PC hardware terms explained and demystified
Whether you are lost in a labyrinthine tech support forum and nothing’s making sense, or you just want to refresh your PC building and maintenance knowledge, I’m here to help with a glossary of the most common hardware terms and their straightforward explanations.
If you’re looking for more back-to-basics help with both hardware and games, check out The Complete Guide to PC Gaming at www.bit.ly/completepc.
32-bit – When referencing computer architecture, the term 32-bit is used to denote the number of bits that can be processed simultaneously. Systems using 32-bit CPU and OS architectures generally have lower performance potential and RAM capacity when compared to their newer, 64-bit brethren. This term is also used to describe the colour range of a monitor that provides 32-bit per pixel of colour information, which means eight bits per channel for red, green and blue, along with an 8-bit transparency channel.
64-bit – Again referencing computer architecture, 64-bit is used to indicate the number of bits that can be processed at the same time, in this case twice as much as 32-bit, which provides processing and memory advantages for systems designed around this greater potential. Most modern computer systems use 64-bit architecture.
802.11 – Wi-Fi data standard specification family that runs on the 2.5GHz or 5GHz wireless bands. MD Radeon – AMD’s brand name for its series of graphics cards, DRAM modules, SSDs and supporting software. Usually refers to graphics cards or GPUs.
AMD Ryzen – AMD’s competitor to Intel’s Core series processors, now in their second generation. Ryzen processors, based on the Zen architecture, offer slightly lower single-core speeds than their Intel counterparts but offer more cores at similar or lower prices.
APU – Accelerated Processing Unit. AMD’s definition for a CPU/GPU fusion designed for budget and midrange gaming-oriented systems
Aspect ratio – The size of a computer screen’s width relative to its height. Back during the CRT era, this was normally 4:3, but with the advent of flat-screen displays, 16:9 has become the accepted standard. Other common aspect ratios include 21:9 for ultrawide monitors, and 16:10 for productivitybased work. Note that aspect ratio does not specify resolution or the actual size, just the proportions of the display.
Acer – Acer Inc. is a computer hardware company, based in Taiwan, that’s known for its Predator series of products and competitive pricing.
ASUS – ASUSTek Computer Inc., based in Taiwan, is a computer company specialising in highperformance, gamer-oriented hardware. ASUS owns the popular Republic of Gamers brand.
ATX – Advanced Technology eXtended. Midrange desktop PC size standard for motherboards and cases. Bandwidth Refers to the maximum rate of data transfer from one place to another, measured in bits per second. This applies to your internet connection, as well as your PC’s hardware.
BenQ – A Taiwanese hardware manufacturer known for highperformance gaming monitors and a competitive pricing structure.
BIOS – Basic Input/Output System, also Firmware, also UEFI. The BIOS is the low-level operating system of a component such as a motherboard or graphics card, often made useraccessible via a set of option screens that are available for configuration when your computer boots up.
Blu-ray – The high-density optical disc format that replaced DVD.
Bluetooth – A low-bandwidth wireless standard used for peripherals like mice, keyboards and speakers. Produces unacceptable lag for gaming on most systems, with RF-style wireless or corded devices preferred for highperformance situations.
Bus – In this context, a hardware bus is the architecture in a computer’s subsystems that enables the various components to communicate with each other. This includes core areas such the system memory and extends to peripherals such as storage devices or expansion card slots, each of which have their own unique specifications. able modem – The device used to provide an internet signal to your router from your ISP. Usually supplied by cable companies and ISPs to end users and often built into a small network router.
Cache – A small amount of very high-speed memory that’s used to keep frequently accessed data handy for the CPU. A properly managed and sized cache has an outsized effect on system performance.
Case – An enclosure that houses all the parts of a PC.
CD-R – Recordable Compact Disc.
Chipset – The series of integrated circuits that manages the functions of a motherboard.
Clock speed – The rate at which a computer performs calculation, usually measured in megahertz (MHz) or gigahertz (GHz).
Codec – Short for coder-decoder. A codec is software or hardware that encodes and decodes data streams.
Core – The computational centre of a processor, usually one of a group of up to six in a modern desktop CPU.
Corsair – Premium computer peripheral supplier based in Fremont, California and known for quality DRAM products, keyboards, water-cooling systems and high-fashion tower cases.
CPU – Central Processing Unit. The computation centre of a computer, comprised of one or more cores.
Crossover Ethernet Cable –A length of RJ-45 networking cable with a special wiring configuration that enables routers to be daisy chained together via a specially labelled or autosensing Ethernet port. as Keyboard – A boutique Austin, Texas-based hardware company that produces a range of well-received high-quality mechanical keyboards.
DHCP – Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol. An automatic IP addressing system used on modern TCP/IP networks and the internet that provides each computer with an IP address without requiring a manually entered or fixed-number identification scheme. Widely used by internet access hardware such as network routers.
DDR – Double Data Rate memory. Available in many speeds and sizes.
DisplayPort – DisplayPort is a high-performance digital video connector designed for speedy refresh rates and high resolutions.
DMA – Direct Memory Access. Refers to devices that can directly utilise system memory without draining processor resources.
DPI – Dots Per Inch. Used to determine printing and screen resolution.
Drive bay – A place inside a computer case provided to install a hard drive. Comes in 5.25-inch and 3.5-inch sizes.
DRAM – Dynamic RAM. DRAM refreshes constantly to hold data. It’s slower than static RAM, but cheaper.
Driver – The specialised software that controls the low-level functions of hardware components, usually provided by the component manufacturer or occasionally by the OS vendor. -ATX – Extended ATX. Extra-large ATX size used for deluxe motherboards and computer cases.
AT – File Allocation Table. A family of robust but simple filing systems used by many OS implementations, such as MS-DOS, as well as standalone hardware such as printers or IP cameras. FAT files often have limitations on naming conventions and size.
Firewall – A software or hardware network barrier that protects users from outside attacks and surveillance.
Firmware – Low-level software built into a device’s non-volatile memory (memory which retains data even if the power is switched off). It communicates with OS drivers and other hardware.
FLOPS – Floating Point Operations Per Second. A measure of computational performance that leans on complex floating-point operations. GPUs are
particularly robust at performing these, outperforming even high-end CPUs by several orders of magnitude.
FreeSync – An AMD-created, but otherwise free and open, monitor variable sync standard, compatible with VESA’s Adaptive Sync protocol. Essentially, rather than the monitor refreshing at a steady rate, its refresh rate changes with the framerate of the game you’re playing. FreeSync 2 updates the standard to include lower minimum framerates, HDR, HDMI support and integrated colour space management.
GGigahertz 1000MHz. unit of internal clock speed used by CPUs and other components to specify device performance. Adjusting the clock speed higher provides better performance, although doing so can impact stability and power consumption.
G.Skill – A computer hardware manufacturer, based in Taiwan, that’s best known for its top-shelf, high-speed DRAM products.
G-Sync – Similar to FreeSync, except proprietary. This is a monitor adaptive sync standard used by Nvidia to smooth framerate transitions and eliminate display tearing. Requires Nvidia graphics hardware and a G-Synccapable monitor.
Hard Boot – Resetting a computer from a powered-off condition.
Hard disk drive (also mechanical
hard drive) – These legacy storage devices utilise rotating magnetic disks to store data and generally feature lower costs and larger capacities than solid-state drives (SSDs). While mechanical hard disk systems are a mature and stable technology, SSDs have recently begun to supplant them. The faster the rotational speed of the disk, the better the performance and the higher the cost of the drive. 5400RPM disks are considered mainstream, while 7200RPM and 10000RPM speeds are reserved for high-performance drives.
HBM – High Bandwidth Memory. A type of stackable memory used in graphics cards that provides high performance in a small form factor.
Hyperthreading – A CPU technology that enables two threads to share a CPU core, doubling the thread capabilities of a processor. Especially useful for low-core-count laptops.
Intel Core i9 – Intel’s newest consumer CPU. The Core i9 series takes over from the previous top-of-the-line i7 processors and introduces features formerly only found on enterprise-grade hardware, running from six to 18 cores and supporting hyperthreading. The i9-9900K, with eight cores running at a peak of 5GHz, is a gaming beast.
IP address – Internet Protocol address. The unique numeric address of a networked device, displayed as a series of numbers, for example 192.168.0.2 in the commonly used version four of the IP protocol. As demand for IP addresses has grown, version six of the IP protocol is being rolled out, which provides a much larger addressing space to cover the rapid growth of internet-connected devices.
IPS panel – In-Plane Switching. A type of advanced LCD display that offers superior colours and viewing angles.
ITX – Information Technology eXtended. Tiny desktop PC size standard used for tight spaces or boutique builds.
JEDEC – A colloquial term referring to the DRAM preconfigured memory setting profiles derived from the Joint Electron Device Engineering Council’s specifications. Similar to XMP.
KKilohertz – 1000Hz; A unit of computing speed. Generally used to describe monitor refresh rates.
KVM switch – Short for Keyboard, Video, Mouse. A type of switchbox that enables multiple computers to be attached to a single keyboard, monitor, and mouse or other input device.
LAN/WLAN – Local Area Network / Wireless Local Area Network. A private local network of computers usually connected via Wi-Fi or Ethernet.
Logitech – A highly successful Swiss computer peripherals company specialising in mice, headsets, keyboards and computer speakers.
MAC address – A code built into every network-capable port that uniquely identifies each device connection. Usually takes the form of six pairs of hexadecimal digits separated by a comma or dash.
Mechanical keyboard – A type of keyboard that uses microswitches instead of the default rubber domes for actuation. They tend to provide a form of tactile and audio feedback that certain users find satisfying.
Megahertz – 1000KHz. A unit of computing speed. Generally used to specify speeds on memory as well as on older processors.
MLC – Multi Level Cell. Normally refers to a NAND memory implementation. Cheaper but less durable than SLC.
MSI – Micro-Star International, a Taiwanese corporation that makes just about any kind of computing hardware you can imagine.
Motherboard – The centrepiece of a PC system and the place where all the other components are installed.
NAND flash memory – The type of memory used in SSDs.
NZXT – An American hardware company known for cases and components, such as liquid coolers.
Nvidia GTX – In Nvidia’s current nomenclature, GTX refers to consumer graphics cards based on its lastgeneration Pascal and previous Maxwell architectures. The Pascal-based Nvidia GTX 1080 and big brother 1080 Ti were the first Nvidia cards able to provide 4K gaming at reasonable framerates, while the 1070 is designed to cover gaming needs at 1080 and 1440 resolutions and high detail.
Nvidia RTX – Featuring the new Turing architecture, Nvidia’s RTX series of graphics cards, including the RTX 2080 and higher-performance
RTX 2080 Ti, are the current top shelf when it comes to performance in consumer graphics cards, both in real-world and potential numbers. With Turing, 50% higher efficiency per core, faster memory and dedicated ray tracing and AI hardware, as well as jumps of over 20 frames per second are possible in many games.
OLED – Organic Light Emitting Diode. An advanced screen technology that offers low power, high performance and amazing image quality. Increasingly found on smartphones, such as the iPhone XS and Samsung Galaxy S9, as well as on large screen TVs.
Overclocking – Pushing a component beyond its rated specifications to improve its performance.
PCB – Printed Circuit Board. The backboard on which components such as sockets and Voltage Regulator Modules (VRMs) are mounted.
PCIE (OR PCI-E) – Peripheral Component Interconnect Express. A high-speed slot design used in modern computers for add-in cards.
Pixel – A single element or dot on a computer screen.
PSU – Power Supply Unit. A box-like component with cables that provides a computer with power.
RAID – Redundant Array of Independent Disks. A set of drives configured in an array for improved performance and reliability.
RAM – Random Access Memory. The computational workspace of a computer system. It’s volatile, meaning the data it stores is lost when the system is reset or turned off.
RAMDAC – Random Access Memory Digital to Analogue Converter. Converts image data into signals that can be displayed on a monitor.
Razer – Razer Inc. is a gaming hardware company with headquarters in San Francisco and Singapore. Razer’s entire product catalogue is gaming oriented. Known especially for its gaming laptops.
RJ-11 – An old-style telephone connector that looks like a narrow Ethernet (RJ-45) connector. Also used for analogue modems.
Roccat – A German peripheral manufacturer that specialises in input devices such as mechanical keyboards and mice, as well as headphones.
ROM – Read-Only Memory. An area of protected memory that contains specialised instructions.
Router – A hub that manages wired and wireless connections to a network.
SATA – Serial ATA. A data transport protocol used for storage devices.
Screen burn – The afterimage left on certain types of displays, such as OLEDs, after displaying static images for extended periods of time. Can cause permanent hardware damage.
SLC – Single-Level Cell NAND memory. The quickest, priciest and most expensive NAND implementation.
SO-DIMM – The type of DDR memory module used in laptop systems. Uses a smaller form factor than standard memory sticks.
Solid state – Used to describe a device with no moving parts.
SSD – Solid-State Drive. A storage drive made of non-volatile memory cells instead of a moving magnetic platter. Much faster than hard disk drives.
SteelSeries – High-end Danish gaming peripheral manufacturer known for headsets, mice and mechanical keyboards.
Stream processors – Limited instruction processors used in GPUs to perform specialised functions. Used for high-performance applications. T
DP – Total Dissipated Power. The maximum wattage a part will allow before shutting down or throttling to avoid damage or overheating. Can be used as a rough indicator of ingeneration performance or efficiency.
TN panel – Twisted Nematic panel. An older style of LCD display that offers low price and very high speed, but is also notable for washed-out colours and poor viewing angles.
Touchpad – A small flat pad that registers mouse-style pointer movement when you slide a fingertip across it. Used for laptops.
UUltrawide display – A computer monitor that sports a cinema-like 21:9 aspect ratio. Available in 2560x1080 and 3440x1440 resolutions.
UPS – Uninterruptable Power Supply. A battery-backup power source that enables a computer system to continue functioning in the case of a power outage or other problems.
USB – Universal Serial Bus. A small hot-swappable data connector that’s capable of high performance when using the latest specifications. V
VA panel Vertical Alignment panel. type of LCD display that delivers high contrast ratios, deeper black levels and more accurate colours. VA panels are ideal for gaming.
WWAP – Wireless Access Point. The place you log into a wireless network. Watt – A measure of electrical power. Webcam – A usually USB-based PC camera that provides live video for use with conferences, game streaming and other media projects.
WPA2 – Wi-Fi Protected Access 2. The most robust security protocol currently provided for many Wi-Fi networks.
XXMP – Extreme Memory Profile. An Intel-derived DRAM settings standard that provides several fail-safe memory configurations beyond the default setting, allowing easy configuration of high-speed memory modules.
Hard disk drive
Mechanical keyboard SSD