Computer Hardware and Software: A Definitive Guide

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published May 21, 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Computer hardware and software are essential elements of technology. The two are usually complementary but differ in design and functionality. Regardless of your background and experience, knowing what they are and how they differ from each other can help you advance in a tech-related career. In this article, we discuss what hardware and software are, mention the main differences between them, provide common examples of each, and list some related careers.

What are hardware and software?

Hardware and software are the main parts of a computer system. The former are its physical components, while the latter are the instructions that direct their behaviour. The two are usually essential for a computer's proper functioning but being fundamentally different means that working with them generally requires different skillsets.

What is hardware?

Hardware is a general term that refers to all the tangible elements that create a computer system. Its main role is to help the user exchange information with the computer and provide a physical storing medium for computer data. There are six general types of hardware:

  • Input devices: They transform user-generated data into a form that the computer can understand and process.

  • Output devices: They transform information that the computer generates into a form that the human user can understand.

  • Processing devices: They transform raw data into usable information with multiple purposes.

  • Communications devices: They allow your computer to exchange data with other computers.

  • Storage devices: They help store information for long- and short-term purposes.

  • Internal components: They are various pieces of hardware that help other hardware components function.

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What is software?

Software is a general term for the set of specific data, instructions, or programs that allow a user to operate a computer and use it to perform various tasks. It functions by issuing specific instructions to the computer's hardware regarding how to behave and perform various tasks. Every operation that you perform on a computer requires the use of software. There are two main types of software:

  • System software: It's the set of programs that controls the way all the hardware components operate and interact with each other. These programs make the computer function faster and more securely. They also enable other software applications to run correctly.

  • Application software: They are the programs that perform specific tasks for the user. You can install multiple application software programs with different functions on one computer system and store them on various types of data storage devices.

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What are the main differences between hardware and software?

Hardware and software differ in the following ways:

  • Purpose: Hardware consists of physical components that enable data processing, whereas software consists of various sets of instructions that tell the hardware how to operate.

  • Development process: Employees create hardware in manufacturing plants, whereas various types of professionals conceptualize, design, develop, and engineer software applications.

  • Performance issues: Computer viruses can only affect software, whereas physical degradation only affects hardware.

  • Physical properties: Users can touch and see hardware, as it is a physical device, but software is intangible and requires hardware for a user to interact with it.

  • Transportability: Hardware has a physical form, meaning you can only physically transport it from one place to another. Software has no physical form, meaning that you can transport it from one place to another via a computer network.

  • Installation: Installing hardware consists of connecting multiple physical components together, each with a specific function. Installing software consists of downloading the installation file (or copying it from an external storage device), editing its installation settings, and installing it on the computer's hard drive.

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What are some common examples of hardware components?

Some common hardware components are:

  • Motherboard: A computer's motherboard, also called a mainboard, is a circuit board that powers and connects all other hardware components through wires and cables. Its various types of connectors provide electricity of various intensities, depending on each hardware component's needs.

  • Central processing unit (CPU): A computer's CPU has a significant role in most operations that a computer system performs. It processes each user input that the computer receives through one of its input devices by using a wide range of arithmetical and logical operations.

  • Random-access memory (RAM): A computer's RAM is a form of short-term memory storage that the CPU uses to perform its usual operations. Having a place to store and quickly access frequently used data on a short-term basis generally improves the speed of all operations performed on that computer system.

  • Hard disk: A computer's hard disk is a form of long-term memory storage for all data that a computer constantly uses, such as its operating system, user files, and software applications. Internal hard disks connect to a dedicated socket on the computer's motherboard, and external hard disks connect to the computer through an external port.

  • Monitor: A computer's monitor is a device that displays its output visually, through videos and other types of graphics. The CPU and video card process the respective images and use the monitor to show them to the user.

  • Keyboard: A computer's keyboard is a type of hardware that helps the user input computer commands in a text form. It includes letters, numbers, special symbols, and other buttons that make it quicker and easier for the user to give input to the computer.

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What are some common examples of software components?

Some common software components are:

  • Operating systems: These are fundamental software applications, as they provide the platform for all hardware and software components to function together effectively. They enable the computer to perform basic functions, manage hardware requirements for all software applications, and provide the user with an interface that can help them interact with the computer.

  • Device drivers: These are small software programs that enable efficient and effective communication between the computer's operating system and all its hardware components. They contain specific sets of instructions regarding how the operating system can use each hardware component.

  • Application software: Also called apps or programs, application software consists of all software that has a specific purpose and helps the user accomplish specific goals. Some common application software programs are web browsers, video games, and productivity software.

  • Programming software: These are software applications that software developers use to create other applications. They provide developers with a series of tools and specific languages they can use to design and build software programs for a wide variety of purposes.

What are some common careers in hardware?

Some roles that specialize in hardware are:

1. Computer support specialist

National average salary: $41,083 per year

Primary duties: Computer support specialists have advanced knowledge in computer-related issues and help others solve various issues related to computer hardware and their associated software. Their hardware-related tasks generally consist of assisting people when installing, configuring, and updating hardware components. They also help fix any other issues that may come up. Most computer support specialists help both their colleagues and their employer's clients.

2. Network architect

National average salary: $92,268 per year

Primary duties: Network architects design and install communication networks between multiple physical locations and within a single location. They are also sometimes responsible for maintaining and updating the networks they install. They use a wide variety of hardware components in their work, such as modems, routers, and cables.

3. Hardware engineer

National average salary: $72,112 per year

Primary duties: Hardware engineers design various computer hardware components. They also sometimes test hardware functionality and supervise the manufacturing and installation processes. They work in a wide variety of industries, including computer manufacturing, telecommunications, and the automotive industry.

What are some common careers in software?

Some roles that specialize in software are:

1. Computer programmer

National average salary: $65,387 per year

Primary duties: Computer programmers write and test the code that allows software applications to function. They usually take instructions from software developers and engineers and translate them into a language that a computer can understand. In addition to working on building new software applications, computer programmers sometimes work on improving existing applications, either by adding new functionalities or by resolving errors.

2. Web developer

National average salary: $67,854 per year

Primary duties: Web developers build websites. Depending on their specialization, they can be front-end developers (who focus on a website's visual components), back-end developers (who focus on a website's functionality), and full-stack components (who possess the knowledge and skill to perform both roles). Web developers generally start their careers as either front-end or back-end developers and evolve into full-stack ones.

3. Software engineer

National average salary: $78,512 per year

Primary duties: Software engineers design and create software programs for specific purposes. They use special programming languages and programming software to design and maintain new software applications. They also optimize existing applications to improve their scalability and execution speed. Besides tech-related skills and knowledge, software engineers typically require strong communication and interpersonal skills to understand user and stakeholder requirements before, during, and after the software development phase.

Salary figures reflect data listed on Indeed Salaries at time of writing. Salaries may vary depending on the hiring organization and a candidate's experience, academic background, and location.

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