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  2. Computing skills
  3. Acquiring a computer for study
  4. Hardware explained

Hardware explained

All the elements of a computer can be divided up into hardware and software. ‘Hardware’ is all the physical components of the computer. ‘Software’ is the programs and instructions that direct the hardware to perform tasks. This page describes hardware.

Desktops and laptops

Desktops are bigger and sit on a desk. They consist of a base unit with a separate screen and keyboard. Desktops are generally cheaper, more reliable. Laptops are smaller and more portable. Laptops are more expensive to repair, and it is not so easy to replace a faulty screen or keyboard.

The uses of computer software includes writing assignments, keeping in touch, shopping and banking, using StudentHome, looking up information, and writing assignments.

Netbooks and portable computers

You can even buy smaller computers, sometimes called ultra-portables, netbooks or palmtops. However, because they often do not have a hard drive or a DVD drive, you usually cannot run certain OU module software on them. This is an important point to remember, as OU modules do occasionally require you to run bespoke software from a CD or DVD on your computer.

System unit

All desktop computers have a main box into which other components are plugged and this is usually called the system unit (or the base unit). The sockets on the systems unit have particular shapes or are colour coded to avoid making a mistake when connecting equipment.

A laptop is slightly different as it holds the system unit underneath the keyboard and the connections between the system unit, screen and keyboard are not visible.


The screen (or monitor) may have to be obtained separately from the systems unit if you buy a desktop computer. In a laptop the screen is usually built into the lid.


The keyboard is just like a typewriter keyboard and works in the same way, although it usually has a few more keys. It is not essential to be a touch typist to use a computer - many computer users are skilled two-finger typists!


The mouse is used to control the position of the cursor on the screen by moving it around on the work surface. You click the buttons on top of the mouse to make selections. Using a mouse can take a bit of practice.

Laptops often have an integrated device called a touch pad instead of a mouse which, again, takes some practice to use. A mouse can usually be plugged in to the laptop if you find this easier.


Most people buy a printer to print out their work. You can choose between inkjet or laser printers, and those that print the most common UK paper size, A4, are now fairly cheap. An inkjet printer may even be included in the price of a new computer. However, the cost of replacement ink cartridges might make ink jet printers more expensive to run. Laser printers are more expensive to purchase but may be cheaper to run in the longer term. When you are comparing costs, don't forget to ask if all necessary printer cables are supplied with the printer, and check out the life and cost of refill cartridges.

Speakers, headset and a microphone

You may need speakers or headphones to hear sounds from the computer and, occasionally, modules may require other hardware, such as a microphone. For example, language modules require a microphone, and a headset is useful - make sure you check what you'll need. Speakers are often built into laptops.