Introduction to Computers: Basic Anatomy

When breaking down the components of a computer, they are oftentimes likened to the parts of the body. The processing unit may be compared to the brain, with the access memory and hard drive are equated to short and long term memory, while the motherboard is sometimes considered the central nervous system of a computer. All these parts hidden beneath the casing work much like organs, performing essential functions that allow a computer to perform tasks.

Central Processing Unit (CPU)

The central processing unit is an essential part of the computer. It controls and executes operations, interpreting input provided by the user and directing the output to complete a requested task. While it is generally a physical component of the computer, cloud computing can subdivide CPU operation into virtual central processing units (vCPU).

CPU’s are distinguished by their computing speed, which is referred to as a clock rate. Depending on the speed, this is measured in hertz (Hz) or gigahertz (GHz) per second. Tasks like watching high-definition movies, simultaneous online gaming and streaming, manipulating graphics or other large programs generally require processors with higher speeds.

Random Access Memory (RAM)

Random access memory is just like it sounds: a computer’s memory. More specifically, it stores the data and machine code currently being used. This allows the information to be read or written quickly regardless of where the physical location of the data is inside the complete memory.

The more RAM a computer has, the better it can manage several programs at once. It isn’t difficult to add more memory after an initial build, but investing in more RAM is considered just as vital, if not more, than a good processor. A good starting point is at least 512 megabytes.

Hard Drive

While RAM could be regarded as short term memory, a hard drive is long term storage. It is a high-capacity, self-contained storage device with the ability to both store and recall data. It includes one or more hard disk inside a sealed unit, each of which can hold up to 12 terabytes of information.

All data created on the computer – from work files to installed programs – are stored on the hard drive. IBM compatible computers often labeled alphabetically, starting at “C:”, with A and B reserved for removable media. Hard drives can also be external as well and are often used for backing up computer data or storing exceptionally large files.


The motherboard is the main printed circuit board in a computer. It holds and allows communication between essential electrical components of a system, such as the CPU and the memory, and provides input connectors. Without it, nothing else would work.

Selection of a motherboard depends mostly on size restrictions and the types of components that will be included. It is suggested that at least two USB ports be included, but more may be required depending on which attachments will be used internally and externally and how they connect.

Video, Graphics & Sound Cards

Most motherboards come with a integrated processors for these functions. If higher performance is required for graphics or audio, like for running games or multimedia programs, a dedicated processing unit comes highly recommended. They can also be upgraded over time fairly easily, with laptops being the exception, by plugging into the motherboard.

Keyboard & Monitor

A keyboard and monitor are required for inputting commands and receiving output. There is a large variety of monitors available, but the specs required are determined along the same lines as the graphics card. If large programs with high graphics are frequently used, a monitor to compliment that will make the dedicated processor worth the investment. Keyboards offer less of a variety, though there are some styles that provide specialized tools or additional buttons for various uses.

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