Share this Build Guide
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.
How much you want to know is up to you when building a PC
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! -GamersNexus
The previous definitions guide covered top-level topics, like PC components and general acronyms or initialisms that are encountered in the world of PCs. For the enthusiast digging deeper, we’ve also broken-out more in-depth terms in the guide below.
What are some additional PC hardware terms you should know?
Motherboard & CPU Terms
VRM: Voltage Regulator Module. These are also present on the video card. VRMs are often specified as having a certain number of phases, e.g. 6+1 phase. Although there’s more to it than just phases, an increased number of VRM phases does generally improve the “cleanliness” of the voltage provided to the CPU (or GPU), and thus the stable OC potential grows. VRMs consist of chokes, MOSFETs, and capacitors.
Capacitor: Small capsules located across the board and other components. Capacitors are responsible for storing and managing power.
Transistor: Small electrical processing component. There are billions of these on the average CPU and GPU.
BGA: Ball-Grid Array, a specific type of component engineering that is not user-serviceable. CPUs and motherboards which use a BGA connection will be soldered together.
PLX/PEX: A chip on some multi-GPU motherboards which multiplexes the PCI-e lanes, thereby manipulating lane count in a fashion which allows expanded multi-GPU configurations.
Die: The piece of silicon that would most accurately be described as the CPU. A silicon die is cut from a silicon wafer, cut from a silicon crystal. Silicon is a synthetic material made mostly of sand.
IHS: Integrated Heat-Spreader, located on top of the silicon die, on top of the CPU and its substrate.
Substrate: The green foundation for the CPU.
PCB: Printed Circuit-Board. Most components have one of these – the motherboard is a printed circuit-board with components surface-mounted, as are the memory modules and video cards.
GbE: Gigabit Ethernet.
Vcore: Voltage (Core), used in CPU overclocking to stabilize the overclock.
VRM: See above.
GDDR5: A specific type of high-speed memory that most modern GPUs will access. This memory is located on the video card PCB and is physically closer to the GPU, just part of its speed advantage over system memory. GDDR5 operates at roughly 8Gbps/die.
GDDR5X: A new version of GDDR5 memory, introduced by Micron and nVidia on the GTX 1080 in 2016. GDDR5X has a throughput potential in the range of 13-14Gbps/die and is lower voltage than GDDR5.
HBM: High-Bandwidth Memory, introduced by AMD on the Fiji GPU in 2015. HBM “lives” on the same substrate as the GPU, rather than the video card PCB. This allows for a smaller form factor video card that is capable of significantly greater throughput (upwards of 1TB/s on HBM2).
Architecture: The generation of design for a particular GPU or CPU (or other electrical product). Recent GPU architectures include Pascal, Maxwell, Kepler, and Fermi from nVidia and Polaris, Fiji, Hawaii, and Tonga from AMD. Recent CPU architectures include Broadwell-E, Skylake, and Haswell from Intel and Zen, Kaveri, and Piledriver from AMD.
Timings: The collective term referring to CAS latency and tertiary timings, configurable in BIOS. Timings can be “tightened” (brought closer together) to improve access times and overall memory speed.
XMP: eXtreme Memory Profile, a set of preset profiles within the memory that make configuration easier. Contains pre-configured timings and speeds.
Heatspreader: The thermally conductive heatsink mounted to the memory stick.
SATA: Serial ATA interface used for most SSDs and HDDs. Communicates over high-speed IO bus with PCH or chipset.
P/E Cycle: Progam/Erase Cycle, a specific function to SSDs that describes the process of writing or erasing from memory. SSDs have a limited number of P/E Cycles they can sustain prior to entering a read-only state (but this normally measures in the thousands, meaning that the usable life of the system will typically expire before that of the SSD).
Controller: The storage device’s effective CPU. An SSD is sort of like its own mini-computer: It’s got cache, a controller, and sometimes even DRAM. Controllers task program/erase events, write amplification control, garbage collection, and other tasks that impact the endurance and speed of the device.
Flash (or Flash NAND): Flash Memory using NAND gates. Flash NAND is the memory found on USB keys and SSDs, and is an electrically-accessed form of non-volatile (permanent) memory. Because this memory type is not accessed using rotating platters and mechanical heads, it is significantly faster than traditional magnetic (HDD) media.
Mount: To install a component into a slot, generally concluding with an affirmative ‘click.’
Reseat: To re-install a component, normally as a means of troubleshooting to ensure that connection is solid.
ESD: Electro-static Discharge – a bad thing. If you’ve ever felt a ‘zap’ of electricity from touching a car door, that’s ESD. That physical zap can measure in the thousands of volts if you can feel it and, considering components like CPUs are only built to handle ~1V, that’s deadly to PC hardware. ESD can happen without feeling it physically, and can cause latent (delayed) issues with hardware, if not immediate ones.
Define your own terms for building a PC
By know, you’re probably aware that building a PC means you have the freedom to do what you want. As usual, this will mean that the terms you decide to learn are up to you and your build. The world of PC hardware terms is vast and how much you encounter is in your control. – GamersNexus
There’s a constant feeling of “should I wait?” when making big purchases. It’s universal: Camera & photography equipment, cars, and even gaming PCs.
PC components are on a rapid cadence and year-to-year advancements can sometimes yield upwards of 20% gains in gaming performance. To this end, feeling a sense of delayed urgency is normal – a desire to buy, but an uncertainty of the market. Here’s the thing: don’t wait.
You’ll be waiting forever. If you’re building a gaming PC – not something for some specific task that might require new hardware – it’s generally safe to just go. Waiting makes sense when there’s something within a month or two of launch, but longer than that does start getting inconvenient. At some point, you’ve got to pull the trigger on that shopping cart; otherwise, you’ll be waiting forever. You can use this waiting period to do some “deal-hunting” online, buying individual parts as they go on sale. Power supplies, cases, and coolers often feature large discounts, whereas CPUs and video cards very rarely go on sale (though GPU prices do drop with new GPU launches, CPUs remain fairly stagnant). We’d suggest checking the /r/buildapcsales subreddit for deals.
What are some hardware considerations you should think about before building a PC?
Consideration #1 – Graphics Card Roadmaps
Launch season changes, but new GPUs tend to launch whenever the companies can push them out. For example, the GTX 980 shipped in October of 2014, but the GTX 1080 shipped in May of 2016. There’s no set pattern to this.
This is because the technology that powers graphics cards is changing fast. Broadwell-E is more-or-less here, Pascal just announced its flagship and mid-range replacers, and Polaris looks very promising. Zen is still some ways out. This, of course, changes every month – so the best way to stay up-to-date on new releases is to look for “roadmaps.”
A product roadmap is what companies will use to illustrate their expectations for the future. They’re normally fairly accurate. Running a quick web search for “AMD GPU roadmap,” “NVIDIA roadmap,” or “Intel roadmap” will assist in determining if there are any major releases for the year. From there, we’d suggest perusing some popular tech media websites for release timelines. It’s likely that these editors have a good idea of when products are likely to ship, and they’re often able to reveal some limited amount of that information.
Consideration #2 = Deprecated PC Hardware
Watch out for deprecated products when shopping for a PC build. It’s common for retailers allowing third-party vendors for old components to get listed, particularly as newer products begin emerging. You’ve also got to watch out for aging standards and interfaces, which get replaced every few years by something faster and newer (or, sometimes, smaller).
Storage interfaces are among the most commonly updated – USB, for instance, sees changes every couple years. USB3.1 offers 10Gbps speeds over USB3’s ~4.8Gbps, but is not available on every motherboard. Most motherboard manufacturers have slowly rolled-out revisions to existing products lines, thereby including the new USB3.1 standard; still, you’ve got to check for it in the specs.
As for waiting, though, don’t wait too long on buying – it’s easy to “wait” forever in this industry, as there’s always something better around the corner. If something’s really that close to launch, a brief waiting period may be worthwhile. But not if things are months and months away.
Considerations are not deal-breakers for building a PC
Just because one piece of hardware isn’t right for your PC doesn’t mean you can’t build it. In fact, it usually means you have a lot more options and that is always a good thing. The important thing is to know what it is you’re building and what you need to build it. – GamersNexus