Your computer? It hasn’t really changed since the 1970s.

Your computer? It hasn’t really changed since the 1970s.

The computer of the 1970s – somewhat misleadingly called the ‘minicomputer’ – was a hefty thing you’d find in places like banks and universities.  By the 1980s, the rise of the smaller personal computer had begun, and by the mid-1990s, computers were becoming an integral part of everyday life.  Now, such is our reliance on a range of computing devices, we wouldn’t know what to do without them.

Yet how many of us have any idea how they work?

Surprisingly, the structural make-up of a computer hasn’t changed much since that minicomputer came onto the scene in the ‘70s.  Sure, technology seems to advance at lightening speed – RIP floppy disk – and the packaging constantly morphs, but the basic components remain the same.  Whether it’s mobile, desktop, laptop or server, this is what makes your computer tick:

Central Processing Unit or CPU

This is the brain of your computer.  It’s the CPU’s job to interpret instructions and turn these into signals, with these signals then telling the other parts of the computer what to do.

cpu-photo

The Motherboard

The motherboard is like your computer’s central nervous system – it’s responsible for connecting each part of the computer together, as well as connecting the peripherals such as your keyboard and mouse.  It distributes signals between each component and it’s often responsible for distributing the electricity that powers your computer.

 motherboard

Hard Disk Drive (HDD) and Solid State Drives (SSD)

Your computer’s hard disk is responsible for long-term storage.  This is where your applications and files are stored, including you computer’s operating system, web browsers, Microsoft Office, media files and your documents (even when you swear your computer has inexplicably deleted them).

We are seeing some changes in terms of how this long-term storage functions – technological advancements have seen a move away from traditional spinning HDDs towards SSDs.  SSDs have some big advantages – they’re smaller, lighter, and more resistant temperature changes and bumps.  The down side of SDDs?  They cost significantly more than their equivalent HDDs.

hard-drive  picture

Random Access Memory (RAM)
While an HDD deals with long-term storage, it’s your computer’s RAM that is responsible for its short-term memory.  In doing so, the RAM plays a function similar to your brain’s frontal lobe.  For example, when you open installed software on your computer, any changes you make before you save are stored within the RAM.  Despite being significantly faster than an HDD or SDD, RAM can’t store information without power, so it’s used purely for temporary memory.

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Graphics Processing Unit (GPU)

The GPU is an integral part of your computer’s graphics card, which is responsible for translating information into visuals that can then be displayed on your monitor.

When it comes to a GPU, the size, layout and costs vary widely depending on your computer’s design, brand and performance.  While the components shown above are those you’d find in a standard desktop computer, GPU’s vary significantly depending on their intended function.  For example, in modern laptop computers, part of the CPU may serve the function of a GPU.

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Author – Ben Rogers – October 2016