Whether you're lost in a labyrinthine tech support forum and nothing's making sense, or you just want to refresh your PC building and maintenance knowledge, we're here to help with a glossary of the most common hardware terms you'll encounter and simple definitions.
Also check out our visual guide to PC parts for an illustrated list of everything that could possibly be in your PC, from a pinout to an M.2 drive.
32-bit -When referencing computer architecture, the term 32-bit is used to denote the number of bits that can be processed simultaneously. Systems using 32-bit CPU and OS architectures generally have lower performance potential and RAM capacity when compared to their newer, 64-bit brethren. This term is also used to describe the color range of a monitor that provides 32-bit per pixel of color information, which means 8 bits per channel for red, green and blue, along with an 8-bit transparency channel.
64-bit - When referencing computer architecture, the term 64-bit is used to denote the number of bits that can be processed simultaneously, in this case twice as much as 32-bit, which provides processing and memory advantages for systems designed around this greater potential. Most modern computer systems use 64-bit architecture.
802.11 - Wi-Fi data standard specification family that runs on the 2.5 or 5 GHz wireless band.
AMD Radeon - AMD's performance brand name for its series of graphics cards, DRAM modules, SSDs and supporting software. Usually refers to graphics cards or GPUs.
AMD Ryzen - AMD's competitor to Intel's Core series processors, now in their second generation. Ryzen processors, based on the Zen architecture, offer slightly lower single-core speeds than their Intel counterparts but offer more cores at similar or lower prices.
APU - (Accelerated Processing Unit) AMD's definition for a CPU/GPU fusion designed for budget and midrange gaming-oriented systems
Aspect ratio - The size of a computer screen's width as compared to its height. Back during the CRT era, this was normally 4:3, but with the advent of flat-screen displays, 16:9 has become the accepted standard. Others common aspect ratios include 21:9 for ultrawide monitors, and 16:10 for productivity-based work. Note that aspect ratio does not specify resolution or actual size, just the proportions of the display.
Acer - Acer Inc. is a computer hardware company based in Taiwan known for its Predator series products and competitive pricing.
ASUS - ASUSTek Computer Inc, based in Taiwan, is a computer company specializing in high-performance, gamer-oriented hardware. ASUS owns the popular Republic of Gamers brand.
ATX - Midrange desktop computer size standard for motherboards and cases.
Bandwidth - Refers to the maximum rate of data transfer from one place to another, ie, bits per second. This applies to your internet connection, as well as your PC's hardware.
BenQ - A Taiwanese hardware manufacturer known for high-performance gaming monitors and a competitive pricing structure.
BIOS (Basic Input/Output System, also Firmware, also UEFI) - The BIOS is the low-level operating system of a component such as a motherboard or graphics card, often made user-accessible via a set of option screens that are exposed to configuration at boot time.
Blu-Ray - The high-density optical disc format that replaced DVD.
Bluetooth - A low-bandwidth wireless standard used for peripherals like mice, keyboards, and speakers. Produces unacceptable lag for gaming on most systems, with RF-style wireless or corded devices preferred for high-performance situations.
Bus - In this context, a hardware bus is the architecture in a computer's sub-systems that allows the various components to communicate with each other. This includes core areas such the system memory and extends to peripherals such as storage devices or expansion card slots, each of which have their own unique specifications.
Cable modem - The device used to provide an internet signal to your router from your ISP. Usually supplied by cable companies and ISPs to end users and often built into a small network router.
Cache - A small amount of very high-speed memory used to keep frequently accessed data handy for the CPU. A properly managed and sized cache has an outsized effect on system performance.
Case - An enclosure that houses all the parts of a PC.
CD-R - Recordable Compact Disc.
Chipset - The series of integrated circuits that manages the functions of a motherboard.
Clock speed - The rate at which a computer performs calculation, usually measured in megahertz MHz or gigahertz GHz.
Codec - A codec is software or hardware that encodes and decodes data streams.
Core - The computational center of a processor, usually one of group of up to six in a modern desktop CPU.
Corsair - Premium computer peripheral supplier based in Fremont, California known for quality DRAM products, keyboards, water-cooling systems and high-fashion tower cases.
CPU (Central Processing Unit) - The computation center of a computer system comprised of one or more cores.
Crossover Ethernet Cable - A length of RJ-45 networking cable with a special wiring configuration that allows routers to be daisy chained together via a specially labelled or autosensing Ethernet port.
Das Keyboard - A boutique Austin, Texas-based hardware company that produces a range of well-received high-quality mechanical keyboards.
DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol) - An automatic IP addressing system used on modern TCI/IP networks and the internet that provides each computer with an IP address without requiring a manually entered or fixed-number identification scheme. Widely used by internet access hardware such as network routers.
DDR - Double Data Rate memory. Available in many speeds and sizes.
DisplayPort - DisplayPort is a high-performance digital video connector designed for speedy refresh rates and high resolutions.
DMA - Direct memory access refers to devices that can directly utilize system memory without draining CPU resources.
DPI - Dots per inch. Used to determine printing and screen resolution.
Drive bay - A place inside a computer case provided to install a hard drive. Comes in 5.25" and 3.5" sizes.
Driver - The specialized software that controls the low-level functions of hardware components, usually provided by the component manufacturer or occasionally by the OS vendor.
DVD - A still popular but aging optical media format used for data and low-resolution video.
E-ATX - Extended ATX. Extra large ATX size used for deluxe motherboards and cases.
FAT (File Allocation Table) - A family of robust but simple filing systems used by many OS implementations such as MS-DOS as well as standalone hardware such as printers or IP cameras. FAT files often have limitations on naming conventions and size.
Firewall - A software or hardware network barrier that protects users from outside attacks and surveillance.
Firmware - The low-level software built into the non-volatile memory of a hardware device that communicates with OS drivers and other hardware. Similar to BIOS.
FLOPS (Floating point operations per second) - A measure of computational performance that leans the on complex floating-point operations. GPUs are particularly robust at performing these, outperforming even high-end CPUs by several orders of magnitude.
FreeSync - An AMD-created but otherwise free and open monitor variable sync standard compatible with VESA's Adaptive Sync protocol. (Essentially, rather than the monitor refreshing at a steady rate, its refresh rate changes with the frame rate of the game you're playing.) FreeSync 2 updates the standard to include lower minimum framerates, HDR, HDMI support and integrated color space management.
Gigahertz - 1000 MHz. A unit of internal clock speed used by CPUs and other components to specify device performance. Adjusting the clock speed higher provides better performance but can impact stability and power consumption.
G.Skill - A Tawainese computer hardware manufacturer best known for its top shelf, high-speed DRAM products.
G-Sync - Similar to FreeSync, except proprietary. This is a monitor adaptive sync standard used by Nvidia to smooth framerate transitions and eliminate display tearing. Requires Nvidia graphics hardware and a G-Sync capable monitor.
Hard Boot - Resetting a computer from a powered-off condition.
Hard disk drive (also mechanical hard drive) - These legacy storage devices utilize rotating magnetic disks to store data and generally feature lower costs and larger capacities than solid-state drives. While mechanical hard disk systems are a mature and stable technology, SSDs have recently begun to supplant them. The faster the rotational speed of the disk, the better the performance and the higher the cost of the drive. 5400 RPM disks are considered mainstream, while 7200 and 10,000 RPM speeds are reserved for high-performance drives.
HBM (High bandwidth memory) - A type of stackable memory used in graphics cards that provides high performance in a small form factor.
Hyperthreading - A CPU technology that allows two threads to share a CPU core, doubling the thread capabilities of a processor. Especially useful for low core count laptops.
Intel Core i9 - Intel's newest consumer CPU, the Core i9 series slots over the former top shelf i7 processors and introduces features formerly only found on enterprise-grade hardware, running from 6 to 18 cores and supporting hyperthreading. The i9-9900K, with 8 cores running at a peak of 5 GHz, is the gaming beast of the bunch.
IP address (Internet Protocol Address) - The unique numeric address of a networked device, displays as a series of numbers, for example 192.168.0.2 in the commonly used version 4 of the IP protocol. As demand for IP addresses has grown, version 6 of the IP protocol is being rolled out, which provides a much larger addressing space to cover the rapid growth of net connected devices.
IPS Panel (Inline Plain Switching) - A type of advanced LCD display that offers superior colors and viewing angles.
ITX - Tiny desktop PC size standard used for tight spaces or boutique builds.
JEDEC - A colloquial term referring to the DRAM preconfigured memory setting profiles derived from the Joint Electron Device Engineering Council's specifications. Similar to XMP.
Kilohertz - 1000 Hz; A unit of computing speed. Generally used to describe monitor refresh rates.
KVM Switch - A type of switchbox that allows multiple computers to be attached to a single keyboard, monitor and mouse.
LAN / WLAN - Local area network. A private local network of computers usually connected via Wi-Fi or Ethernet.
Logitech - A highly successful Swiss computer peripherals company specializing in mice, headsets, keyboards, and computer speakers.
MAC Address - A code built into every network capable port that uniquely identifies each device connection. Usually takes the form of 6 pairs of hexadecimal digits separated by a comma or dash.
Mechanical keyboard - A type of keyboard that uses microswitches instead of the default rubber domes for actuation, providing a form of tactile and audio feedback many users find satisfying.
Megahertz - 1000 KHz. - A unit of computing speed. Generally used to specify speeds on memory and older processors.
MLC - Multi-layer NAND memory implementation. Cheaper but less durable than SLC.
MSI - Micro-Star International, a Taiwanese corporation which makes just about any kind of PC hardware you can imagine.
Motherboard - The centerpiece of a PC system and the place where all the other components are installed.
NAND Flash memory - The type of memory used in SSDs.
NZXT - An American hardware company known for cases and components, such as liquid coolers.
Nvidia GTX - In Nvidia's current nomenclature, GTX refers to consumer graphics cards based on its last generation Pascal and previous Maxwell architectures. The Pascal-based Nvidia GTX 1080 and big-brother 1080 Ti were the first Nvidia cards able to provide 4K gaming at reasonable framerates, while the 1070 is designed to cover gaming needs at 1080 and 1440 resolutions and high detail.
Nvidia RTX - Featuring the new Turing architecture, Nvidia's RTX series of cards including the RTX 2080 and higher performance RTX 2080 Ti, are the current top shelf when it comes to performance in consumer graphics cards, both in real world and potential numbers. With Turing delivering 50 percent higher efficiency per core, faster memory and dedicated ray tracing and AI hardware, jumps of over 20 frames per second are possible in many games. For a full write up, check out Jarred's review here.
OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) - An advanced screen technology that offers low power, high performance and amazing image quality. Currently popular with cellphones and large screen TVs.
Overclocking - Pushing a component beyond its rated specifications to achieve more performance.
PCB - Printed circuit board. The backboard on which computer components such as sockets and VRMS are mounted.
PCIe (Peripheral Component Interconnect Express) - A high speed slot design used in modern PCs for add-in cards.
Pixel - A single element or dot on computer screen.
PSU (Power supply unit) - A boxlike component with cables that provides a computer with power.
RAID (Redundant array of independent disks) - A set of drives configured in an array for improved performance and reliability.
RAM (Random access memory) - The computational workspace of a computer system. Volatile and erases when the system is reset or turned off.
RAMDAC- Random Access Memory Digital to Analog Converter.
Razer - Razer Inc. is a boutique gaming hardware company with headquarters in San Francisco and Singapore. Unlike most computer manufacturers, Razer's entire product catalog is gaming oriented. Known especially for its gaming laptops. (Incidentally, Razer is also the sponsor of this article.)
RJ-11 - Old style telephone connector, looks like a narrow Ethernet (RJ-45) connector. Also used for analog modems.
Roccat - Exclusive German peripheral manufacturer specializing in input devices such as mechanical keyboards and mice, as well as headphones.
ROM - Read only memory. An area of protected memory that contains specialized instructions.
Router - A hub that manages all the wired and wireless connections to a network.
SATA (Serial ATA) - A data transport protocol used for storage devices.
Screen Burn - The afterimage left on certain types of displays, such as OLEDs, after displaying static images for extended periods of time. Can cause permanent hardware damage.
SLC - Single Level NAND memory. The quickest, most durable and most expensive NAND implementation
SO-DIMM - The type of DDR memory module used in laptop systems. Utilizes a smaller form factor than standard memory sticks.
Solid state - A device with no moving parts.
SSD (Solid state drive) - A storage drive made of non-volatile memory cells instead of a moving magnetic platter. Much faster than hard disk drives.
SteelSeries - High-end Danish gaming peripherals manufacturer known for headsets, mice and mechanical keyboards.
Stream Processors - Limited instruction processors used in GPUs to perform specialized functions. Used in large arrays for high performance applications.
TDP (Total dissipated power) - The maximum wattage a part will allow before shutting down or throttling to avoid damage or overheating. Can be used as a rough indicator of in-generation performance or efficiency.
TN Panel (Twisted nematic panel) - An older style of LCD display that offers low price and very high speed but features washed out colors and poor viewing angles
Touchpad - A small flat pad that registers mouse-style pointer movement when you slide a fingertip across it. Used for laptops.
Ultrawide display - A computer monitor that sports a cinema-like 21:9 aspect ratio. Available in 2560x1080 and 3440x1440 resolutions.
UPS (Uninterruptable power supply) - A battery backed up power source that allows a computer system to continue functioning in case of a power outage or other problems.
USB (Universal Serial Bus) - A small hot swappable data connector capable of high performance when using the latest specifications.
VA Panel (Vertical Alignment Display Panel) - A type of LCD display that offers vivid blacks and excellent gaming performance.
WAP (Wireless access point) - The place you log into a wireless network.
Wattage - A measure of electrical power.
Webcam - A usually USB based PC camera that provides live video for use with conferences, game streaming and other media projects.
WPA2 (Wi-Fi Protected Access 2) - The most robust security protocol currently provided for many Wi-Fi networks.
XMP (Extreme Memory Profile) - An Intel derived DRAM settings standard that provides several fail-safe memory configurations beyond the default setting, allowing easy configuration of high-speed memory modules.