Going over the basic parts of a computer and their functions will help you understand all the vital components that make up a computer.
It’s a great place to start if you want to learn about modern computers. Not only is it a good entry point, but it’s also something good to know for curiosity’s sake.
Knowing what the part is, is good, but we will explain each part’s function, giving you a firmer understanding of them.
Parts of a computer with their functions
Here is a complete list of all the common computer hardware components and common peripherals used with them.
1. The computer case
This is the part that holds all of the parts of a computer to make up the computer system.
It is usually designed in such a manner to make fitting a motherboard, wiring, and drives as easy as possible. Some are designed so well that it is easy to make everything look tidy and presentable too.
Cases come in all different sizes and shapes to accommodate various types of computer components and satisfy the consumer’s needs.
Design elements can vary from being plain to highly elaborate. You can get a plain grey desktop case or one with colored lighting everywhere to make it look spectacular.
Computer cases rely on computer fans inside them to create proper airflow to keep all the internal parts cool and working reliably.
A computer case, like most things, varies in quality. You can get them made from cheap metals or good quality materials that provide you with a sturdy design.
List of computer case sizes (known as form factor):
- Very small form factor: Supports Mini ITX motherboards
- Small form factor: Supports micro ATX motherboards.
- Standard form factor: Supports standard ATX motherboards.
- Larger form factors: Supports ATX and XL-ATX motherboards.
The motherboard is the main board that is screwed directly inside the computer case. All other cards and everything else plugs directly into the motherboard, hence its name.
The CPU, RAM, drives, power supply, and more are connected to it.
Its function involves integrating all the physical components to communicate and operate together.
A good motherboard offers a wide amount of connectivity options. It also has the least amount of bottlenecks possible.
This allows all the components to operate efficiently and to fulfill their maximum potential as they were designed to do.
Obviously, as the physical size is reduced, it begins to limit connectivity options and functionality.
Motherboards come in the following sizes:
|Pico-ITX||3.9 inch x 2.9 inch | 100mm x 72mm|
|Nano-ITX||4.7 inch x 4.7 inch | 120mm x 120mm|
|Mini-ITX||6.7 inch x 6.7 inch | 170mm x 170mm|
|XL-ATX||EVGA: 13.5 inch x 10.3 inch | 343mm x 262mm|
Gigabyte: 13.58 inch x 10.31 inch | 345mm x 262mm
Micro-Star: 13.6 inch x 10.4 inch | 345mm x 264mm
3. Central Processing Unit (CPU)
The CPU or central processing unit is basically like the brain of computer systems. It processes all the information on a computational level.
It takes all the processes from the RAM and processes it to perform the tasks required by the computer system.
The central processing unit is usually seated in a socket that utilizes a lever or a latch with a hinged plate with a cut out in the center to secure the central processing unit onto the motherboard.
It has many copper pads underneath it for the socket contacts to push up against them to make electrical contact.
There are other ways CPUs can be attached to the motherboard.
Here are some common examples:
- ZIF (Zero Insertion Force): Although this is a more desirable socket, they are mostly found on older computer motherboards. A lever-operated mechanism to clamp the pins of the processor.
- PGA (Pin Grid Array): It is also a ZIF socket but has a different pin pitch and contains a different pin count.
- LGA (Land Grid Array): More commonly found on motherboards today. A levered hinged plate with a center cut-out clamps down on the processor.
- BGA (Ball Grid Array): The central processing unit is soldered directly onto the motherboard. This makes it a non-user swappable part. It is susceptible to bad connectivity.
A processor generates a decent amount of heat, especially when it is working under high loads.
It will run even hotter when it is set to a higher clock speed to make it run faster. This is called overclocking.
This is why a heatsink and fan assembly are required to draw the heat away from the central processing unit and distribute it to thin sheets or fins of metal for the fan to cool down.
There are so many different types of computer processors. The top manufacturers of processors are Intel, AMD, and NVidia.
4. Random Access Memory (RAM)
RAM or random access memory is a data storage device that can provide fast read and write access. RAM is volatile memory, meaning it loses all the stored data when power is lost.
The RAM keeps data ready for the CPU to process. The RAM speed is a big contributor to the overall speed of a computer system.
It plugs directly into a long slot that has contacts on either side of the slot.
It, too, has a clock speed, just like a processor. So, it can also be overclocked to deliver increased performance beyond the intended specification.
Certain RAM modules are sold with a heat spreader. It helps dissipate the heat from the individual memory ICs, keeping them cooler.
RAM has evolved like any other component. RAM used on the motherboard often uses DDR (Double Data Rate) SDRAM (Synchronous Dynamic Random Access Memory) type memory.
RAM Amount always comes in powers of 2, so you will always see numbers like 16GB, 32GB, or 64GB of RAM, to mention some examples of memory units.
5. Graphics Card (GPU)
A graphics card is an output device that processes the data from the motherboard and sends the appropriate information to the computer’s screen for display.
You can connect monitors to it using HDMI, DisplayPort, DVI, or VGA connectors.
It can also be referred to as a video or display card.
A video card takes the burden of all the video processing from the main CPU. This gives a computer a big boost in performance.
A video card plugs into a PCI Express (Peripheral Component Interconnect Express) slot on the motherboard. It is a serial expansion bus slot capable of high bandwidth in two directions.
A graphics card has a GPU (Graphics Processing Unit), the main part of a computer system that requires cooling.
A graphics processing unit is slower than a CPU but is designed to deal with mathematical operations required for video rendering.
The card’s memory amount varies depending on the manufacturer’s design.
Video cards use GDDR (Graphics Double Data Rate) SDRAM, which is specially designed to optimize graphics performance.
GDDR is built to handle a higher bandwidth compared to plain DDR ram.
6. Sound Card
Most of the time, the sound chip built into the motherboard is used for audio output.
But, if you are a sound enthusiast or prefer high-quality audio output while playing a game, you might be inclined to use a sound card.
Sound cards plug into a computer in multiple ways. It can be through USB, PCI slot, or PCI Express x 1 slot.
External DACs have gained much more popularity and help deliver clearer and more defined audio or high-definition sound output.
They connect up using an IO cable like a USB cable to your computer or laptop and provide a line out for your speakers or headphones.
A sound processing chip on the card does all of the audio processing and is usually not a very powerful processor.
A sound card can offer a wide range of connectivity with various audio equipment.
A few examples could be optical audio, a 1/4 inch jack, or RCA connectors.
7. Hard Disk Drive (HDD)
A hard drive is still found in most computers to this day. It’s usually a mechanical drive that stores all the data.
Apart from storing data, it can also be used as a boot drive to run the operating system from it. You can install operating systems of many different kinds depending on your needs.
An operating system is a software program that’s installed, making a computer useable like Microsoft Windows, for example. The biggest vulnerability of a mechanical drive is its physically fragile nature.
One bump the wrong way can destroy a whole drive. A mechanical hard drive contains one or more platters that spin anywhere between 5200 to 10000 RPM (revolutions per minute).
The read and write heads are spaced only about 0.002 (51 micro M) inches away from the platter.
This gives you an idea about the physical limitations regarding its fragile nature.
Small areas on the platter can be arranged to represent a 1 or a 0. It can be changed using the drive head to alter the material to represent the correct value magnetically. This is how to write data to the drive for storage.
There are various categories of hard drives made for various real-world applications.
Some examples include:
- General use for desktops or laptop computers.
- Gaming optimized for desktops or laptop computers.
- General high capacity storage.
- NAS Devices.
- Video recording.
They can also be purchased as an external drive that usually connects to your computer by USB cable.
An uninterruptible power supply is sometimes used to prevent data loss with mechanical drives where a sudden power outage is experienced or the power cord is accidentally disconnected while the computer is running.
This allows proper shutdowns for desktop systems that have experienced sudden power loss.
8. Solid State Drive (SSD)
An SSD is also a type of hard drive, but it doesn’t have any moving parts. It consists of a bank of flash memory that can hold a reasonable amount of data.
While SSDs are increasing in size all the time, they aren’t cost-effective for storing large amounts of data.
A mechanical drive has a cheaper gigabyte to dollar ratio.
However, the SSD is a high-performance drive. It’s fast and cannot be as easily damaged by dropping it or taking a few bumps.
SSDs are available as 2.5-inch laptop encapsulated drives as well as an M.2 SDD as the most commonly used kinds on the market.
That’s why I always recommend SSDs for portable-type computers where possible. In our other article, you can read more about whether or not SSD’s are worth it.
9. Power Supply Unit (PSU)
A power supply unit mounts inside the computer case. This converts the AC mains supply from the power cord from a wall socket and supplies the correct DC voltages to all the components inside the computer.
A computer power supply supplies the following voltages:
- +3.3v: This voltage is supplied to the motherboard.
- +5V: This voltage is supplied to the motherboard and other computer hardware.
- +12V: This voltage is supplied to the motherboard and other components.
- -12V: This voltage is supplied to the motherboard.
It plays an important role in keeping a computer running reliably.
You get different wattage ratings for power supplies. The higher the wattage, the higher the electrical current that can be made available to many other parts that need it in order to function properly.
The higher you go in Watts, the more the power supply will be likely to cost.
A power supply also comes with its own cooling fan. This helps all the internal components to stay cool when the power supply is subjected to bigger loads.
You read more about a power supply and its lifespan if you want to know how long it lasts.
10. Monitor or Visual Display Unit (VDU)
A monitor is an output device used to visualize the graphics data sent from the computer’s GPU.
There are various types of monitors on the market. A LED (Light Emitting Diode) backlit LCD (Liquid Crystal Display) monitor is the most commonly used with modern computers.
There are also various computer screen sizes with different aspect ratios. The aspect ratio is simply the ratio between height and width.
For example, a 16:9 aspect ratio computer screen will have 16 parts wide to 9 parts in height.
There are also curved monitors, but they are more expensive computer screens.
Monitors also have a fast response time to keep up with the high demands required to eliminate delays with user input for gaming.
A keyboard is an input device that is one of the ways to communicate with a computer. Typing a key from the keyboard sends a small portion of data to tell the computer which key was pressed.
Once the computer receives input from the keyboard, it can use the keystrokes in digital form to produce a specific task in any software that’s being used.
The computer system can use this information in many ways. An example could be a command or a character that can be used in a document.
There are two main different types of keyboards. Mechanical and membrane types.
A mouse is an input device that allows the user to move a pointer displayed on the monitor and experience a more intuitive interaction with computer systems.
These days mice have more buttons than the common three.
However, the three main buttons allow the user to select, grab, scroll and access extra menus and options.
A computer mouse is a handy pointing device that can be wired or wireless. The latter obviously requires batteries.
Optical mice of today allow for very accurate precision and smooth movement.
Common external peripherals
Here are some common peripherals that connect to a computer and extend their usefulness.
A printer can take an image sent by a computer and deliver it onto a sheet of paper.
It does this by using the data from the computer, and by either using toner or ink, it deposits one of these in a controlled and accurate manner to form the image.
A scanner can take anything on paper and scan it to produce a replicated digital image.
This is also handy for saving physical photos you want to preserve.
Once the photo is stored digitally, it won’t decay as a physical photo does over time.
The flatbed scanner is the most commonly used today.
Many all-in-one devices, also known as multifunction devices, have printer and scanning capabilities in one reasonably compact product.
Computer speakers can connect up to the sound card at the rear of the computer.
Another way they can be connected is by a monitor that already has built-in speakers.
Generally, the sound quality is poor from a monitor’s speakers. That’s why most people buy a set of computer speakers for their desks.
You can even connect up a 7.1 surround speaker system to certain sound cards.
This can add a nicer experience to gaming, playing music, or watching a film.
Parts of a computer and their functions in PDF format
I have compiled a PDF version of this article in case you need it for your reference offline.
That covers the basic parts of a computer system. All of these basic parts play a vital function for a computer to work.
Once you understand these main components to a basic level, it probably won’t be long until you repair or build desktop computers yourself.
From here, I recommend that you go and read about knowing which computer parts are compatible with each other.