Computer Hardware – An Introduction

When I was thirteen, I received a graphics card for Christmas. Perhaps not the average girl’s Christmas wish, but this came after some complaining that my desktop couldn’t render long distances in World of Warcraft. It was a good upgrade, but I still felt that my performance was lagging. The next year, my dad and I built a replacement desktop computer and I specifically requested two things: a terabyte hard drive so I would never have to delete a file again to make space for a patch, and a new NVIDIA graphics card. My previous card was nice, but I got the GeForce GTX 250! It could fully render shadows! And long distances! Needless to say, my gaming experience dramatically improved with the new graphics, copious amounts of DDR3 memory and a dual-core processor. My desktop ran like a dream, and six years later it is still keeping up and was recently upgraded to Windows 7 from XP.

Hardware is the very beginning of a computer; it is what determines not only the speed and capabilities of a machine, but also if the machine will last. Without a basic understanding of what is inside our computers and how they work, selecting the right hardware can be difficult. A basic formula for computer buying may be that higher numbers GBs, Ghz, Price indicate a better performing machine, but that method is too simplistic and may not help you buy the computer that is right for your needs. I hope to offer you here a basic explanation of computer hardware which you may find useful the next time you decide to purchase a laptop, desktop, tablet or phone.

If your computer was a person and let’s be honest, if you hang out with your computer enough it is kind of like a person to you, the processor CPU would be its brain. The processor manages the operations of the other parts while it executes commands, opens programs and otherwise handles the information it summons from the hard drive HDD See Note. The hard drive is where information is stored on your machine for long periods of time. Programs are stored on the hard drive along with your photos, videos, documents, and so on. While the processor initiates a program starting, it is not able to run the program without rapid access to random pieces of information within the files.

Here is where RAM memory steps in. RAM is short-term memory, in use when programs are operating but wiped every time the computer shuts off. RAM holds all the information the processor may need to grab at random while executing commands. The more RAM you have, the more information can be held for the processor to use at will. Adding RAM to an existing computer is one simple way of increasing its speed and RAM is particularly useful for people who multitask. But of course, adding RAM only does so much and it is the relationship between all three of these main components – the processor, the hard drive and the short-term memory – that determines a computer’s speed.

For gaming enthusiasts, it is also important to consider the graphics processor GPU. The GPU may be “dedicated” or separate, in which case it is often called a video/graphics card. A dedicated GPU is exactly what it sounds like: a processor for graphics only, operating with its own RAM separate from the rest of the computer. Computers without dedicated graphics, most often rely on integrated graphics that are a part of the CPU.

If you are shopping and looking at tech specs, you will notice that hard drives and memory are both measured in gigabytes while processors are measured with gigahertz. Hard drive size varies, and can be selected based on individual usage, but know that as RAM goes, 4GB is a good, standard amount of memory and anything 8+GB is designed for higher performance. Another acronym you will see with memory is DDR3, which is simply the current version of memory available new, and an upgrade from DDR2 when I built my desktop six years ago. For processors, generally the more GHz the better; Intel’s most common chips are the 4th gen Core i3, i5 and i7. I would recommend an i5 for the average user and i7 for extra performance. Although, since Intel just released 5th gen Core M processors and will release their 6th generation in the second half of 2015, the processor landscape will soon change.

Waiting a little bit longer to make a computer purchase can have big payoffs. Buying new technologies with an eye toward performance can mean a longer lasting machine.

Note: While I only mentioned hard drives above, many computers now and all ultrabooks use solid state drives SSDs. While a HDD is a disk with a magnetic coding, spun around read and by an arm, a SSD is a set of flash memory chips which store data and require no moving parts. Flash memory is much faster, but it is also much more expensive. An in-depth comparison of the two can be found here.