Science and Tech
A Beginner's Guide to PC-Building Terminology

Devin Connors | 8 Sep 2014 10:00
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Building your own PC is not as complicated as many think - a free afternoon and a Phillips-head screwdriver is all that's required - but the barrier to entry for the utterly uninitiated can still be high. Acronyms are a-plenty, and navigating the minutiae while building the PC of your (moderately priced) dreams takes a decent understanding of the terminology.

I'll pause before calling this an exhaustive list - I'm sure the Church of Commentology will remind me of items missed - but this should get you on your way to picking out parts and assembling a gaming PC that will keep you entertained for years to come.


For the sake of simplicity, we're going to focus on the main types of processors found in any computer. While numerous processors are required for a PC, many are included in these three primary types, or are included on the motherboard (more on that later).

The processor everyone knows and loves? The CPU, or Central Processing Unit. Every PC has a CPU, with most chips coming from either Intel or AMD. In your PC, gaming or otherwise, the CPU is responsible for doing most of the work, completing whatever task you throw its way.

Leaving the "Intel vs AMD" debate for another day (or decade, if we're being honest), the general rules of thumb for CPUs are: The faster, the better, or the more cores the better. Or both, if you can swing it.

CPU Terms

Speaking of cores, here's some totally rad CPU-related terminology!

Operating Frequency: Also known as "speed." The higher the number, the better (again, in most scenarios). Your average desktop CPU is going to run 3.0-4.0 GHz (gigahertz), or 3,000-4,000 MHz (megahertz).

Cores and Threads: Up until the mid-2000's, PC CPUs had one physical core, or processor, each. Nowadays, most PC CPUs have at least two cores, while many have four or six. Each core has at least one thread, which is how an application (game, Chrome, Excel, your precious gif maker) feeds commands to a core. Many CPUs now have multiple threads (usually two) per core, effectively doubling the amount of work a CPU can chew through at any given time. Next time you see "Hyper-Threading" on a PC, or CPU box, that means each core supports multiple threads.

Manufacturing Process: This refers to how large the transistors are in a CPU. For example, Intel's latest "Haswell" family of processors is built on a 22nm (nanometer) process. This means each of the 1.4 billion or so transistors in a Haswell chip are 22nm wide. In general, the smaller the manufacturing process, the cooler the CPU will operate, and the more efficient it can run.

So what comes after the CPU? The GPU, or Graphics Processing Unit. GPUs are what push the image onto your display - regardless of whatever grotesque corner of the Internet you're visiting.

There are three major names in PC GPUs: Intel, AMD, and Nvidia. Intel is a player by virtue of integrated graphics (more on that and APUs in a moment), while AMD and Nvidia are the two major standalone GPU players.

Most PC tasks, from browsing the Internet to screwing around in an Excel spreadsheet, require minimal graphics power. But playing games, or crunch-heavy multimedia data requires a stronger GPU. A GPU is similar to a CPU, but there's simply more of it. A CPU has a handful of cores and threads, while a GPU now has thousands of cores or processors (AMD calls theirs "stream processors").

The same general rule of thumb that applies to CPUs comes into play here, too: the faster, the better. Also, the more available video memory, or VRAM, the better (more on that in a minute). Of course, faster typically means more expensive, both in money, and in running power.

That leaves us with APU, a term popularized by AMD over the last several years. The Accelerated Processing Unit is a combination of the CPU and GPU into one chip, a design that both Intel and AMD currently employ. This is why Intel, despite not making any standalone GPUs, is the "number one GPU manufacturer" (in sales).

The APU design is great for those who don't need a super duper serious gaming GPU. The all-in-one design provides basic-to-intermediate graphics power, while eliminating the need for a big, hot, expensive graphics card.

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