning computer include graphics and sound cards, ports, and expansion slots. These are incorporated on the motherboard on low-end and many middle priced computers. Many mobile computers have them on the motherboard because it saves space, but will use more powerful or versatile versions of graphic and sound cards, and have more and specialized ports if it is a higher end laptop. Many laptops actually have the components glued to the motherboard.

    Desktop motherboards are built to a standard format. Laptop motherboards differ in shape and size by each manufacturer, and in some cases, by product line. They both vary based on the chipsets and CPUs included as to what they can do.That is why Microsoft has you run a program to see if you are able to upgrade to another version of Windows; if your motherboard does not have the proper or powerful enough components, it will not be able to run Vista or Windows 7.

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    CPU/ Processor

    The CPU, or Central Processing Unit, of a computer is the component of a computer that carries out computer programs. It executes the instructions that result in the actions taken by a computer, whether to perform a calculation, display graphics, or connect to the Internet and pull up a webpage.

    CPUs have become progressively faster and capable of different and more complex forms of processing. Personal computers now can come with multiple processors that work together. Laptop and desktop computers can both use the same kinds of processors, although netbooks and subnotebooks often have a limited processor which cannot perform at the speeds found in most laptops or desktops.

    Faster and more complex CPUs are developed regularly, and the older ones then become less expensive to purchase.

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    Displays in the past were CRT (cathode ray terminals) displays, but laptops and most standalone displays are now LCD displays. LCD technology allows the display to be very thin, and is one of the things that make laptops feasible. It is now difficult to buy a new CRT display, although there are still a lot of older ones around. CRT displays are considered better for fast gaming, because of the way they handle movement. LCD screens take appreciably longer to refresh their screens, and for a gamer, a 5 MS lag can slow the pace of the game or prevent them noticing a change in an online game. There are now LCD screens with as little as 2MS lag time, and it is expected to improve.

    LCD screens are also space savers, and can be wall mounted at need. Some stand alone displays can tilt a pivot, going from landscape mode to portrait mode, which was not possible with a CRT display.

    A clear distinction between laptops and desktop computers is that desktops need a display and a keyboard, at a minimum, whereas the laptop has both built in.

    Most computers are now able to support more than one display, so if you have your laptop sitting on your desk, you can usually connect a free standing display to it for more graphical real estate, as well as adding additional displays to a desktop. Specialized connectors are used to attach the additional displays.

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    Input devices

    You need a way to communicate with the computer. Usually, unless you have a touch screen, this is done through a keyboard and mouse, or track pad. Special keyboards and mice are made for certain users. You can get ergonomically designed keyboards and mice, and you can get keyboards with special keys, if you don't want a QWERTY keyboard. There are also keyboards, mice and joysticks made especially for gamers, to allow them to act and react faster than they could otherwise.

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    RAM stands for Random Access Memory. Your computer uses this memory to function quickly, as it does not need to access information from the hard drive to use it. To a certain point, the more RAM you have, the faster your computer will seem to run. Certain OS (operating systems) need quite a bit of memory to function properly. Both Windows Vista and Windows 7 seem to need at least 2 GB RAM to work well, and another GB will make them speedier. A 32-bit processor cannot access more than 4 GB of RAM, so unless you have a newer 64-bit processor machine, don't bother adding more RAM than that.

    While all types of computers use RAM, the type they use differs. All laptop RAM is smaller in form than desktop RAM. RAM is one of the items that can be changed on a laptop, and if you are upgrading your operating system from XP to Vista, you will want to make sure you have 2GB of RAM in the computer, even if your computer has been running XP happily with much less.

    You need to find out what RAM is compatible with your motherboard before you order it, as it must match in speed and number of pins. You should be able to get the correct information from your motherboard manufacturer.

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    Hard drive

    A hard drive is a memory storage device. Thin media spin at very fast rates- 5400 rpm and 7200 rpm now, and they hold information magnetically. It is now uncommon to see a hard drive as small as 80 GB, and many new computers come with 320 or 500 GB. The computer keeps information you want on a permanent basis on the hard drive. Relatively recently, solid state hard drives have been developed, but they are still very expensive per GB of memory. Their virtue is that they cannot be hurt by being dropped- which has been the death of many hard drives- including one of mine, when I tripped and dropped my laptop.

    Hard drives are one of the few components that can be changed on a laptop computer. Laptop hard drives are 2.5 inches, while desktop drives are 3.5 inches. Most laptops can have a hard drive replaced if it is no more than 9.5mm thick, and some can take thicker drives. 320 GB drives for a laptop normally fit in a 9.5 mm high space.

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    Almost all computers have a case. In the desktop, the case provides ridges or racks to add additional components to the computer, and is the framework within which other components are mounted. A desktop usually opens up a side, at a minimum, and often can have the front removed as well.

    Laptops have a rigid, unadaptable case or body, and cannot have additional parts added within it.

    Server farms are often stands of racks, with most of the components making up a computer on each rack. Large businesses, or those with extensive computing needs, often have rooms or buildings filled with the racks. Google has such buildings around the world, in geographically diverse areas, for redundancy of the information they have. Server farms differ from most computers in that they usually don't have a display or input device for each rack. When needed, a keyboard and display is brought to the spot.

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    Power Supply

    Computers also need a power supply- pretty obviously. Desktops use electricity, sometimes going through a transformer. They may also have uninterruptible power supplies, so they can be shut down safely if the electrical power goes out. Portable computers have batteries for when they cannot be plugged in, but they also use a power supply, an AC adapter that has a transformer to convert the power before it goes into the computer. Portable computers usually use the power cord whenever they are going to be in one location for long, and they need it to charge the battery as well.

    An important adjunct to the power supply is a surge protector. This will protect your computer from changes in the electrical supply. They are often built into power strips- additional places to plug in computer equipment.

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    Other components

    While there are many other components that can make up a computer, these are the basic elements. A number of different articles at Bright Hub go into greater detail about each of these components.

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    Additional Reading

    For an alphabetical list of many computer related terms for hardware and software, see these series:

    Glossary of Computer Hardware Terms: Numbers and Symbols

    A Glossary of Windows Terms A series from A to Z

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