Is the above image confusing? We can’t blame you. When you look on the side of a computer’s box, there’s a lot of technical jargon. And more of us are hazy on the terms than we’d like to admit. So, here’s an overview of common terms and abbrevations you’ll find tied to your computer.
What It Means: Also called the mobo, a motherboard is essentially the “nerves” of your computer. It’s where all the parts are situated and connected with each other, and allows the different pieces of a computer to interact. If the processor in a computer is the “brain”, the motherboard is the “nerves” of a computer.
Short For: Central Processing Unit
What It Means: Essentially, this is referring to the chip in your computer doing the heavy mathematical lifting. The power of a CPU is generally expressed in GHz, which, well, see the next entry.
Short For: Gigahertz
What It Means: Hertz is the unit for “cycles per second” and are used to discuss anything with, essentially, a repeating wave. For example, audiophiles know that tones are also expressed in hertz. With computers, though, hertz refers to the clock rate, or how quickly your CPU can fulfill instructions. The higher the clock rate, the faster the processor, although it’s worth noting that this really only applies to processors in the same family from the same company; a processor from another company with a slower clock rate might perform better.
Short For: Graphics Processing Unit
What It Means: A GPU is, as you may have guessed, designed to help your computer perform tasks involving graphics faster. A GPU is generally designed differently from a CPU, but it can be used for certain types of processing beyond just graphics. You may see it called a VPU sometimes; they’re exactly the same thing.
What It Means: A “multi-core” processor is essentially a processor with more than one CPU. These CPUs work in parallel to ensure your computer can perform more tasks at once. The more cores you have, in theory the faster your computer will be. In practice, a lot depends on what you have the computer doing and what kind of processor you have.
Short For: System On A Chip
What It Means: A chip that contains both the CPU and the GPU. These aren’t generally found in home computers; your tablet or your smartphone is more likely to be packing a SoC. But as they become more popular, and cheaper, skinnier laptops are more likely to use them, so it’s worth knowing the definition.
Short For: Random Access Memory
What It Means: The RAM essentially serves as the computer’s “short term memory.” It stores anything it needs right away for each program in RAM. The more RAM you have, the larger the memory and the more programs your computer can run. Types of RAM you’ll come across include dynamic random-access memory (DRAM) or more rarely static random-access memory (SRAM).
Short For: Hard Disk Drive
What It Means: Essentially, this is your computer’s long term memory. It’s called a “hard disk drive” because there are, literally, hard disks spinning at high speeds inside your computer. Data is written and read off the disk by a magnetic arm. The faster the drive spins, which is measured in rotations per minute or RPM, the more quickly data can be accessed. HDD can hold a lot of memory but they’re not exactly quiet, which is why more and more manufacturers are using…
9. Flash Memory
What It Means: Essentially, flash memory is a better form of RAM that’s able to retain information like a hard disk and doesn’t have any moving parts to break. Pretty much anything that isn’t a chunky desktop or thicker laptop will have flash memory installed in it, as it’s quiet, has a much faster access time than hard drives, and can save space. It’s also dirt cheap compared to other “solid-state” storage. The downside is that after a certain number of times being accessed, the flash memory becomes unusable; that’s why Apple, Google, and the like are so insistent that you both buy new stuff every few years and back up everything on their cloud servers.
It’s also not great on the storage space compared to hard drives: You might notice the skinnier laptops top out at 64GB for storage, compared to 500 GB at least for chunkier laptops. Still, higher capacity drives are out there and becoming more common, so it seems that the HDD’s days are numbered.
Stands For: Serial Advanced Technology Attachment
What It Means: SATA is essentially the method your hard drive or flash memory connects to your computer. Pretty much all storage on a computer uses SATA at this point; you’re extremely unlikely to come across a computer that doesn’t use SATA. If you do, you’re probably in the wrong store.
Stands For: Small Computer System Interface
What It Means: Essentially it’s a predecessor to SATA. You’re very unlikely to come across SCSI when shopping for a personal computer, but it may come up if you’re building a professional device that needs lots of storage.
Stands For: Universal Serial Bus
What It Means: USB is probably the single most ubiquitous connector in modern times, especially after every single smartphone company (aside from Apple) decided to uniformly use USB cables and connectors. If you’ve ever used an older computer, you might notice that every part of it, from the keyboard to the printer to the monitor, used to have a different connector. USB was introduced to standardize this. USB is a “standard” and as such has received regular improvements and upgrades; USB 3.0 is faster than USB 2.0, for example. USB also, as you may have guessed, can direct power to various devices.
It’s also backwards compatible: If you plug a USB 2.0 device into a USB 3.0 port, you won’t have any problems. In most cases, you don’t even need to know the standard to get a device to work. Which is, of course, the entire idea!
Stands For: High-Definition Multimedia Interface
What It Means: Basically this is where the audio and video from your computer come into. HDMI ports are either “in”, which means you can send video into your computer, or “out”, which means your computer can send video to a monitor or television.
Stands For: Digital Video Interface
What It Means: A slightly older standard still used on some monitors. You may need a converter to make the cables fit, but that’s all you need to worry about: DVI and HDMI were designed to be compatible.
So, shop with confidence: Now you know what everything means.
Dan Seitz is an obsessive nerd living in New England. He lives in the Boston area with a fiancee, a dog, a cat, and far too many objects with processors.