Common PC Hardware Terms

Building a PC isn’t all that hard – but there’s near-infinite depth to computer hardware, and that first build is just the launching point. This article and the next are a two-part series of definitions and serve as a quick-reference for component terminology. All the usual initialisms and acronyms can be found in these next two pieces, should anything encountered in later articles prove confusing.

What are some common PC hardware terms you should know?

Motherboard: Often shortened to “mobo,” the motherboard and installed chipset create what is called the “platform” for the system. The motherboard hosts all the core components, and is the largest square-area part in the entire system (not counting the case).

CPU: Central Processing Unit, shortened to “CPU.” The CPU deals with commands and tasks, using its cores and cache to dispatch and execute orders. The CPU tasks all other components in the system (at some level), including the GPU and memory.

RAM: Random Access Memory, or just “memory.” In computing, the word “memory” has a very specific meaning – it is volatile, non-permanent storage which is accessed for temporary use or swapping. It is incorrect to refer to storage space as “memory,” e.g. a computer may have a 1TB hard drive, but that computer does not therefore have 1TB of memory (wouldn’t that be nice, though?). Memory is where all the in-flight resources get stowed for later recall. Memory functions significantly faster than storage, and is used whenever possible to reduce application load or processing times.

Video Card: Often called a “graphics card, “VGA” (Video Graphics Adapter), or “AIB/AIC” (Add-in Board/Card), the video card hosts the GPU and its on-card memory. It is technically incorrect to call the video card a “GPU,” though it’s easier and no one’s going to nitpick that. For all intents and purposes, the meaning is usually the same – though technical writing, reviews, and documents will make very important distinctions between the GPU and its host video card. Video cards install into PCI Express slots. The video card’s outputs (DVI, HDMI, DP, etc.) will take-over from the motherboard’s IO, as the GPU is responsible for graphics processing and accelerates the task beyond what integrated graphics devices are capable of.

GPU: Graphics Processing Unit, or the physical silicon die that’s on the video card. This is a parallel processor that accesses its own on-card (or sometimes on-substrate) memory, generally either GDDR5 or (now) GDDR5X. HBM and HBM2 are becoming popular.

HDD: Hard Disk Drive, or a collection of spinning platters that store data using magnetic residue, then read it back using reader heads.

SSD: Solid-State Drive, a collection of Flash memory (NAND) and a controller for rapid data storage and access.

PSU: Power Supply Unit. Provides power in these voltages: 3.3v, 5v, 12V (+/-).

Chipset: Physical chip on the motherboard that is joined at the hip to the CPU. The chipset handles high-speed input/output processing and assigns HSIO lanes to storage devices or other I/O, like Gigabit Ethernet.

PCH: Platform Controller Hub, or Intel’s name for a chipset.

ODD: Optical Disc Drive, soon to become obsolete.

Expansion Slots: Slots in the rear of the case that expose expansion card rear-facing I/O.


You’ll be able to figure out how to build a PC as long as you know the basics listed above. However, if you want to go above and beyond building a basic PC, you’ll probably need to do a little bit more research. Don’t worry though, this is usually fun if you’re interested in building a PC – and if you’re reading this, you probably are! -Steve Burke, GamersNexus