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Hardware ( / ⁠ hɑːdˌwɛə ⁠ / in British and / ⁠ hɑɹdˌwɛɚ ⁠ / in American English , sometimes abbreviated as "HW") is the generic term for the physical components (electronic and mechanical components) of a data processing system , as Complement to software (the programs and data ).

Word origin

Originally, the English hardware was roughly the same as “hardware” and is still used in this sense in English-speaking countries today - not just for computer hardware .

Differentiation between hardware and software

Motherboard (English mainboard)

Data processing systems, hereinafter referred to as “computers”, mostly consist of hardware and software. Hardware is that part of a computer that you can touch: every single component, from a simple capacitor to a fully populated circuit board, the device as a whole and its accessories such as a mouse , keyboard , screen and printer , but also data carriers such as hard drives or USB Memory sticks .

Software is information and cannot be touched because it is immaterial. It can be subdivided into programs and data and determines what a computer does and how it does it (roughly comparable to a script ). The hardware (the device itself) executes software (works it off) and puts it into action.

Just like information, software cannot exist without physical representation: software can be stored, printed, displayed or transported on certain media. However, these are not the software, they just contain it. As an analogy to this, it is not decisive for an 'opera' whether it is performed in the theater, broadcast on radio / TV, sold or heard on CD, whether it is described in the opera guide or recorded in the score. Here, too, these media only contain the opera.

The hardware and software controlled working principle

In the past computer that was programmed by plugging in cables
In the 1950s, software was stored on punched tape. Each possible hole position represents one bit . The holes are not the software, however; they are part of the hardware. Even modern data carriers are not software, but always hardware that only contains software.

Software does not necessarily need to be used to automatically control hardware in its workflow. Even complex work processes can be implemented completely in hardware - the hardware-controlled working principle . One example is one of the early arcade games, the Breakout game produced by Atari in 1976 . The complete “program” (the process, the logic) consisted entirely of hardware, figuratively speaking, of “hard-wired control panels ”.

In modern devices, too, automated work processes are sometimes implemented directly in the hardware, in the form of logic gates . They implement a specific sequence of instructions. Their function is fixed by the structure of the hardware and can hardly be changed afterwards. For an update to new functions or to rectify errors, the hardware must (at least partially) be replaced, supplemented or adapted by other physical interventions. In return, the processing speed is usually higher and the energy consumption is lower than with a software solution.

If a workflow is to be able to be changed beyond simple configuration without physical intervention, the software- controlled working principle comes into play: the hardware is provided with a processor for this . This is able to "understand" software, to process it. Software can, in turn, be easily adapted and even completely replaced without having to change the hardware. Almost any application can be used on the same device.

More complex hardware systems often contain a combination of hardware and software-controlled components.

In the example above, the arcade machine manufactured by Atari from 1976 did not use a processor. Just one year later, the game principle was transferred to a processor-controlled device, the computer. Since then, the game has also been available as software. The computer game no longer consisted of "wired control panels", but of instructions for a processor including the additional information (the data) necessary for processing, which were stored together on a data carrier and evaluated by the computer.


The basic components of a processor are the various sub-groups such as control unit, arithmetic unit ("ALU" arithmetic-logic unit ), storage unit and input / output unit (peripheral device). In the meantime, many of these computer structures are integrated in a hardware chip in modern processors, for example:

  • Control unit for ALU and for command coding several times for parallel processing;
  • Memory management control unit (MMU Memory Management Unit );
  • the cache as part of the storage facility,
  • the control for a bus system that connects internal and external components.

With so-called embedded processors, such as those used in PDAs ( Personal Digital Assistant ) or washing machines, there is an input / output unit in the same housing in the form of serial interfaces (e.g. USB), digital I / O ( Input / Output) for example for a touch screen or a motor control and analog I / O for for example lamps.

So-called SoCs (System on a Chip) for smartphones , for example , in which additional components are integrated, through to main memory (RAM) and flash memory are even more integrated .

The computer hardware also includes the PC components:

All of these peripheral devices and components of a computer are for the most part constructed with logic circuits .

Hardware is often provided with an FCC number, which allows the manufacturer to be clearly identified.

See also

Web links

Commons : Computer hardware  album containing pictures, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: Hardware  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Wikibooks: Computer  Hardware - Learning and Teaching Materials
Wikibooks: Computer Hardware for Beginners  - Learning and Teaching Materials

Individual evidence

  1. ↑ Meaning of the term:
    • duden.de: "Hardware" , accessed on March 5, 2015
    • Wiktionary: "Hardware" , accessed on March 5, 2015
      The abbreviation 'HW' is only used here.
    • Canoonet: "Hardware" , accessed September 23, 2019
    • wortschatz.uni-leipzig.de: "Hardware" , accessed on March 5, 2015
    • thefreedictionary.com: "Hardware," accessed March 5, 2015
  2. ^ Jochen Ludewig, Horst Lichter: Software Engineering. 1st edition. dpunkt Verlag, 2007, ISBN 978-3-89864-268-2 , "Software is immaterial and consists [...] of the languages ​​and notations in which it is formulated."
  3. Tessen Freund: Software engineering by modeling knowledge-intensive development processes , ISBN 978-3-940019-11-0 , chap. 2.1.1 “Software”, p. 25, quote from Edmunds “Software includes computer programs and data that is used by these programs […] Software determines what a computer does and how it does it.” ; google books
  4. a b Steve Wozniak : iWoz - How I invented the personal computer and co-founded Apple. Deutscher Taschenbuchverlag 2008, ISBN 978-3-423-34507-1 , pp. 144–149.