During the holiday season, many people decide to get computers as gifts for their friends and family. However, sometimes, for the geekier person in your life, they may send you a list of specs or tell you that they just want “more memory” or “more storage.” If you’re not the kind of person who builds computers from components regularly, you may not know exactly what to get. To help you out, I’ll give a quick run-down of the different parts, what they are, and what they do. We’ll ignore the peripherals: the monitor, the keyboard, and the mouse, for now and focus on the stuff that is under the hood.
1) The motherboard — This is the main board for the computer. The motherboard is the board that all of the other cards plug into. It is also the board that holds the processor. The motherboard is generally connected to the power supply and conducts power to the other cards and processor as needed. Motherboards, if purchased by themselves, will come with a manual. This manual is probably the single most important documentation you’ll want to keep on hand. The motherboard is what determines exactly how fast a processor and how much RAM you can have working within that computer. These settings, along with many others, are explained in the motherboard manual — hence why you should hang on to it.
2) The processor — The processor is a small, squarish shaped piece of hardware that plugs into the motherboard. The processor is the part of the computer that executes the commands for computer programs and can be considered the “brain” of the computer system. Processors often come with cooling systems specific to them such as a fan that clips onto the chip or a heat sync. I’ll cover these later in this post.
3) RAM — RAM stands for Random Access Memory. These are rectangular shaped sticks that fit into a special series of slots in the motherboard. RAM is where some common computer programming executions and functions are stored, speeding up the rate at which the computer can perform given tasks. Generally having a lot of RAM or “memory” means that your computer will seem to work faster, depending on the settings on the motherboard and the speed of the processor. However, not all motherboards can handle high RAM or processor speeds.
4) Hard drives — These are the primary storage unit for the computer. All of the permanent data (programs, documents, etc) are stored on the hard drive. The hard drives generally have a special “dock” in the computer where they are held in place. They do not plug directly into the motherboard but instead plug into two cords — one that usually consists of a bundle of differently-colored strands (most commonly red, black, and yellow) — and a second that is solid in color, and thin. The multi-colored cord is the power cord and the flat cord is the cord that allows the drives to be detected by the computer.
5) Video card — The video card is the card that the monitor plugs in to. Nowadays, video cards often contain their own specialized memory to speed up the rate at which graphical effects can be processed and displayed.
6) Sound card — The sound card controls the sound output for the computer. Many motherboards today do have an onboard sound card but an additional card might be useful for doing sound editing or analysis.
7) Networking card/modem — This card is the card that allows you to connect to a fiber network or to the phone line (for dial-up).
8 ) The power supply — This is the boxy, heavy, and somewhat noisy part of the tower. The power cord plugs directly into it. The power supply is what actually pulls energy from the wall socket and into the tower. It is connected to the motherboard which, in turn, draws power from the supply and disperses it to the cards and processor as needed.
If you’re still confused or need help translating the holiday computer requests from the comp-sci person in your life, just drop us a line in the comments below and we’ll help you out!