Whether a laptop, mini computer, tower or all-in-one, computers share common parts. Understanding these parts helps you make an informed purchase, estimate the value of a repair or simply better understand the tools literally at your fingertips. Further, understanding how the parts work together helps narrow your choices when making upgrade or purchase decisions.
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The housing is the part of your computer that holds all the parts that make the computer operate. In a desktop tower, the housing does not include a monitor, keyboard or mouse. An all-inclusive computer houses both a monitor and the components that make the computer function, but does not include a mouse or keyboard. A laptop includes the monitor, keyboard, mouse (or mouse alternative) and the components that make the computer function.
The motherboard is the part of your computer that wires all of the other parts together. It is a printed circuit board and includes the CPU and memory. Every component of your computer connects directly into the motherboard. It typically includes expansion options for high-end graphic displays and additional devices. Motherboard specifications are designed around which CPU your computer uses. For example, if your computer uses an Intel processor, you need an Intel-compatible motherboard.
The processor, or CPU, of a computer is basically the brains of the computer. The processor is responsible for interpreting every code it receives from the other computer components, and making it usable to your operating system. Though it's simply a single chip, the processor's speed determines the overall speed of your computer. The CPU contains a control unit and the Arithmetic Logic Unit, or ALU.
The hard drive part of your computer is also called the hard disk. Essentially, it is the part of the computer that stores your information. If you upload a picture to your computer, it is stored on the hard drive. Hard drive capacity is measure in megabytes, or MB, though some massive computer store in terrabytes, or TB. The hard drive is set of disk platters that sit inside the computer housing. Though other devices may store data, such as thumb drives, the hard drive is resident in your computer and cannot be removed.
Whether a graphic card or part of the motherboard, the display adapter is the component of your computer that interprets video signal. They define how frequently your monitor refreshes, how many colors the display supports and the maximum resolutions. Gaming adapters are the most high-end type; they offer 3D graphics and require significant power and cooling.
Random Access Memory, or RAM, is the part of your computer that is used as instant memory. RAM is always in use as a temporary location to execute instructions from your computer. For example, if you run many programs at once, you may need to upgrade your RAM because your computer is using more memory. RAM comes in many different configurations, such as Dynamic RAM, or DRAM, and SRAM, which runs at a higher speed.
An optical drive uses light to read and write data. It is the drive you use to burn CDs, DVDs and Blu-Ray discs. Optical drives can be either slot loading, or tray loading and come in many different configurations. Optical drives connect directly to the motherboard of the computer.