Non-nerd's Guide to Computers/basic components

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What's in a Computer?[edit]

Ask a pedant, or nerd (most are both) what the 'computer' is, and they will reply 'the Central Processing Unit' (CPU) - and the rest of the machine is considered 'peripheral'. However, as a lowest common denominator, every computer contains half a dozen essential components (plus a few more to enhance and add new functionality). Take one of those away, and the machine simply won't turn on (or if it does, you won't get very far with it).

Here's a quick list of what you absolutely need:

  • The motherboard (or 'mainboard') - the core component onto which all other components and peripherals connect;
  • The hard drive (or 'hard disk') - on which the computer's data, operating system (Windows, Mac OS X or Linux) and your personal files are stored;
  • The RAM (Random Access Memory) - the computer's temporary storage; this is where the computer 'parks' data whilst it's working with it;
  • The CPU (or Central Processing Unit, aka the 'Processor') - the brain of the computer, usually obscured by a large fan and heatsink as they generate a lot of heat during operation;
  • The video card (or 'graphics card') - this creates all the graphics you see on-screen, be it a spreadsheet, this WikiBook, a game or a film;
  • The sound card - this outputs every sound you hear from your computer, as well as 'digitising' incoming sounds from a microphone;
  • The optical drive (DVD, Blu-Ray etc) and various other 'peripherals' like memory card readers and any specialist equipment like TV cards;
  • The power supply - the substation providing continuous, regulated power to every component inside your computer; and
  • The connecting cables - most computers contain several dozen power, data and monitoring cables, all colour coded and with specific connectors to avoid inadvertent misconnections.


This Book could go on and on listing every connector and screw (and there are many hundreds of permutations of memory, processors, hard drives and motherboards – it is not 'one size fits all') but these are the fundamental components of any working computer. We'll discuss these parts, one by one, in the following subsections, starting with the very first part: the motherboard.