Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

What is computer hardware?

The Building Blocks of a Computer
Today's CPUs are tiny, but they're capable of massive, speedy calculations.
Today's CPUs are tiny, but they're capable of massive, speedy calculations.

By the 1980s, computers were small enough to fit into our homes, but still too expensive and specialized for the average person to put together. That really changed in the 1990s and 2000s, and now computers are shockingly easy to assemble with the right parts, a little patience and a screwdriver.

There are some basic pieces that go into every computer. A case, or tower, holds all the components, with a large open area that fits a motherboard. Think of the motherboard as the computer's nervous system: It's a big slab of fiberglass etched with circuitry that connects each component of a computer together. Every piece of computer hardware will connect to the motherboard.

Cases also include fans for keeping a computer cool, and room for a big power supply unit, or PSU, that handles power conversion for all the parts of a computer. Random access memory (RAM) is an integrated circuit that stores data in such a way that it's quickly accessible to the processor. Hard drives and solid state drives store gigabytes or terabytes of data using different technologies. A graphics card is its own little ecosystem, with a processor dedicated to different tasks than the CPU and high performance RAM. And that's just about all it takes to make a computer go. When the processor is plugged into the motherboard, a heat sink rests on top to keep it cool.

Today's parts are better labeled, today's cases are more accessible, and computer hardware is cheaper than ever, but the actual makeup of a PC really hasn't changed much.