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2. Computer Hardware

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There are can be many different components that make up a computing device. However, there are generally only a handful of core components that are required.

  • Central Processing Unit
  • Random Access Memory
  • Data Storage Drive
  • Motherboard
  • Power Supply Unit

These components collectively make up the "brains" of the computing device. We are using the term "computing device" because this term encompasses any machine that can be programmed to perform logical operations. It is a broader term than what people colloquially refer to as "computers" and may include devices such as laptops, tablets, phones, TVs, etc.

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There are specialized devices that may combine the functionality of several of these components into a single unit. This list highlights the components of a general purpose computing device and would be the minimum list of components needed to build a computer.

Central Processing Unit

The central processing unit (CPU) is the physical component that performs the basic math, logic, and input/output (I/O) operations for the device. The CPU does the general "thinking". It will take signals from other components, use computer software to determine what operations to do, and then send signals to the other components to perform tasks.

Pictured is the CPU, the metallic rounded square. It is mounted to a motherboard.
Pictured is the CPU, the metallic rounded square. It is mounted to a motherboard.

Random Access Memory

The random access memory (RAM) is the short-term memory for the device. It can quickly store and retrieve data; however, all of the data will be lost if the component loses power. When the device is operating, the data for the operating system and any currently open programs and files is typically stored in the RAM. RAM can be an order of magnitude faster than data storage drives and so they are necessary to make a computer fast.

Picture is the RAM, the 4 long sticks which are mounted into slots on a motherboard.
Picture is the RAM, the 4 long sticks which are mounted into slots on a motherboard.

Data Storage Drive

The data storage drive is the long-term memory for the device. It typically stores more data than the RAM and can preserve data even during a power loss. Data storage drives can hold more data for a cheaper price than RAM, but are much slower at storing and retrieving data than RAM. Drives are used to store important data that should be saved even when power is lost, such as the operating system, any software programs, and saved files. There are two common types of data storage drives:

  • Hard Disk Drive (HDD)
  • Solid State Drive (SSD)

The difference between hard disk drives and solid state drives is the technology they use to store data. Hard disk drives are older, cheaper technology but are slower than solid state drives. Since both HDDs and SSDs accomplish the same function, you may often see "hard drive" used as a generic term to refer to both.

Pictured is a open hard disk drive. The metal surfaces are enclosed in a case during normal operation.
Pictured is a open hard disk drive. The metal surfaces are enclosed in a case during normal operation.

Motherboard

The motherboard is a hub that serves as the connective tissue between all of the components in the computing device. It provides connections that allow the components to communicate with each other. The CPU and RAM also receive their power from the motherboard. There are slots and cable connections that allow components to connect to the motherboard.

Pictured is a motherboard. Slots for the RAM can be seen to the right on the border.
Pictured is a motherboard. Slots for the RAM can be seen to the right on the border.

Power Supply Unit

The power supply unit (PSU) does what it sounds like it does - it supplies power to the computing device. It will take a wall power connection and converts the power to levels that the components can handle.

Pictured is a PSU. The connections coming out of the box connect to various components within the computing device to provide power.
Pictured is a PSU. The connections coming out of the box connect to various components within the computing device to provide power.

Peripheral Components

There are additional components that may be included in a computing device. These may perform specialized tasks more efficiently than a core component or provide an auxiliary function. Peripherals may also be used to provide interaction with the computing device such as by taking in inputs from the user or providing output data from the computing device.

Specialized Function Devices:

  • Graphics Processing Units
  • Wireless Network Adapter
  • Audio Card

Input Devices:

  • Mouse
  • Keyboard
  • Microphone
  • Webcam

Output Devices:

  • Monitor Display
  • Headphones
  • Speakers

Input/Output Devices:

  • Flash Drives
  • SD Cards
  • Hard Drives
  • Solid State Drives

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Hard drives or solid state drives can be considered a core computing component and a peripheral as some long-term storage is typically required for most devices, but extra storage can be added as peripheral.

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