Your guide to your computer

Your guide to your computer

Use this guide to understand what’s inside your computer. Whether it’s a desktop or a laptop, every computer has the same basic components.

You will find this guide useful when you find yourself talking with someone who uses some of the more technical terms around computers.

Processor

This chip is the heart of your computer. It’s sometimes known as a central processing unit or CPU. The two main manufacturers of processors are Intel and AMD.

You can think of the processor as the brain of your computer.

The processor name gives you an indication of the age and speed of your computer. 

Motherboard

This is the circuit board which is home to the processor chip, RAM memory chips and other essential components. It’s connected to the various ports and slots on the computer.

If the processor is the brain of your computer, the motherboard is home to most of the other vital organs.

RAM memory

RAM is the core memory inside your computer. It’s used by the processor to run apps. Generally, the more RAM (random access memory) your computer has, the faster it will run.

RAM is only active when the computer is turned on.

Typically, a computer will have between 2GB and 32GB (gigabytes) of RAM, with 8GB being the most common. This can be upgraded relatively easily.

Solid state drive (SSD)

The SSD is the primary storage device inside your computer. This is where all your apps and files are stored, even when the computer is switched off. 

Older computers probably have an HDD (hard disk drive), but these are gradually being replaced by SSDs. 

Unlike HDDs, SSDs have no moving parts so are generally more reliable. They are also much faster. However, they are more expensive and so the volume of storage you get for your money is less with an SSD computer. This is not generally a problem, as we’re all storing more of our data elsewhere on the internet.

Typically, a computer will have SSD storage of between 64GB and 1TB (terabyte), with 256GB being the most common. Computers with less than 64GB are best suited to browsing the internet, not for storing much data. 

Hard disk drive (HDD)

The hard disk drive (HDD) is the primary storage device inside your computer. This is where all your apps and files are stored, even when the computer is switched off.

Typically, a computer will have HDD storage of at least  1TB (terabyte).  

Operating system

Unlike everything listed above, the operating system isn’t a physical object. It’s the software, or set of programs, that allows your computer to work.

The main operating systems for computers are:

  • Windows 10 
  • MacOS (for Apple computers)
  • Chrome OS (for Chromebooks)

Tablets and phones also have operating systems. 

From time to time your computer or other device will download and install an update to its operating system. Just occasionally, one of these updates can cause problems with some apps.  

Graphics card

The graphics card allows your computer to display images on the screen. Apps that have fast moving or highly intricate graphics won’t work well on lower grade graphics cards.

There are two main types of graphics card:

  • Integrated - these are built into most standard computers and are not easy to upgrade.
  • Standalone - this is a separate physical card, which can be upgraded for better performance.

If you’re a serious gamer or you do a lot of graphics work, you’ll want a standalone graphics card.

Sound card

The sound card allows your computer to play sounds. There are two main types of sound card:

  • Integrated - these are built into most standard computers and are not easy to upgrade.
  • Standalone - this is a separate physical card, which can be upgraded for better performance.

If you use your computer to work with music, or if audio quality is important to you, consider getting a computer with a standalone sound card

USB port  

These are sockets that various peripherals, such as a mouse, can be plugged into. Most computers have multiple USB ports. 

The most common USB port is letterbox shaped, and used to connect all sorts of different devices. Many computers have more than one USB port like this.

There are a number of other designs of USB port. You can find more information about them here.

Battery

Laptop computers contain a lithium battery. This can power your laptop for up to ten hours, depending on the computer, the battery and what apps you are using. 

As it gets older, the battery life will get shorter. Eventually, it will degrade to having little or no charge. The battery is usually fairly easy to remove and you can buy a replacement.

Fan

Your computer will contain at least one fan. This helps keep the internal processors cool by expelling warm air and bringing in cooler air. Many fans operate at varying speeds, depending on how hot the computer is getting. The fan makes the whirring noise you can hear from your computer.

Unfortunately, fans also draw dust into your computer. Dust isn’t a good thing. Over time it can build up and offset the cooling effect of the fan. Check the vents on your computer to ensure they are kept clear of dust.

Screen

Your computer will have at least one screen. It’s possible to attach multiple screens to give yourself an extended display. You can also do this with a laptop. Screens vary in quality and when you put two side by side, you may see the same colour being displayed slightly differently on each.

Screens are made up of tiny cells, called pixels. A pixel can go black (die) or become very bright (hot). It’s generally accepted that up to five dead or hot pixels is reasonable on a new screen. 

Keyboard

Your keyboard is important because it’s the main way you communicate with your computer. You’ll be using it a lot.

There are several different types of computer keyboard. While most computers come with a basic keyboard, you can choose something different. Even on a laptop, which has a built-in keyboard, you can choose to plug in an alternative if you prefer.

The different features of keyboards include:

  • Backlit - the keys are illuminated, making it easier to use in low light.
  • Extended - a longer keyboard with a separate number pad at one end.
  • Mechanical - often preferred by gamers and writers because of how they feel under the fingers. They also last longer. The standard keyboard that comes with a computer is non-mechanical.
  • Wireless - a keyboard that connects to your computer without a cable, using Bluetooth wireless.

Mouse

As with the keyboard, the quality of your mouse can make a big difference to the experience of using your computer.

A laptop doesn’t have a mouse, as such, but usually a touchpad or trackpad. However, you can use a separate mouse if you prefer. 

Alternatives to a standard mouse include:

  • Ergonomic mouse - designed to be better suited to the hand.
  • Gaming mouse - designed specifically for serious gamers
  • Wireless mouse - connects to your computer without a cable, using Bluetooth wireless.