Open Heart Surgery on Your Computer

Tech Talker takes apart your computer to explain the most important parts and what they do.

Eric Escobar
4-minute read
Episode #10


A listener recently wrote in wondering how computers work, what components do what, and why they are necessary. In today’s episode I will demystify the most important parts inside your computer.

As an avid fan of the Tech Talker show, I bet you use a computer during your workday and even when you get home. But if you stop to think about it, you’ll realize that the laptop you carry around is a marvel of science whose materials and internal workings took decades of engineering to perfect. Just think, you can communicate with anyone in the world, perform thousands of calculations in a second, watch video, and find the answer to almost any question instantly. I could really spend multiple episodes for each piece of a computer, but before I get too crazy, I thought it’d be nice to have an overview of how a computer works. Just a note: For the sake of easy explanation and consistency, in this episode I will mainly be referring to the inner workings of your desktop computer. But just to be clear, laptops have all the same components as desktops, except the pieces are crammed in tighter, so it may be tougher to visualize.

What’s Inside Your Computer?

The three main components of a computer are RAM (which stands for Random Access Memory), the processor, and the hard drive. You’ve probably heard these terms thrown around before. But what do they do exactly?

  1. From previous episodes of the Tech Talker you probably remember that a hard drive stores your data, so that’s where all your music, movies, and documents are kept for the long term.
  2. The processor (your Central Processing Unit, or CPU for short) is responsible for carrying out the tasks you give the computer.
  3. The RAM is a computer’s short term memory—that includes things like programs that are currently running.

These three parts work together to complete the tasks you assign your computer. And if any one of them breaks, well then I’d be willing to bet your computer stops working instantly.

How Does Your Computer Work?

So how exactly do these three pieces work? Well, imagine you’re putting together a puzzle on your kitchen table and all of the pieces for the puzzle are kept in the closet. In this scenario, the closet is the hard drive because it is where the puzzle is kept, and you are the processor because you are solving the puzzle. The kitchen table acts as your RAM because you can lay out all of your pieces and see them easily. Without your table to put the pieces on, you would have to go into the closet every time you wanted a puzzle piece. And that would take a long time. The RAM in your computer loads the pieces you needs to work on all at once so that it doesn’t have to keep going back to the hard drive whenever it needs additional information.

The next most important piece of a computer is the motherboard. This is the circuit board that everything plugs into. It serves as the connection between all of the pieces and allows data to be transferred over it from one component to another.

Next you have your memory cards that may be built into the motherboard or will be attached to it separately. These “cards” provide more function to your computer such as graphics, audio, and USB capabilities.

There is also a power supply which takes the wall outlet electricity and distributes it to each piece of your computer.

[[AdMiddle]The last and probably the most overlooked pieces of a computer are the fans and the heat sinks. A heat sink is generally an oddly shaped piece of metal with a lot of fins. These fins, along with the built-in fans, help to draw heat away from the processor and other parts of the computer. If you didn’t have these in place, your processor would quickly overheat and either fry or stop working altogether.

There may be a few other extra items in your computer like card slots or some extra hard drives, but these aren’t as crucial to the functionality of your computer, so I won’t go into them now.  If you would like to know more about a specific topic or computer part, feel free to post your question on the Tech Talker Facebook wall.

And now, here are your 4 Quick and Dirty Tips to understand your computer:

  1. Your hard drive stores your data long term.
  2. Your processor (or CPU) crunches the numbers and tasks you give your computer.
  3. The RAM on your computer keeps items loaded that you are currently using to increase speed.
  4. Fans and heat sinks help keep your computer from overheating.

Here’s a link to a short video that will guide you through identifying each part of your computer and what it does. Plus, it comes with an official-sounding British voiceover.

Have a question about anything in this episode or a suggestion for a future podcast? Send me an email at techtalker@quickanddirtytips.com or post it on the Tech Talker Facebook wall.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

About the Author

Eric Escobar

Tech Talker demystifies technology and cutting edge devices so that even the most tech illiterate can understand what's going on with their computer or gadget — and what to do when something goes wrong.