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The Components of a Modern Computer

By Shane Staret on 2018-07-14

Computers have changed considerably since their inception in the 1940s. No longer do we have large vacuum tubes and computers are no longer the size of an entire room. Perhaps the most striking thing about modern computers is that they are exponentially faster than computers from several decades ago, yet they are also much smaller.

Overall, computers have become much more efficient and no longer are they just for scientists, rather they are used by nearly everyone in the developed world as they play a vital role to society. But, what fraction of people could actually name one vital part of a computer and tell you it exactly what it does and why it is important? I’m guessing less than a third and I think that is being generous.

Many people think of computers as “magical” and I got to admit, sometimes it is just easier to think of them in that way, since the way they work can be difficult to understand even for those who are very technologically savvy. But all of the components that are vital to most modern computers can be explained in general terms that most people can understand.

For example, what do you think a case fan does? If you guessed “it keeps the computer case cool” then you are correct. Now the art behind properly setting up case fans to ensure maximum ventilation is a whole other topic, but it is easy to understand the general purpose behind a case fan.

There are several vital components within most computer cases: CPU, GPU, case fans, motherboard, power supply, RAM, heat sinks, hard drive, CD drive, and a sound card. A majority of computers also have USB ports where peripherals (like a mouse and a keyboard) can be plugged into, but those are pretty simple to understand. So, let’s go over all of the vital components within a modern computer.

Let’s start with the most basic components. CD drives are used to access the files that have been burned onto a CD. You can also execute any executables on CD drives and move around the contents of the CD within the drive. The power supply is pretty self explanatory, but is possibly the most important part of the computer. It is responsible for taking the current that is provided from whatever power source you are using for the computer and converting that current to the correct current and voltage values to ensure that the rest of the PC is not overloaded with charge or isn’t getting enough. You can imagine that with a faulty power supply or with one that isn’t compatible with your system, you could end up doing a lot of damage to your computer. Heat sinks are also self-explanatory. Heat sinks are literally just used to transfer heat away from other components that are creating a lot of heat because they are “working” hard. The heat sinks absorb the heat and emit it into the air to keep the component that it is connected to cool. Case fans are easy to understand as well and I already explained them, but I want to note something. Never, ever mess around with case fans while the computer is on. In fact, never mess with anything in a computer while the computer is on. Not only can it cause the computer to behave wacky, but you are messing with a system that currently has electricity running through it. So if you are constantly plugging stuff in or pulling the plug, then you could cause an electrical short, which can damage the components of your computer.

Hard drives are a bit more complicated to comprehend. The easiest way to think of a hard drive is that it is a storage device. Files placed on a hard drive are stored in physical locations within the drive. Meaning you could take the hard drive of one computer, place it in another, and still access all of the files initially stored on it. This is why if you ever sell your computer or hard drive, always wipe the hard drive first. Hard drives are complicated pieces of hardware though, as certain files can be overwritten within it, data can be corrupted, and data can be organized by software programs to increase the efficiency of the hard drive. This is also known as defragging. The motherboard is the main board that holds a lot of the connections between different components. It is essentially the component that allows all other components to communicate with one another. Similar to the power supply, if you have a defective motherboard, there is not much that the computer can do. A sound card is a component that only handles the input and output of digital sound. As you might be able to tell, dealing with digital sounds is a bit of a niche process and can take up a lot of processing power. Therefore, there is a whole card dedicated to dealing with the input and output of sound waves from and to peripherals. Sound cards work independently from other major components, for the most part, and having a defective sound card is not actually the end of the world, as the only issues you will run into is listening to sounds and inputting sounds using your computer.

The CPU, GPU, and RAM found within a computer are all rather complex components. RAM is the hardware within the computer that can retrieve and store data from and to the hard drive. The memory that is within the RAM instead of the hard drive is currently the data that the computer needs in that moment. So, the larger RAM a computer has, the more data it can handle at a single moment. It is very important to note that the main difference between a hard drive and RAM is that hard drive memory is nonvolatile and RAM is volatile. What this means is that if a system were to power down out of nowhere, all data stored in RAM would be lost, whereas all stored in the hard drive would be saved. RAM and the hard drive work together, but they are fundamentally different, as the hard drive stores the data and the RAM actually uses that data. Similar to the hard drive and the RAM, the GPU and the CPU also work with one another and are rather similar. Both handle processes and are responsible for actually executing the instructions of a computer program. Back in the day, the GPU didn’t exist because it wasn’t necessarily needed, as the CPU could handle all the necessary processes thrown at it. Then graphics came along. In particular, 3D graphics. If you don’t already know, mathematical calculations in 3D space are no joke and there can be a lot of them depending on how complex the graphics are. In the modern day, if you want to use a CPU to generate graphics rather than a GPU, then be prepared to see a 4 year old’s representation of what 3D objects look like rather than the actual object itself. GPUs are mainly dedicated to “drawing” the graphics on the screen and handling all of those processes, whereas CPUs are mainly only used for the “logical” processes at hand. What processes each handle can overlap at times, however, the rule applies for the most part.

As you can see, the modern day computer is not all that hard to understand. There are areas to store things, areas to use those stored things, and areas to execute what those stored things say to do. And it all happens extremely fast. Since all of those things require electricity, a lot of heat is generated, so fans and heat sinks are needed to keep it cool. There really is not much else to it.

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