What is hardware?
We all (should) know that a computer system consists of hardware and software. But understanding what hardware is might not be straightforward in all cases. Are your CPU and GPU hardware? What about the power cable? This article will explore the subject in depth and settle some common misunderstandings.
Summary: Computer hardware represents all physical components of the machine. Simply put, if you can see and touch it, it’s hardware. And, if not, it’s software. But that’s just the beginning of the story. There are several types of hardware components. Knowing which components fall into what category could prove quite handy when inspecting your PC. Here are the hardware basics to get you familiar with the subject.
How is Computer Hardware Defined?
Every piece of computer hardware is a physical object. It can be made of different materials, have specific dimensions or shape, and serve a variety of purposes. However, as long as it’s tangible and a part of your computer system, it’s considered hardware.
To answer the question from the introductory passage, your central processing unit (CPU), graphics card (GPU), and power cable all fall under hardware.
Hardware can also be viewed as a direct opposite to everything considered software. Software is, by definition, intangible – it doesn’t have a physical component and exists only as digital data. The term refers to your operating system, internet browser, and even that “New hardware found” popup users get when a new device is plugged into their computers.
Naturally, computer hardware and software go hand in hand. None could perform its function without the other.
It’s obvious that not all hardware components are the same. No one would say that a computer mouse and a graphics card are in any way similar. This is because hardware comes in several types based on its location and purpose.
Hardware Types by Location
Classification by location is relatively straightforward. Based on whether they’re housed in or outside the computer case, hardware components can be internal or external.
But before we get deeper into explaining types of hardware, there’s an interesting question of the computer case. It is undoubtedly hardware, yet doesn’t fall into either of the mentioned types.
Computer cases (or towers) are a hardware category of their own. Since other parts are defined by their location relative to the case, the case itself can be neither internal or external. In some cases, a computer case with PC components inside is collectively called “PC hardware.”
Returning to the more straightforward matter of other hardware components, let’s look at how individual computer parts are defined.
Internal hardware parts of a computer are often simply called “components.” They are contained within the case and include:
Central processing unit (CPU)
RAM (computer memory)
Internal hard drives like HDDs and SSDs
Disk drives – CD, DVD, Blu-ray, and the long-extinct floppy drive
Graphics card (GPU)
Sound processing card
Power supply unit
Network and modem units
Cooling fans and heat sinks
External Hardware (In Desktop Computers)
External components are found outside the computer case, for example:
Joysticks, gamepads, and other gaming controllers
USB flash drive
External variants of internal components like storage devices or disk drives
The two basic divisions of computer hardware have subsets based on what each component or peripheral device does. It’s worth noting that these subsets somewhat overlap in modern builds.
Internal Component Types by Use
Internal computer hardware is what provides processing and memory power to a computer setup. When people mention hardware upgrades, it falls into two main categories:
Memory and storage
Processing internal components include the motherboard, central processing unit, sound and graphics cards, and network cards or modems.
The motherboard represents the main connection between all other hardware components. It’s a printed circuit board that allows information to pass to and from other crucial units so they can perform their function correctly.
For example, suppose you have a game installed on an internal hard drive. In order for you to play the game, relevant electronic data needs to be pulled into the RAM and processed through the CPU. Additionally, the game needs to react to your input, whether you’re using a controller or a keyboard and mouse setup. Finally, the gameplay has to be presented in real time through your monitor and speakers.
The motherboard makes all this possible by connecting various components and getting them to work together. It’s the vital computing hardware device within your computer.
Central processing unit (CPU)
For a lack of better analogy, the CPU is the brain of your computer. It’s a tiny chip with massive power that processes inbound and outbound commands.
Let’s translate that last part into something more understandable with an example.
A user decides to open a document in their word processor. They find the folder and click on the document icon, and soon enough, the page appears on the screen. While this is a simple action, it’s only made possible by the CPU which is constantly working in the background.
When the user clicks on the software icon, the command is accepted by the hardware which directs the motherboard to load it into the CPU memory cache. From there, the CPU takes over performing what is called the instruction cycle.
This cycle consists of three phases: fetch, decode, and execute. In essence, the CPU fetches the command from the RAM, decodes what’s supposed to happen, and then executes the appropriate actions.
CPUs are really blunt, and they only operate in machine language (1s and 0s). They perform various arithmetic and logical operations on the input and forward the output, constantly. The list of these operations is pre-set by the manufacturer. The operating system and underlying software are in charge of making sure the CPU gets the most use. They also break down complex instructions into the basic set that the CPU understands.
This process happens for everything your computer does, from running complex computer programs to clock updates and even mouse scrolls.
Graphics card (GPU)
The purpose of a graphics or video card is somewhat similar to the CPU. However, while the CPU processes every task, the GPU is specialized for graphics.
Here, it’s important to make one vital distinction. The terms “graphics card,” “video card,” and “GPU” are usually used interchangeably, but don’t actually mean the same thing. The graphics card is much like the motherboard, while the GPU is the actual processing unit.
Separate processing units for graphics were initially made for 3D rendering. In time, these units became more developed and versatile. The main difference between a GPU and a CPU is that GPUs are more specialized, with thousands of cores. Each core is slower individually than the CPU core, but together they can finish their intended task faster.
Much like the graphics component, this hardware device is designed for a single specific purpose: processing sound. This is a somewhat more complex task than it might seem, which is precisely why it requires a dedicated piece of hardware.
Whenever a sound is played on your computer, the system needs to pull the sound file based on a particular trigger. For example, order the machine to shut down and it will play the familiar sound.
Of course, sound reproduction can become much more complex than system sounds. Imagine the processing that needs to happen for music software to function efficiently. That example is precisely why sound processing cards have become staple computer components.
network card and modem
Network-related hardware components process the data coming to and from the network cable plugged into the computer.
These components don’t have the same processing power as other hardware on this list. Instead, most of their tasks are limited to forwarding information according to specific protocols. They represent a link between your internet service provider and your computer.
Memory and Storage
Memory and storage are divided into three categories: primary, secondary, and tertiary. This classification is made according to how readily the CPU can access the stored data.
Primary storage is usually called “memory,” while other types are simply called “storage.”
When talking about memory, we’re referring to the components that store data necessary for applications to run properly. In particular, these are the CPU cache and RAM.
Cache memory is a temporary data storage dedicated to the CPU. It stores information necessary for the processing unit to perform its queued tasks. For this reason, the cache unit is often integrated into the processor or placed very near it on the motherboard.
RAM (Random Access Memory) is much more extensive than cache. It stores all data needed to run programs, which is why certain apps require huge amounts of RAM.
The differences between RAM and CPU cache are in size and speed. CPU cache is orders of magnitude faster than RAM so it can keep up with the CPU’s speed. However, this means that sacrifices have to be made in terms of size. CPU cache is loaded from and to RAM by the motherboard in chunks to alleviate resource use.
RAM upgrades are possible since every modern motherboard includes at least one expansion slot for this storage type.
Memory isn’t stored permanently. Instead, it represents a temporary resource, unlike storage devices.
Secondary storage doesn’t provide direct CPU access. Instead, when data files from this storage need to be used, they are pulled into the memory, i.e., primary storage.
This category includes storage devices that we’re probably most familiar with like the hard disk drive and solid state drive. Hard disk drives (HDDs) consist of magnetically coated metal platters and arms designed to read and write data. All this is housed within an airtight casing.
A solid state drive, on the other hand, doesn’t feature any moving parts. Instead, SSDs use a different system – their storage is designed similarly to a RAM memory or a USB stick.
The defining feature of all secondary storage devices is that they retain the data stored on them even when powered off.
Tertiary storage is another step further from direct CPU usage. A storage device in this group will have no direct contact with the processor and will depend on a mechanism to load the storage media.
Simply put, tertiary storage devices are those that need to open and be loaded with particular media. An example would be a CD-ROM, DVD, or Blu-ray unit.
Besides the components used for computing, certain pieces of hardware perform crucial functions related to the overall system health. These are primarily power supplies, cooling units, and other electronics.
The power supply unit provides sufficient power to the computer and can protect sensitive physical components from overloading. Some types of power supplies come with fuses, making the rest of the machine more resistant to surges.
When talking about cooling units, we’re thinking of the primary fan installed in the computer case. This fan regulates the overall temperature inside the case.
The fan’s function is critical to prevent overheating, especially since some components can reach very high temperatures. Graphic cards and CPUs are particularly prone to heating up. These hardware devices have their own heat sinks and fans, but those don’t push the hot air all the way out of the case. That’s the job of the primary fan.
External Device Types by Use
Most of the time when the “new computer hardware found” message pops up, it will be due to a piece of external hardware. These are the physical parts of your computer that get changed the most – the peripheral devices.
External hardware is largely divided into input and output devices. It’s quite clear what each category does from the name alone.
Input devices are used to issue user commands to the internal processing units. Most people don’t think of it that way, but every time you type a letter or click a button, you’re issuing a command to your computer.
You’re likely familiar with the most common input devices:
However, maybe you didn’t think of a USB memory stick as an input device. Yet, that’s precisely what it is. When connected to USB ports, these storage devices are usually used to access the data stored on them.
Additional hardware components that represent external input devices include external storage drives and scanners.
An output device is any external piece of computer hardware that gives you system feedback. This includes all external devices that desktop computers use to show images or play sounds. The following could serve as a good example of an output device:
What About Laptop Computers?
Laptops are slightly different from desktop computers in that most of their hardware components are considered internal.
Since a laptop can be thought of as all case, hardware like the computer screen or keyboard is technically internal. The only hardware components that could be external on a laptop would be devices connected via USB or other ports.
Although laptops are made much more compact compared to desktop PCs, that doesn’t make a hardware upgrade impossible. A piece like the power supply unit can be easily replaced, but other units like memory and storage can be upgraded, too.
Examples of computer hardware include:
Internal computer hardware like the hard drive, processor, or video card.
External computer hardware, such as the monitor, keyboard, and mouse.
Less common external hardware components like UPS batteries.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is hardware in a computer?
A hardware device is any piece of your computer that you can see or touch.
What is the most common hardware included with a computer?
All computers will need an internal computing device, hardware connection, and primary storage to function – the processor, motherboard, and RAM, respectively. A video card is also a common computer hardware device.
Can hardware run without software?
Computers can’t run without software, or more precisely firmware. Firmware provides the necessary instructions for every device, which software uses to build a useful system. The motherboard houses low-level battery-powered firmware (BIOS) that is used to assess whether the PC has all the necessary hardware and load the operating system to take over.
Author: Tibor Moes
Founder & Chief Editor at SoftwareLab
Tibor is a Dutch engineer and entrepreneur. He has tested security software since 2014.
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