The best way to know which computer specifications are worth your money, is to know how specific computer components function or contribute to the overall machine. Thankfully, it’s easy to learn about the job of each PC component, and their overall task can be simplified.
That’s what we’re here for today.
Computers these days are more than just devices of privilege. Oftentimes, they’re treated as a necessity, be it a laptop or a desktop. Schools, offices, and even homes can benefit from computers, and it has become a household appliance over the course of the past decades.
For those of you looking to get familiar with computers and their PC component list to better help with your purchasing decision, here’s a simplified primer in layman’s terms. Let’s start with the most popular components…
The common mistake when it comes to referring to desktop computers is people referring to the whole computer as just the “CPU.” When in actuality, the CPU is just a small coin-sized chip that can function without the large case.
The CPU or central processing unit, otherwise known as the processor, is the chip that functions as the computer’s brain. It carries out most of the instructions and processes them so that other components can work in carrying out those instructions.
The whole computer would be nothing without the CPU as it handles the logic and most of the computer’s background mathematical tasks.
CPUs for PCs come in two clashing brands, namely Intel and AMD. More cores mean better performance and newer models are always better.
When you click on a program or press some keys, it’s the CPU that translates the signal and then executes or transfers it to the right components to do the work.
For that matter, the CPU is mostly responsible for a lot of productivity and background tasks on the computer. It’s by far the most important tool if your work involves some of the most common heavy productivity applications such as video editing tools, image processing, decompression, Microsoft Excel, and other programs for creation or management.
Video games also use the CPU to a certain extent especially if the specific game requires a lot of AI calculations (usually strategy or simulation games); but for the most part, video games are more heavily dependent on the GPU or graphics card. Speaking of which…
The GPU/Graphics Card
It’s quite tricky to classify the GPU or graphics card as a specific body part for an analogy. The closest comparison for it to a human organ would be another brain or a part of the brain that specializes in visual information.
In hindsight, the GPU is a mini-computer itself complete with a graphics processing unit, its own mini motherboard, and its own memory or RAM. It handles 3D imagery in a way that’s more efficient compared to traditional CPUs.
Because assembling millions of pixels, coloring each and every one of them, and making them look like moving 3D images in a span of milliseconds is not something the CPU on its own can handle efficiently.
To that end, applications that benefit the most from the GPU are video games. It’s responsible for the performance of a video game or anything that’s graphically intensive.
Like the CPU, GPUs also come in two dominant brands these days, namely Nvidia and AMD Radeon. Newer models are also significantly more powerful and pack in more features.
Still, a lot of computers can do without this component since the CPU can process simpler stuff like scripted videos, user interface interactions, and other non-graphics-intensive tasks– provided it comes with an integrated GPU.
For a better analogy, think of the GPU as the part of the human brain that makes them good at creating visual art. It just so happens that not everyone is an artist. So, you can think of humans that can only draw stick figures as people with no “GPU” and only come with a CPU– which doesn’t mean they’re lesser beings, of course. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses.
The human brain would be nothing without its skeletal and central nervous system, and that’s the motherboard’s main function.
It’s where each and every component is slotted or connected. It’s another component that the computer can’t function without. Even laptops come with this component, except on a smaller scale.
The motherboard works to connect all the PC component members and provides the circuitry needed to let them communicate with one another via its PCB (printed circuit board).
That’s why when checking desktop computer compatibility, the motherboard is usually the first on the list of considerations since it dictates which components are allowed.
To a certain extent, the motherboard is also responsible for the size of the whole desktop PC since it comes in different sizes and form factors. From smallest to biggest these sizes are:
- ATX (full)
- eATX/Extended ATX
For most computers, the mATX or ATX form factors are typically enough.
One thing to note about motherboards is that they seldom affect performance be it in video games or other applications. At most, they can allow newer and more powerful components to gain an edge over the older ones and the larger motherboards allow processors to overclock; but generally, they’re not important for significant and practical performance gains.
You’ve probably heard it many times already: “computer needs more memory” or “ran out of memory.” But exactly what does the memory or RAM (random access memory) do?
It’s like a desk or a kitchen countertop that you’ll clean up afterward; larger spaces mean you can do more work or put more temporary stuff in to help speed up your work. RAM is used to store short-term instructional data which the CPU will then access quickly as needed.
So it really is just a “memory” bank. But because it only stores short-term instructions and data, it’s not big or bulky as other components. RAM comes in modules or sticks and is thin.
If you’re using the computer and you notice that some programs tend to load slower or faster, or function without stuttering, or the opposite. That’s where RAM comes in. Better, faster, and bigger RAM means your computer’s CPU can multitask better since figuratively, the RAM is your CPU’s workspace or desk.
That’s why browsers, particularly Google Chrome love RAM. More open tabs mean more multitasking space is needed. The same is true for other programs; those that tend to throw a lot of instructions at the CPU might need more RAM so that the CPU can process more efficiently.
So if you want as little stutter as possible or to avoid crashing, then decent or big RAM space (like 16GB or 32GB) is essential, along with good RAM speed and generation (DDR4/DDR5 and above 3200 megahertz). Because that means your CPU has all the shiny working space it needs.
If the RAM or memory stores short-term data, then the storage is the one responsible for the long-term or permanent data.
It’s where your files, photos, programs, and even the operating system are stored. All those are data that won’t get deleted by the CPU since they’re not short-term instructions or information.
Storage typically comes in two different flavors these days: HDD (hard disk drive) and SSD (solid state drive). SSDs are the better technology here since they’re significantly faster compared to HDDs when it comes to transferring and reading data.
The bigger the space, the better, of course. However, speed is also an important factor here since slow storage can result in sluggish operation no matter the speed or the size of your CPU and RAM in your setup.
In fact, the shift from HDD to SSD is the biggest boost in responsiveness and smoothness that you can experience in your PC during mundane operations like opening programs and booting up.
In games and heavy applications, you’ll find that faster storage (usually an SSD) can cut down the loading or opening time by a fraction. A five-minute loading screen or file extraction using an HDD, for example, can be done in under one minute with an SSD.
So you can save time with the quality of your storage, and your PC also can’t function without it. So you might as well pick SSDs.
The PSU/Power Supply Unit
You might be wondering, which PC component is the heart? Presenting the PSU– one of the most underrated PC components and something that you should never cheap out on.
For laptops, this one typically comes in the form of a charger or power brick. For desktop computers, the PSU is located inside the case, usually at the bottom or at the top in its own compartment.
These metal boxes draw and provide power to the whole computer (usually through the motherboard and GPU) like how the heart provides blood to the brain and the whole body.
And as with any heart, it needs to be strong and steady. Each PSU model and tier has a set number of wattage that it will draw and supply to the whole PC depending on the PC’s power requirement.
The PSU, for that matter, needs to be something from a reputable brand and at least come with a Bronze rating for efficiency.
That’s because the power or electricity that the PSU draws from the wall doesn’t all go to the PC. Some of it goes to waste. The Bronze efficiency certification guarantees that at least 80 percent of the drawn electricity gets to the PC components. Higher efficiency ratings (Silver, Gold, Platinum) offer less power wastage.
So you can probably guess what will happen if the PSU is shady or has a poor or untested reputation. You’ll be risking your more expensive PC components or worse– starting a fire.
Laptops thankfully don’t have this problem since the manufacturers already provide the PSU.
Here’s the skin of the whole PC, its outer and protective shell. It’s also what some people mistakenly call the “CPU.”
Its main purpose is to house all the components so they aren’t exposed to the usual room hazards or even dust. However, a lot of PC cases these days exude style and aesthetics so you might as well pick something that catches your eye or represents your desktop PC build.
Sadly, the same cannot be said for laptops since the manufacturers pick the case or chassis.
The case also comes in different sizes that allow or follow the different motherboard form factors. The most accommodating cases are the biggest ones of course (full-sized/ATX/e-ATX) since they can also house ITX motherboards but you do have to consider the space they occupy and how much desk real estate you have available.
In any case, this is the PC component that offers the best amount of freedom when it comes to customization in desktops. So feel free to follow your preference here, assuming you’ve taken form factor compatibility and other technical specs into consideration.