Learn Computers Series: Part 1 – Hardware Basics

Learn Computers Series: Part 1 – Hardware Basics

This week I will be starting a series of articles where I will cover what I feel every computer user needs to know. The series will cover topics ranging from hardware, software, basic computing concepts and even troubleshooting. Let’s begin with understanding the hardware that powers your PC.

Basics:  Hardware, Software and Operating Systems

Before we cover hardware, let’s cover the difference between hardware, software and operating systems(OS’s).  Other than specialized systems all computers contain hardware, software and an operating system.  Hardware is the actual physical components that make up the device.  An operating system is specialized software used to abstract hardware and make it easy for additional software to utilize it.  Lastly software is any program that runs in(or on top of) the operating system.  So your PC has hardware(the physical device) an OS (such as Windows), and software (such as Web Browsers, Photo editors etc).

Components:

All computers(including phones, tablets and other computing devices) contain basically the same components or variation of the basic components.  Each one performs specific functions and work together to provide you the functionality you experience when you use your device.  The main components are the following:

  • CPU (Processor)
  • GPU (Graphics Card)
  • RAM (Memory)
  • Storage (Hard drive/Solid-state Drive/etc)
  • Motherboard

CPU

CPU attached to the motherboard of a PC with heat sink and fan installed.
The CPU is the heart of processing power in your PC and is located under the large fan you see here.

The CPU or Central Processing Unit(also called a processor) is the heart of any computing device. It performs the main set of instructions to enable work to be done. The speed is measured in a number of hertz or a number of clock cycles per second. They are measured in frequency the same as storage is with sizes. The prefixes Mega and Giga are used to describe how many millions or billions of clock cycles are run per second. Megahertz is equal to one million clock cycles per second and Gigahertz is equal to one billion clock cycles per second. Gigahertz is the predominate value used to describe processor speed in current phones and PC’s.

Clock cycles can be broken down further, but it’s not important for most users to know.  All you need to know is that even though two CPU’s may have the same speed, one may still run faster than another depending on how it was designed.  This is why looking at pure CPU speed does not tell you entirely how well it will perform and why you may see such disclaimers when buying a PC.

In addition to clock speed modern CPU’s now contain multiple cores which is currently (in 2014) anywhere between 2-8 for consumer products (including phones!) Each core allows additional processing power which is useful for intensive work loads such as advanced photo and video editing.  The additional cores allow more to be processed at the same time allowing tasks to be completed more quickly.

In addition to the standard CPU that only does standard computing, many chip manufactures also include a form of integrated graphics in some models.  These are most commonly found in laptops.  You may have also heard of a type of processor called an APU.  An APU is an ‘Accelerated Processing Unit’ which is a new type of CPU/GPU integration design by AMD (one of the predominant PC chip manufactures).  These are the same as CPU’s but contain very close integration of the graphics cores in the same chip. This allows performance gains compared to traditional integrated solutions while also allowing additional power efficiency.  So although they are named differently, they still work like any other CPU.

GPU

A standard GPU / graphics card.
The GPU performs rendering of all graphical elements to screen and typically looks similar to the one shown above.

The GPU or Graphics Processing Unit (commonly referred to as a graphics card) is responsible for producing all visuals in modern day systems. It’s the graphics card that allows you to increase the details in your favorite PC games and can even prohibit you from playing the latest titles if it’s not strong enough. In addition to performing display tasks GPU’s are currently undergoing a transition where software is being written to take advantage of the their compute power. This allows the GPU to take over tasks that are traditionally handled by the CPU.  By transferring the work to the GPU, it dramatically increasing the power of the computer by freeing up CPU resources while also tapping into the lesser used GPU. So what does that mean?  This means that the GPU’s numerous processors can each execute part of a task to enable it to complete faster than if it was only done on the CPU.  Image/Video editing is one of the largest benefactors of this technology as encoding or applying affects to frames/images can easily be broken down into small task for each processor in the GPU to complete quickly and independently.

RAM

Two sticks of low profile RAM.  These sticks are roughly half the height of regular RAM.
RAM stores your OS and software while your PC runs. These are two sticks that contain metal heat shields to help disperse heat.

RAM or Random Access Memory(or just memory) is ultra fast temporary storage where the Operating System and software is loaded to run while using your PC.  RAM is usually separated out into sticks for large devices, but can also be integrated to the system on the motherboard.  It’s capacity can vary but currently most systems come with anywhere between 2 to 8 Gigabytes(GB). RAM is the most commonly upgraded item in home PC’s and laptops as once  you fill up the amount available, active programs and even portions of the OS start to be written to the much slower hard drive/solid-state drive.  This causes a large impact to performance.

Storage

A standard full size desktop hard drive.
A typical hard drive used for storage in a desktop computer.

Storage can be any media that is used to store data while the computer is not powered on. This includes the traditional hard drive that you are probably familiar with as well as newer solid-state drives(SSD) and can even reference older tape storage.  If you go back far enough in time, 3.5″ and 8″ floppy disks were once common general storage in computers and at one time were the only option!

Today, traditional hard drives are the most common form of storage in computers.  These drives are composed of mechanical spinning disks and are sold in different speed ratings based on the revolutions per minute of the platter (disk). Most premanufactured PC’s come with the slowest speed available which is 5400 RPMs. However they are also available in faster speeds such as 7 200, 10 000 or 15 000 RPMS which allows faster reading and writing of data.

Solid-state drives are a newer form of storage and are starting to become common place in high end systems. These are composed of modules similar to those in flash drives.  This means no moving parts which allows them to be more resilient to falls as well use less power and generate less heat. Being composed of flash memory allows them to achieve very fast read and write speeds compared to traditional hard drives. It’s this speed difference that makes them desirable by greatly cutting down data retrieval and writing wait time which makes for noticeably fast loading/saving and transferring of data.  However with all these advantages, their current disadvantage is that they are much more costly compared to traditional hard drives.

Motherboard

Motherboard in assembled PC connecting various components.
The motherboard is the large board connecting each component inside this PC.

The motherboard is the back bone of a computer literally.  If you ever opened a PC, it is the large flat board that all the components are connected to. Its entire function is to connect all of the components and accessories to allow them to work as a single computing device. Motherboards contain a multitude of connectors to allow different devices to be connected to it. They can vary greatly in size and number and type of connectors available which is important to know for building or upgrading a PC. Manufacturers generally use the number of connectors, speed of inter device communication and CPU compatibility to differentiate each product from others in the market. For example a motherboard can limit the maximum amount of RAM, which CPU’s can be installed or how many add-on cards can be installed in the machine.

Additional Components:

A typical sound card.
Although less common, this sound card is an example of one of the many additional components that can be found in a computer.

In addition to these main items, there are other common pieces of hardware. These can include sound cards which are strictly for processing high quality audio and video capture cards which which are used for importing video from live feed sources.  Other components can include special add-on cards such as converting a single motherboard connection into multiple or specialized connections for other internal devices or adding additional USB ports or Wifi to a desktop PC.

Putting It All Together

To recap all computing devices generally contain the same parts. These parts are the CPU, GPU, RAM, Storage, and Motherboard. These pieces of hardware are abstracted and made usable by an operating system.  The operating system then in turn allows software to easily take advantage of the computing power of the system without having to directly interface with the hardware. All of these components make the computing experience you have on devices you experience everyday such as smartphone, tablet, laptop, desktop, kiosks and video game consoles.

That’s it for the first installment in the series. If you’d like to be sure you don’t miss the next installment please subscribe!  Have anything you want to see in future parts of this series or spotted an error?  Leave a comment below or visit our contact page to let me know!

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