PC Jargon Buster & A Basic Guide to Components
Buying or upgrading a PC can be rather daunting, even for those with great computing knowledge already. For those starting from scratch, I have put together a guide which should help with your understanding of the main components, give some insight into what they do and break down some of that pesky computer jargon. A lot of the below may seem common knowledge to many, however for those that are totally new, I think it’s worth covering as much as possible.
Choosing a PC, upgrading or building your own computer?
Here’s some insight into the components inside of a PC and a little about what each PC part does. It’s important to know what you’re buying and why, so that you can tailor your build to your needs and wants. This will allow you to make good choices so that you get the most out of your hard-earned cash.
What are you building or buying your PC for?
When building your computer, it’s important to consider exactly what it will be used for. This can help keep costs down and avoid any wasted power. Buying the best CPU on the market won’t do you any favours if all you’re doing is browsing and performing basic tasks. The same goes when buying a component that is just not powerful enough to get the most out of the rest of your build or upgrade.
Browsing the internet, sending emails, homework & social media. You’re not going to be needing the latest graphics cards, huge amounts of memory or the best processor on the market. You’ll want something that is responsive, reliable and that’s a pleasure to use. Nice and simple.
Anywhere from older classics to AAA games, with multitasking power for good measure. Most gaming PCs are going to need more processing power than a basic machine, paired with plenty of storage, memory and the best power supply you can afford. Gaming parts are expensive, so you’ll want to take your time and plan your build to get the very best bang for your buck.
- Heavy Workloads
Not dissimilar to a gamers PC, those seeking a system that speeds up their workload are going to want to watch the pennies and plan well. The very best components are anything but cheap, so choose wisely and consider what’s most important within your budget.
The main PC components
PSU: Power Supply Unit
The PSU in your computer is one of, if not the most important component inside of your PC. It’s the beating heart that provides stable power to the rest of your computer, as long as you choose a good one. Many overlook the PSU, perhaps because when it comes to differences on screen, there’s nothing you’ll really notice. However, a quality supply is much more likely to keep the rest of your PC running smoothly for a longer amount of time and give you less hassle overall.
How many watts do I need?
Despite what some people think, the higher the wattage, doesn’t mean that your PC will pull more from the wall! You can have a system working perfectly on a 500W supply, swap it for a 600w model and the system will still use the same amount of power. Your computer will draw only the power it needs and the wattage rating of the PSU won’t cause it to use more.
There are a few internet-based tools out there that can help you find the right wattage for you. Most are super easy to use and you should have a rough idea of what you’re looking for in no time. Be quiet has its own wattage calculator, which is quick and easy to fill out. You can use the information there to help you with your decision, even if you buy a totally different brand. Do keep in mind that these are estimates and not exact figures. Leave yourself some headroom and check the manufacturers recommended wattages for your chosen graphics card.
You may have already seen the ‘80 Plus’ logos on the boxes or product pages of power supplies. These are basically efficiency certifications. The higher the rating, the better the efficiency at 20%, 50% and 100% of the load it’s rated for. If you read up on the numbers, it all becomes rather confusing. The good news is that you don’t need to get caught up in all of that stuff. The rating logos make things much easier.
The ratings run from white to titanium, with the price and efficiency rating being higher the more precious the metal. A white power supply is the most inefficient of the bunch, while the titanium rated models are the leaders of the pack. That said, this doesn’t mean you should instantly save up for the best of the best, unless of course you really want to.
For basic PCs used for browsing and office work, you’ll be just fine with any budget model. All of this should be taken into consideration alongside user reviews though! The efficiency ratings are totally separate from product reviews. There are some excellent bronze rated models out there that many would swear by, as well as some rather iffy higher end, much more expensive models.
Work out the wattage that you need for the system you are building or upgrading. Figure out your budget and check reviews. We often see some fantastic offers come up on hotukdeals, so keep an eye out. If the wattage is higher than what you're looking for, but the price and reviews are good… That’s fine! Having headroom for upgrades later down the line is never a bad thing.
The 80 Plus ratings from low to high end:
Without one, you’d have nothing to plug the rest of your components into. Its job is to allocate power and let all of the other parts communicate. Buy one that has the features you need, whether that’s one with built-in Wi-Fi, lots of USB ports or that has a specific connector. Technology has come a long way and you’ll find some great specifications and features even on lower-end boards
Each motherboard has a socket number that will give you an indication of which processor will fit onto it. If you have a specific processor in mind, check its socket number and make sure you choose a model that matches it.
Example: The AMD Ryzen 7 5800x is AM4, so you will need to look for an AM4 motherboard to match.
CPU: Central Processing Unit / Processor
The brain of a PC and choosing the right one could make a big difference to how your PC performs. The more cores and threads a CPU has, the more it can cope with at the same time. While the speed is all about… well, the speed at which it can perform. I’ll make this as basic as possible and keep architecture differences out of it, as I don’t want to overwhelm you with lots more than you bargained for at this point.
How many cores do you need?
The question I’d ask you first would be “What are you doing with the PC?” Simple PCs used for everyday browsing, shopping and homework would be fine on a 2 or 4 core processor, as long as it’s one of the more modern models.
When it comes to gaming, many of the big titles benefit from more cores. While a 4 core processor might run the game, you will likely find that a 6 core would handle things much better alongside modern graphics cards. At this point in time, I’d consider at least a 6 core model to keep you going for years to come. These are much more common in gaming systems these days and there's a good reason for it! They’re well priced and do a fantastic job with games. Simple.
8 Core CPUs are also great for modern games, but come at a much higher cost in general. I’d consider these if you use your PC for more than gaming. Perhaps you render the odd video and want some extra speed, or perhaps you’re getting into streaming and want to keep things running smoothly. Either way, if you just game and are unsure on whether to go for a 6 or 8 core, then it’s pretty likely that you don’t need an 8 core in the first place. In some games, an 8 core part may offer some boosts, although this is going to be down to how the game is built. Most of the time it’s a negligible difference for the extra cost anyway
12+ cores are for those after some serious processing power for super heavy workloads and are usually used by professionals seeking the very best parts to make the most of their time. With some CPUs having up to 64 cores costing thousands of pounds, I think it’s safe to say that most of us will be happy to ignore those.
- 2 Cores - Basic use - browsing, office work, emails and homework applications.
- 4 Cores - The Above + gaming and better multitasking performance.
- 6 Cores - The above + better performance overall, especially in modern games for years to come.
- 8 Cores - The above + extra scope for heavier workloads or streaming your own content
RAM: Random Access Memory (Memory)
What is RAM or Memory?
Not to be confused with storage, as it sometimes is! RAM holds on to information that you may need to access quickly and helps your system run quickly. It temporarily stores information from running programs, so that it can give you quick access to it as and when you need it. This saves the processor from having a rummage around in slower storage for data and ultimately makes your whole experience much snappier.
How much RAM is needed?
Basic systems can get away with 4GB just fine if you’re not really doing much and want to go super budget. Outside of that 8GB is deemed ideal for most systems. If you’re playing the latest games then 16GB has become pretty much standard, as requirements for top settings are more demanding than ever.
Which speed RAM should you go for?
Buying memory can be really confusing with all of these different speeds to consider. AMD’s Ryzen CPU line-up has always benefited well from faster speeds. That’s not to say Intel doesn’t, although AMD is much more sensitive to these speeds, which is all down to how they are made.
Aiming somewhere between 3000MHz and 3600MHz depending on budget and build, should give you great performance regardless of brand. Gamers are going to want to go for the higher MHz RAM if they want to get the most out of their Ryzen CPU. You’ll find that higher speed kits (4000Mhz+) jump a lot in price and your money would probably be better spent elsewhere, like on the PSU or GPU.
GPU: Graphics Processing Unit / Graphics Card
This handles the image output of your computer and displays it on your monitor.
When it comes to buying a GPU, you’ll need to think about what you’re using it for. If it’s for basic use then you may find that your processor is equipped with one that’s sufficient. It’s important to remember that not all processors have this function though, so be sure to check the specifications for integrated graphics before purchasing.
If you’re building a gaming or heavy workload PC, then you will likely want something more powerful than a built-in graphics chip. The biggest names in the industry are AMD and Nvidia. Both tech giants offer cards for budget, mid-range and high-end systems. Pricing since around the end of 2020 has skyrocketed, due to shortages of parts though, so holding out for a good deal that suits you could be well worth it.
For those wanting to see more frames per second in games, or plan on speeding up their graphical workloads, you’ll want to pick an appropriate card for the job, so take your time, consider the resolution you want to display and the amount of frames per second you’re aiming for. (See the jargon section for more on frames per second and resolution).
When it comes to storage, we have several types to choose from. Below you’ll find information on the most common types found in today’s PCs, from the classic HDD to super-fast NVMe M.2 drives. Let’s take a look!
HDD (Hard Disk Drive)
The cheapest storage options are usually hard disk drives (HDD). They’ve been around for decades and absolutely do the job well, especially as they’ve got faster and more efficient over the years. They’re mechanical so there are moving parts inside, which leaves them prone to damage if they’re not handled with care, which is why they are protected in a chunky metal casing. Inside that casing are spinning disks that are written to and read by a little magnetic arm that moves around to write or fetch the data you need. To connect one to your PC you’ll need two cables. 1x SATA power, which you’ll find on your power supply anyway, as well as 1x SATA Data. Normally included with your motherboard.
SSD (Solid State Drive)
Then come solid-state drives (SSD). They have no moving parts as they use flash memory chips to store your files, just like a USB stick or mobile phone. Even a basic SSD is much faster than any HDD and they’re regarded as one of the best upgrades for those wanting to speed up their PC. Just like hard disk drives, they require the same power and data cables.
M.2 SSD (M.2 Solid State Drive)
Up next are M.2 Drives, which are also a type of SSD. M.2 drives have a smaller form factor than any of the above options and mount directly to your motherboard, providing you have a connector available for it. Great for smaller builds or when space, in general, is an issue. They don’t require any extra cables and just slot right in.
NVMe M.2 SSD (Non-Volatile Memory express)
NVMe drives use a different protocol to other SSD options, which basically provides you with some huge speed upgrades over all of the other types. They share the same form factor as the above M.2 SSD, so don’t require any extra cables when installing. You will need to check that the motherboard you have can support the drive you’re looking to buy, otherwise you may not get the full speed out of your new storage.
Confusing acronyms and techy words glossary
Refers to a device that connects on top of your CPU to keep it running cool and helps maintain its performance.
Central Processing Unit, also known as the processor.
Graphics Processing Unit, also known as graphics card.
Hard Disk Drive. Considered old technology by today’s standards, this is where your files and programs get stored. They’re still popular and used by a lot of people.
A type of SSD that mounts to the mainboard directly. They are usually much faster than normal SSDs, although slower cheaper models are out there.
Also known as Mainboard or Mobo, which is more of a slang term. This is what connects all of your parts, allocates power and allows everything inside to communicate.
- Optical Drive
Also known as DVD or CD Drive - Not as common as they used to be, thanks to the digital age providing most software and data storage over the internet. This doesn’t mean you can’t get them, although if you’re buying a computer that’s ready built, you may have to purchase an external optical drive to plug in and use.
Power Supply Unit.
Random Access Memory. Also known as Memory, each stick is known as a memory module.
Solid State Drive. The modern-day take on the HDD. They’re much faster and have no moving parts. The perfect upgrade to a slowing PC, that needs a speed boost overall.
Software that helps protect your computer from malicious software, that could be used to steal your data.
A piece of software that allows you to access web pages, just like the one you’re on right now.
- Operating System
This software manages how your PC works and is required in order to use your PC. The most common are Microsoft Windows, Apple iOS and Linux.
Stands for World Wide Web and you’ll usually see this at the beginning of website addresses.
Ethernet cables are most commonly used to directly connect your PC to your modem, thus giving you a wired internet connection. These connections are generally more stable as you’re hardwired, where wi-fi signals can vary depending on other contending signals in the area. Nowadays wireless connections are very good indeed.
Internet service provider - This is the company that supplies your Internet connection.
Used for typing and controlling your computer.
Translates the signal that your internet service provider sends to your home and effectively turns it into a usable internet connection.
This is your display, which enables you to see what you’re doing! Some people use their TV, which is all down to preference and where your PC is located.
- Monitor Hz (Hertz)
Also known as refresh rate. This number refers to the amount times per second your screen can display a new image, as long as your GPU is up to the job of providing them. The higher this number (Hz), the smoother the overall experience will be. 60Hz is standard for most, but there are now screens out there that are capable of 144Hz, all the way up to 360Hz, which are primarily aimed at gaming enthusiasts that play competitive first-person shooter games.
- Monitor Resolution
The higher the resolution your monitor is, the sharper and clearer your image will be, due to more pixels being on screen. A pixel in basic terms is a small dot that makes up an image. When it comes to games, you will need to ensure you choose a graphics card that makes sense for your monitor's capabilities. The most common resolutions are 1080p (1920x1080 pixels) / 1440p (2560x1440 pixels) and 4K (3840 x 2160 or 4096x2160 pixels)
Your pointing device to navigate your operating system, open files, links, emails… You name it.
Takes your internet signal and allows connection to different devices, usually both wired and wirelessly. Many internet service providers supply a modem and router in one unit.
Serial Advanced Technology Attachment - This is the technology that connects things like storage and optical drives to your PC. It’s what carries all of that data back and forth.
- Tower / Case
Cases come in many shapes and sizes. Most common from biggest to smallest are Full tower, mid-tower, and mini-ITX.
Wireless Fidelity. The wonderful technology that allows our devices to connect to the internet without wires.
Is it cheaper to build my own PC?
In general, yes. However, when some components are in short supply, prices can rise across the board. This can also mean that stock of certain parts may be allocated to pre-built PCs, making them pricey and difficult to obtain for a custom build.
Do I need the latest processor?
Most do not. There are some bargains to be had with some of the older generation CPUs. Unless you need the best of the best for a particular application, then checking out older options could save you a pretty penny.
Can multiple storage options be added to a PC?
Yes, absolutely. You can use a mix of HDDs, SSDs and NVMe storage solutions. If you have the ports available you can use them. Some motherboards may disable a SATA port if an m.2 drive is in. Check your motherboard manual for more information on this.
Do I have to purchase Windows?
If you’re building your own custom pc and don’t already own a copy, you will need to buy one. When it comes to pre-built systems, then many include Windows or give you an option to remove it and lower the price. Always check the operating system specs on the product page before you buy.