Authors: Steven Dieter, Evan Marshall, and Bryce Swiggum
Editor: Bryce Swiggum
In this tutorial, we will go over the key parts of a computer’s internal hardware and explain the purpose, common manufacturers, product range, and price points of the required and common optional parts to a computer. This guide will mostly be talking about items relevant to consumer desktops and laptops (pricing may be more expensive for laptops). Most all of the information is the same for professional level devices, though pricing can be different and servers will include additional hardware.
The most regularly seen part of the computer, the chassis, is the physical backbone of the computer, keeping all the parts in their place and protected. Typically made from a variety of metals and plastics, the chassis should be durable enough to survive the life of the computer, if not longer than the computer stays in usage. Some chassis are utilitarian in nature, attempting to only serve as the platform for the vital components. Other chassis serve as a work of art, with many high end (especially gaming configurations) computers having a more stylistic design.
In terms of usability, a chassis will typically come with a front power button, USB headers, and audio input/output. Other front facing items (or on the side in the case of laptops and iMacs) may include multimedia card readers, optical drives (CD, DVD, Blue-Ray, etc.), and on some older computers a 3.5 in a floppy drive. On the rear of a tower PC, it will often be more input/output that comes attached to the motherboard along with expansion slots for various types of expansion cards.
The internal structure of a tower chassis typically contains a large open area for the motherboard and power supply and two section of cages (at the front). Typically a larger partitioned cage will be at the top where external drives and other forward facing add-ons are mounted. Bellow is a smaller cage, also partitioned, where storage drives are mounted. On laptops and many mac desktops, internal components are sandwiched together, with the storage often sitting to one side while other components are arranged over the motherboard.
Price Point: Most cases when purchased separately run somewhere between $40 and $130.
Power Supply Unit (PSU)
The power supply is likely the easiest part of a computer to explain as it is what supplies power to all the parts of the computer. Beyond that, there are many types of power supplies mostly broken down between a combination of key factors including Watts, efficiency, the number of connectors, and if it is modular. Watts typically run between 200 and 1200, many people when building their own machine will use a power supply calculator (such as the one by Newegg here) to determine how powerful of a unit is needed. Most stock computers come with non-modular power supplies that have a set number of connectors. Many high-end machines will come with modular power supplies that allow for a cleaner look as the only power cables in the computer are the ones that are needed instead of having excess cables cluttering inside of the computer.
Price Point: Power Supplies run anywhere between $15 to $300 depending on the wattage, efficiency, and if it is modular or not.
Common Manufacturers: Corsair, EVGA, Gigabyte, CoolMax
The motherboard is a printed circuit board that is the foundation of a computer, located at the bottom of the computer case. It allocates power to the other computer hardware components and is the mounting platform for the CPU, GPU, RAM, and any other. The motherboard’s primary function is to coordinate the actions of the other internal components of the computer, acting much like the central nervous system of the human body, as well as sending/receiving inputs from external devices (mice, keyboard, the internet, monitor, printer, etc). Follow this link for more information about the parts of the motherboard: http://www.computerhope.com/jargon/m/mothboar.htm
Price Point: When purchased alone, motherboards can run between $75 and $300 for standard size (ATX).
Common Manufacturers: ASRock, Asus, EVGA, Gigabyte, Intel
Central Processing Unit (CPU)
A central processing unit (CPU) is basically the brains of the whole operation. This chip executes instructions within computer programs, handles user inputs/outputs, and performs arithmetic operations for the computer to process data. Most contemporary CPUs typically have multiple processors, or cores (commonly 2 or 4 though upper-level units may have 6 or even 8), that are each able to work on different functions. CPUs are most commonly rated by their clock rate in hertz, which is the frequency a single core runs at. So as a rule of thumb the higher the clock speed and the more cores, the more powerful the CPU.
Price Point: Most consumer CPUs will start around $50 for budget builds all the way up to $350.
Common Manufacturers: AMD, Intel
CPU Cooler and Case Fans
Heavy usage of the computer can result with the overheating of the computer and in particular the CPU. In order to prevent the device from overheating and causing failures, many cases come with fans and places in which additional fans can be mounted and have air flow. In addition to the so called case fans, most modern towers will also sport one of two types of dedicated CPU coolers. The traditional CPU cooler is a fan that blows air over a heat sink that is attached to a copper plate that absorbs heat from the CPU. These fans are completely reliant upon the air that is in the case so if your machine is getting too hot or if you do not have a cross breeze for the fan, they can prove to be less effective than newer liquid CPU coolers.
Liquid CPU coolers do not have to rely upon the air already in the case as they have fans that mount in place of case fans, pulling in air from outside of the case. As with a traditional CPU cooler, heat is transferred from the CPU to a copper plate; but instead of then transferring to a metal heat sink, heat transfers to a cooling liquid housed in a container on top of the copper plate. The coolant then runs through tubing to a radiator that sits behind the fan(s) mounted to the case where the liquid is then cooled down again before returning via another tube to the container over the CPU. https://youtu.be/npJZH5u6plM
Price Point: Case fans run between $5-$30 based upon how fast and quiet the fan can run. Traditional CPU coolers will run from $20-$50 while liquid variants are often $40-$80, both depending on how many fans the unit has as well as speed and noise level.
Common Manufacturers: CoolerMaster, Corsair, EVGA, Logisys, NZXT, Thermaltake
Random Access Memory (RAM)
RAM, sometimes simply called memory, are a series of chips attached to the motherboard that provides short term storage for the computer. Any temporary files and all currently running programs run, at least partially, on these chips when in use. So when working on a Word document the application Word is located on the hard drive but the running operations will be on the RAM, as will the current document that you are working on. It is not until you hit save that the document would actually get moved over to the hard drive for permanent (and safer) storage. Also, the more RAM a computer has, the more tasks it can run at the same time while not suffering from a loss of speed. So a computer with 4GB of RAM cannot run as many or as large of tasks without decreased performance as a machine with 32 GB of RAM. The standard amount of RAM for common users is around 8 GB in their machine. People who hope to do high-end gaming, video processing/editing, or use design software will want to have between 16-32 GB in their computer.
*It is important to know that different operating systems and CPUs will limit how much RAM a computer is able to utilize.*
Price Point: The fewer GB per chip, the less expensive it usually is. For DDR4 chips (what is becoming the new standard) a 4 GB chip will cost around $40 where 8GB chips will be closer to $60-70. *Note: on a typical desktop motherboard this would allow for a total of 16GB ($160 using 4 GB chips or $120 using 8 GB chips) and 32 GB ($240) respectfully.
Common Manufacturers: A-Data, AMD, Corsair, Crucial, G-Skill, Kingston, PNY, Samsung
Graphic Processing Unit (GPU)
Commonly called a video card, the GPU helps to increase the performance of your computer and to improve the quality of your graphics. By having a dedicated card to manage graphics, it takes some of the strain off of the CPU, allowing for faster processing. Many GPUs also have some amount of memory attached as well which frees up more memory to be used by your application and programs. Basic cards will have the same graphic levels as what a CPU can perform but should allow for a better functioning computer. Upper-level cards will provide an increased quality of graphical output.
Price Point: Basic card will be between $40-$70, upper-level cards will be $200-$400 (upper-level gaming and video editing), and extreme editions can be around $1000 or more (not recommended). This makes the GPU easily one of the most expensive parts of a computer where high-end graphics are required.
Common Manufacturers: AMD/ATI, EVGA, Gigabyte, NVIDIA, PNY, Saphire, XFX
A Hard Disk Drive, also known as a Hard Drive, HD, or HDD, is a device that permanently stores and retrieves information from inside your computer. There are many variations to a Hard Drive, but most are 3.5″ and 2.5″ for desktop and laptop computers respectively. A Hard Drive consists of one or more platters to which data is written using a magnetic head, inside of an air-sealed casing. If the computer needs to read information from the hard drive, it would read the magnetic polarities on the platter. One side of the magnetic polarity is 0, and the other is 1. These 0s and 1s are read as binary data that the computer then uses to produce images, visuals, or files.
Solid State Drives(SSDs) have started to replace HDDs due to performance advantages over HDDs. These advantages include faster access time and lower latency (faster read and write times) as SSDs have absolutely no moving parts, unlike HDDs, being designed and functioning more like RAM.
Common Manufacturers: Crucial, Dell, Hitachi, Intel, Kingston, Sandisk, Seagate, Toshiba, Western Digital
This guide should hopefully assist in better understanding what goes on within your computer and appreciate how amazing it is when your computer is working.This is just a basic introduction to how these parts work but we hope it is enough to better understand how your computer works. By extension, we hope this guide can also help when looking to purchase a new device, be it a PC or Mac, Desktop or Laptop.