The PC Builder’s Glossary: Every term you need to know to build your first computer

The PC Builder’s Glossary: Every term you need to know to build your first computer

Introduction:

It’s possible there’s not a hobby in the world with more jargon than that of PC-building circles. In any r/buildapc thread or Tom’s Hardware Forum, you’re almost more likely to find abbreviations than actual words.

Because of this, we decided to put together a glossary with all of the terms, abbreviations, and brands you’re likely to come across when building a PC. Whether you’re a beginner, intermediate, or experienced tech, we hope you’ll find this guide to be a useful reference.

This is a companion guide to our Beginner’s Guide to Building a PC. If you’re new to the process of building a PC, we recommend that you check it out. It’s a wealth of information on the entire process, from part selection to assembly to troubleshooting.

Keep in mind, with most of these the acronym is more important than the actual meaning. For example, knowing that “ATX” is a motherboard form-factor is far more useful than knowing what it stands for.

While we’re striving to make this glossary as comprehensive as possible, there’s just too many terms for us to think of everything on the first run. We invite you to leave a comment with any terms/phrases pertinent to PC building that you think should be added.

Now without further ado, let’s get into the nitty-gritty terminologies.

PC-Building Glossary:

1080P: See FHD.

10-Series: A generation of Nvidia graphics cards released in 2016. Some 10-series cards include the 1050, 1060, 1070, and 1080.

1440P: See QHD.

20-Series: A generation of Nvidia graphics cards released in 2018. Some 20-series cards include the 2060, 2070, and 2080.

2160P: See UHD.

3000-Series: AMD’s CPU generation released in 2019. Some 3000-series CPUs include the 3100, 3500, and 3600.

30-Series: Nvidia’s most recent generation of graphics cards, released in 2020. Some 30-series cards include the 3060, 3070, 3080, and 3090.

4K: See UHD.

5000-Series: Refers to AMD’s most recent generation of CPUs or its generation of graphics cards released in 2019. Some 5000-series CPUs include the 5600X, 5800X, 5900X, and 5950X. Some 5000-series graphics cards include the RX 5300, 5500, 5600, and 5700.

6000-Series: Refers to AMD’s most recent generation of graphics cards, released in 2020. Some 6000-series GPUs include the 6700 XT, 6800 XT, and 6900 XT.

AIO: All-in one; refers to an all-in-one liquid CPU cooler. “AIO” is usually used to refer to a liquid CPU cooler that’s ready to be installed out-of-the-box. Can also refer to an all-in-one desktop, a pre-assembled PC.

Air Cooler: Air CPU coolers typically use a heatsink with fans to transfer hot air away from the CPU, as opposed to using liquid.

AMD: Advanced Micro Devices. One of the two leading brands in processor (CPU) and graphics card development. Makes Ryzen CPUs and Radeon graphics cards.

Aspect Ratio: The ratio of horizontal pixels to vertical pixels in a screen. 16:9 is considered the standard aspect ratio.

ASRock: Hardware manufacturer best known for their motherboards and graphics cards.

ASUS: Hardware manufacturer best known for their monitors, graphics cards, and motherboards.

ATX: Stands for Advanced Technology Extended. Typically refers to a common motherboard or power supply form-factor. ATX motherboards are generally considered full-sized. Also refers to the 24-pin power supply cable, (called an “ATX Cable”). ATX power supplies are also considered full-size, as opposed to the smaller SFX power supply.

BeQuiet!: Hardware manufacturer best known for their high-TDP low-noise CPU coolers and low-noise power supplies.

BIOS: Basic Input/Output System. Most simplistically, the screen your computer boots to when no operating system is installed. BIOS is still accessible when booting the computer regardless of whether or not an OS is installed. BIOS is important for troubleshooting and adjusting certain hardware settings like XMP; it’s essentially the preinstalled internal operating system of the motherboard.

Boot Drive: The drive that the operating system is installed on. The boot drive is typically an SSD, since this allows much faster boot (or startup) speeds.

Bottleneck: A situation in which one component is vastly better than another, creating a condition where one component cannot perform to its maximum capacity. The two components in question are typically the CPU and GPU, although other components can also create a bottleneck.

Case: See Tower.

Case Fan: A fan that screws into the side of the case. Case fans help ventilate hot air from the case, keeping the inside cool and keeping component temperatures from getting too high.

Chassis: See Case.

Chip: The tiny component made of silicon that enables nearly all electronics to function. CPUs and GPUs are types of chips.

Chipset: A motherboard’s firmware, which determines its compatibility with other components. Chipset most importantly determines CPU compatibility, but also affects other components.

CLC: Closed Loop Cooler. See AIO.

Clock Speed: The speed at which a component runs, usually measured in MHz or GHz.

CMOS: Complementary Metal-Oxide Semiconductor. The memory built into the motherboard that stores BIOS settings.

Consumer: Refers primarily to storage drives, but can apply to other components. Consumer drives are designed for personal use, and are far cheaper than enterprise drives. They are adequate for almost anyone, as the only real downside as compared to enterprise drives is lower sustained speeds.

Cooler: A device designed to keep temperatures of a component low. CPU coolers are most common, although graphics card coolers also exist.

Core: A core is technically a processor, but modern CPUs are made up of multiple cores. More cores corresponds to higher computing power, so a higher-end processor will have more cores than its lower-end counterpart.

Corsair: One of the biggest component and peripherals manufacturers. Best known for their RAM, power supplies, cases, keyboards, and more.

CPU: Central Processing Unit. This is the processor that controls your computer and runs most of the computations. It interacts with the other components, controlling what they do.

DDR: Double Data Rate. Refers to a specific type of RAM which is almost universally used. DDR4 is currently the fastest mainstream DDR, with DDR5 slated to release soon.

Dedicated Graphics: See Discrete Graphics

DIMM: Dual Inline Memory Module. Refers to a RAM stick.

DIMM Slot: The slots in a motherboard that house the RAM.

Discrete Graphics: Refers to using a GPU that is separate from the processor. Graphics cards are sometimes referred to as “discrete graphics cards.”

DisplayPort: A common interface for connecting the PC and monitor. DisplayPort supports higher refresh rates than HDMI, and is often used in conjunction with higher-end gaming rigs.

DLSS: Dynamic Learning Super Sampling. A Nvidia technology which uses AI to create images which appear higher-resolution than they actually are. Allows games to run at much higher framerates without losing significant picture quality. DLSS is only included with RTX cards.

DP: See DisplayPort.

EATX: Extended ATX. A less-common motherboard form-factor that is even larger than standard ATX.

Enterprise: Refers primarily to storage drives. Enterprise drives are industry-grade, created primarily for datacenters, and can sustain high read/write speeds for extremely long periods of time.

EVGA: Popular component manufacturer, best known for their power supplies and graphics cards.

Fan Curve: Refers to the graphical curve created when charting clock speed vs. fan’s percentage of maximum speed. The faster a component (CPU or GPU) runs, the faster the fans spin in order to compensate for extra heat produced.

FHD: Full HD. Refers to a monitor with a 1920 x 1080 resolution.

Flash: To update a computer’s BIOS to the latest version.

Form-Factor: The shape/form/size of a component. Shapes and sizes vary between different components, especially motherboards and storage drives. For example, motherboards come in many different form-factors (sizes) such as ATX, Micro-ATX, and Mini-ITX.

FPS: Frames Per Second. Refers to the count of individual frames outputted by a PC in the span of a second. Higher FPS results in a smoother picture, as long as the refresh rate is greater than or equal to FPS.

Free-Sync: Open-source variable refresh rate technology, typically used with AMD graphics cards (Nvidia GPUs typically use G-Sync). Allows a monitor’s refresh rate to change in response to a PC’s FPS output.

GeForce: Nvidia’s brand of graphics cards For example, the GeForce RTX 3080 is a high-end graphics card.

GHz: Gigahertz. 1 GHz is equivalent to 1,000,000,000 (a billion) Hz, so a CPU running at 1GHz is running a billion cycles per second. Usually refers to CPU clock speeds, which currently tend to be between 2.5 and 6 GHz.

Gigabyte: Hardware manufacturer best known for their graphics cards, power supplies, and motherboards.

GPU: Graphics Processing Unit. The GPU is the chip that produces the picture on-screen. Can be included in a CPU (integrated graphics) or in a graphics card (discrete graphics). Many people simply refer to graphics cards as “GPUs” even though it technically refers to the chip inside them.

Graphics Card: A component of the computer that contains the GPU chip and produces the on-screen image. Graphics cards are not necessary, but they enable a computer to run games at higher framerates than integrated graphics.

G.Skill: Component manufacturer best known as one of the most popular suppliers of RAM, specifically the “Ripjaws” line.

G-Sync: Nvidia’s variable refresh rate technology. Allows a monitor’s refresh rate to change in response to a PC’s FPS output.

GTX: Nvidia’s older line of graphics cards, which includes most recently the 10 and 16-series of GPUs and doesn’t include ray-tracing technology. For example, the GTX 1660 Ti is a popular mid-range graphics card.

HDD: Hard Disk Drive. This type of storage drive is the oldest technology, and thus the cheapest. Hard drives (as they’re commonly known) can store a large amount of information, but have slower read and write speeds which makes them less ideal for data transfer.

HDMI: High Definition Multimedia Interface. One of the most common interfaces for connecting the PC and monitor.

Heatsink: A component that helps cool another component by dissipating the heat from its surface. Some parts that frequently come with heatsinks include RAM modules, CPUs, NVMe drives, and more.

Hz: Hertz. A unit of frequency, most commonly used to describe monitor refresh rates. One hertz is equivalent to one refresh per second.

Integrated Graphics: Graphics built into a CPU. A processor with integrated graphics can produce an image on-screen without a discrete graphics card.

Intel: One of the two leading CPU-manufacturing brands. Also one of the big three chip manufacturers. Best known for their “Core” CPUs, they have also recently begun developing graphics cards.

ITX: Information Technology Extended. The smallest mainstream motherboard form-factor. Mini-ITX motherboards typically cost the most since they’re able to fit in very small cases.

I/O Shield: Input/Output Shield. A metal plate that comes with the motherboard, with openings that match the motherboard’s ports. Clips into the side of the case and covers the motherboard, giving it a cleaner look.

M.2: A form-factor for storage drives that is shaped similar to a stick of gum. Most common dimensions are 22mm x 80mm, often shortened to “M.2 2280.”

mATX: Micro-ATX. A form-factor of motherboard that is smaller than a full-sized ATX board. These are typically the cheapest form-factor. They most frequently come with one PCIe slot and 2 RAM slots, although some come with more.

MHz: Megahertz. 1 MHz is equivalent to 1,000,000 (a million) Hz, so a GPU running at 1MHz is running a million cycles per second. Usually used to refer to RAM and graphics card clock speeds.

Micro-ATX: See mATX.

Mini-ITX: See ITX.

Mobo: See Motherboard.

Monitor: The screen that a PC is usually connected to.

Motherboard: The board which all components connect to, either indirectly or directly. Distributes power to components and allows them to interact with each other.

MSI: Component manufacturer known best for their graphics cards, motherboards, and power supplies.

Newegg: Popular vendor of PC components.

Noctua: A manufacturer of premium air coolers, known for their impressive cooling ability and low noise.

Nvidia: One of the two primary graphics card manufacturers. Makes GeForce “GTX” and “RTX” lines of graphics cards.

NVMe: Non-Volatile Memory Express. This is a type of storage drive that is the fastest currently available. NVMe drives are a type of SSD.

NZXT: Component manufacturer best known for their cases.

OC: See Overclock.

ODD: See Optical Disc Drive.

Optical Disc Drive: Optical Disc Drive. These can be installed in a computer and allow it to read discs such as CDs or DVDs.

OS: Operating System. This is the software that’s installed on your computer when you first set it up. It provides a GUI (graphical user interface) which lets you manage files and settings more easily. Popular OS’s include Windows, MacOS, and Linux.

Overclock: The act of increasing the speed at which a component runs in order to improve its performance. The most common components to overclock are CPUs, graphics cards, and RAM. Overclocking causes your hardware to run at higher temperatures, so it’s often a balance of finding the best performance while staying in a safe temperature range.

PCB: Printed Circuit Board. The base material that many components including RAM, storage drives, motherboards, graphics cards, and CPUs are made of. Chips are typically mounted on PCB.

PCIe: Peripheral Component Interconnect Express. Most commonly used to refer to a common slot type in the motherboard. Motherboards frequently come with PCIe x1, x4, x8, and x16 slots (x1 is the smallest and x16 is the largest). The number refers to the amount of PCIe lanes, so a “PCIe x16” slot uses 16 PCIe lanes. CPUs have a certain number of lanes they can support, which varies between models.

Peripherals: Components that are not a part of your PC but are used in conjunction with it. Common types of peripherals include keyboards, mice, monitors, headsets, and microphones.

Phanteks: Hardware manufacturer best known for their CPU air coolers, cases, and case fans.

PNY: Component manufacturer best known for their graphics cards and NVMe drives.

Prebuilt: A computer that’s assembled prior to sale and is bought as one unit, as opposed to buying separate components and building a computer.

PSU: Power Supply Unit. Often shortened to “Power Supply,” the PSU provides electricity to all components. Typically the PSU has cables that plug into the ATX motherboard slot, CPU motherboard slot, graphics cards, and any SATA storage drives.

PWM: Pulse Width Modulation. A technology some fans are equipped with, which allows them to spin faster in response to higher component temperatures.

QHD: Quad HD. Refers to a monitor with a resolution of 2560 x 1440. Also referred to as 1440p.

RAM: Random Access Memory. Often simplified to “memory”, RAM holds temporary data and enables your CPU to interact with other components quickly.

Ray-Tracing: Technology that allows for incredibly realistic reactive graphics by simulating the effects of light on objects.

Refresh Rate: How many times a monitor refreshes the image on-screen per second. Measured in hz, a higher refresh rate allows for a smoother experience. Common refresh rates are 60hz, 75hz, 120hz, 144hz, 165hz, 240hz, and 360hz.

Resolution: The dimensions of a monitor’s screen, in terms of pixels. Higher resolution indicates higher image quality. Common resolutions include 1080p, 1440p, and 2160p (also known as 4K). The numbers refer to the vertical pixel count, for example most 1080p monitors are 1920 x 1080 pixels.

RTX: Nvidia’s most recent line of graphics cards, which includes the 20 and 30-series of GPUs and features ray-tracing technology. For example, the RTX 3080 is a popular graphics card.

RX: AMD’s most recent line of graphics cards, which includes the 5000 and 6000 series most recently. For example, the RX 6800XT is a popular AMD card.

Samsung: One of the big three chip manufacturers. Aside from this, they’re especially well-known for their NVMe storage drives.

SATA: Serial Advanced Technology Attachment. SATA is a commonly used port in hard drives and SSDs. A SATA cable plugs into the SATA port in a drive on one end, and the motherboard’s SATA port on the other.

SFF: Small Form Factor. Refers to smaller PCs or components which generally use ITX motherboards and SFX power supplies.

SFX: Denotes a smaller form-factor power supply, as opposed to ATX (full-sized).

SODIMM: Small Outline Dual Inline Memory Module. Smaller version of DIMM, most frequently used in laptops.

Socket Type: The specific socket that a motherboard features, which determines CPU compatibility. Both CPUs and motherboards have a socket type, and they have to be the same in order to be compatible. Intel socket types typically begin with “LGA” such as “LGA1200,” while AMD sockets generally begin with “AM,” such as “AM4.”

SSD: Solid State Drive. This is a form of storage that is much faster than an HDD. These are more expensive per gigabyte than hard drives as a result, and are often used as Boot Drives.

Stock Cooler: The CPU cooler that comes with the processor. These are typically less powerful than aftermarket CPU coolers, but they only come with lower-wattage CPUs that don’t need as much cooling.

Super: Suffix tacked on to the end of some Nvidia graphics card names. Similar to Ti, Super indicates higher performance than its non-Super counterpart. For example, the GTX 1660 Super is more powerful than the GTX 1660.

TBW: Terabytes Written. An estimate of the amount of terabytes a storage drive can write before it dies. For example, a 1TB drive with a TBW of 600 should be able to overwrite itself at least 600 times.

TDP: Thermal Design Power. An estimate of the maximum amount of heat a component will produce or, for coolers, the maximum amount of heat they can dissipate. Measured in Watts.

Team Blue: Nickname for Intel. People who prefer Intel CPUs over AMD refer to themselves as “Team Blue.”

Team Green: Nickname for Nvidia. People who prefer Nvidia GPUs over AMD refer to themselves as “Team Green.”

Team Red: Nickname for AMD. People who prefer AMD GPUs or CPUs over Nvidia/Intel refer to themselves as “Team Red.”

Thermal Paste: A gray paste that’s applied between the CPU and the CPU cooler, which is essential for creating optimal contact and heat transfer.

Thermal Throttling: A phenomenon in which a component intentionally reduces its clock speed to protect itself from overheating. Most commonly occurs with insufficiently-cooled CPUs and graphics cards.

Thread: Most of the time CPU cores are split into two or more “threads.” These threads are logical cores, meaning that the computer recognizes each thread as a separate entity even though each thread may be part of the same physical core. Threads further divide a single core into two (or sometimes more) separate entities, which allows for higher performance in certain applications. Currently the standard is two threads per core so, for example, an 8-core processor will usually have 16 threads.

Ti: Suffix tacked on to some Nvidia graphics card names. Indicates higher performance than its non-Ti counterpart. For example, the RTX 3060 Ti is more powerful than the RTX 3060.

TKL: Tenkeyless. Refers to a keyboard that doesn’t include a number pad, and thus has a smaller form factor.

Tower: Another term for the case. The tower holds all components and determines the appearance of your computer.

TSMC: Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company. One of the big three chip manufacturers.

U.2: Type of storage drive connection used almost exclusively for enterprise SSDs. U.2 SSDs have the fastest transfer rates overall but are extremely expensive.

UEFI: Unified Extensible Firmware Interface. UEFI is similar to BIOS in that it’s the first program to run upon booting.

UHD: Ultra HD. Refers to a monitor with a resolution of 3840 x 2160. Also known as 4K since it has approximately 4,000 pixels horizontally, or 2160p which refers to the vertical pixel count.

Ultrawide: Refers to a monitor with a higher-than-standard aspect ratio. Most typically, ultrawide monitors have a 21:9 aspect ratio, as compared to the standard ratio of 16:9.

Undervolt: Reduce the amount of power delivered to a component to reduce operating temperatures. Most commonly done to CPUs and GPUs.

USB: Universal Serial Bus. Extremely common connection type; most keyboards, mice, headsets, and other peripherals utilize USB. There are three generations of USB, each with a higher bandwidth (speed).

VRM: Voltage Regulator Module. A built-in part of the motherboard that controls the voltage sent to the CPU at any given time, allowing a steady supply of power without sending too much at any given time. VRMs are essential to the function of a computer.

WiFi: Wireless Fidelity. Wireless network which allows users to connect through the Internet. Most PCs require an adapter of some sort to connect to WiFi, unless the motherboard has built-in wireless capabilities.

XMP: Extreme Memory Profile. Refers to a technology that allows you to easily increase your RAM speeds. XMP is usually turned on in the BIOS.

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