Knowing the Basic PC Components

This page describes some of the basic components of a PC. These terms will be useful in understanding various support websites (including this one). It will also help you describe your problems to your helpdesk support technicians.

Basic Large Components

Basic PC Components

  • Monitor: This is one of the two visual output devices of your computer (the other being your printer, if you have one). In most computers, it does not actually do any “work” – only displays it.
  • Tower: This is the actual workhorse of the system. Often called the “CPU”, or “Hard Drive” or even “Modem”. In fact, most of these can be components inside the tower, but the tower contains all the working components: RAM, CD/DVD/Blu-Ray drive, hard drive, motherboard, CPU, network card, video card, and other components. Unless you know the specific part affected, just refer to it as the “Tower”.
  • Keyboard and Mouse: These are two devices a user can interact with the computer


Operating System (Windows) Terms:

Another area people get confused is the desktop of a Windows computer.

Desktop Terms

  • Desktop: This is actually the entirety of what you see in the screenshot above.
  • Shortcut: You can recognize a shortcut by the curly arrow in the bottom corner of the icon. This means that the item is not located on the desktop, but in another location. The shortcut simply allows a user to double-click on it, and instantly open the connected item.
  • Start Button: This is a button to open the Start Menu, and looks different on each version of Windows.
  • System Tray/Notification Area: Officially, this is the Notification Area, but many techs still call this the System Tray. Here, you will find icons of many running programs/processes, the system clock and date, and some other items.
  • Task Bar: This is the bottom section of the screen. It encompasses everything from the Start Button to the System Tray/Notification Area. Here, you will find buttons for almost all running programs, allowing you to switch between them via the mouse.

Internal Components:

These are the components inside the tower.

Hard Drive/Hard Disk Drive (HDD): This is the component that houses all your data, even the operating system. If this component fails, all or some of your data will be lost.

A Typical Hard Drive

Central Processing Unit (CPU): Contrary to popular belief, this is NOT synonymous with the Tower. It is actually the central “brain” of the computer, performing all the calculations, and moving bits (1s and 0s) into and out of the RAM. It is, effectively, the current evolution of the “microchip”.

The top and bottom of a CPU.

Remote Access Memory (RAM):

This is where all the “work” of a computer happens. While the hard drive stores the information and the CPU calculates, it is in the RAM that anything that is running is stored. It is temporary (a.k.a. “volatile“), as it requires continual power to keep any information.

Typical RAM modules (desktop variety shown)

Motherboard: This is the PCB (printed circuit board, typically green) that connects all the components together.  It includes several types of slots, power connections, and various cable connections. Many (though, not all) motherboards have built-in sound cards, video cards, network cards.

An ATX Motherboard with an AGP slot and three PCI slots.


This category includes all the extras, like the aforementioned video cards (the part that sends graphic images to your monitor), sound card (makes sounds for your speakers), network cards (allows one to connect to wi-fi or wired networks), USB card (allows one to plug in more USB devices) and possibly others.

A Typical Video Card
An Example Sound Card
A Network Card for Wired Networks
A USB Card w/ Four Ports

Power Supply Unit (PSU): This is the component that takes the AC power from a wall plug, and distributes power to all the components inside the tower. These come in a variety of power outputs, measured in watts. The more powerful the computer pieces are, the more power they will need.