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In computer science, the term hardware refers to any computer system components which are actual physical objects in contrast to software which exists in digital form. This includes the hard disk and built-in drives, i.e. all components that are “hard.”
The development of computer hardware begins when the first computers came into existence and has its true origin in the “Von Neumann architecture.” The Hungarian mathematician presented a structure for a computer in 1945 which is still quite applicable even today. His model consisted of four elements: a control unit, an arithmetic/logic unit, a memory unit, and an input and output device.
This pretty much comprises the definition of hardware. In 1947 the term hardware was mentioned in reference to the “physical components of a computer” for the first time. In the Anglophone environment the term “hardware” primarily denotes items made out of metal such as tools, locks, hinges or cutlery. Therefore, it is usually referred to “computer hardware” to set it apart from its original meaning. Due to technical progress, hardware for computers has evolved tremendously. This did not change the Von Neumann principle, however.
Crucial development steps can be described for all four levels:
- Control unit: Processors today are not only many times smaller than in the 1950s, but they are also much faster. Usually not just one processor core is used, but multiple ones. An impressive example are smartphones, which has more computing power today than a standard desktop PC in the 1990s.
- Logic unit: The increase in the computing power of hardware in recent decades is reflected in the so-called “Moore’s Law,” which predicts that the number of circuits in a processor will double each year. Considering the rapid development of computing power of most computers this theorem is confirmed again and again. The hardware of today’s supercomputers can perform many different tasks simultaneously, as evidenced by current supercomputers, working with 180 million transistors per square centimeter.
- Memory unit: Whereas at the beginning, computers could only store a small amount of data, hardware in the form of server clusters exist today that can process data on the order of terabytes. Even USB sticks can store several gigabytes. The current trend is going in the direction of developing ultra-fast flash memory.
- Output device: Technology has made enormous strides in this area as well. One of the biggest stages of development is 3D printing.
- Input unit: While the QWERTY keyboard has had almost no changes over the past 100 years, enormous progress has been made with regard to input methods. Nowadays, many computers can be operated with gestures and voice control. The applicable hardware can be found even in smartphones.
Hardware today includes many different elements and the below is by no means a complete list:
- Hard drives
- Computer cases, fans or power supplies
- Motherboards: the main board of the computer
- Random access memory (RAM)
- Drives: DVD drive, BluRay drive, external storage
- Output devices such as monitors, projectors, printers
- Input devices such as mouse, keyboard, joystick
- Reading devices such as scanners or cameras
The craft of search engine optimization has also changed with the increasing development of computer hardware. Without the enormous computing power of computers, programs such as Google Analytics or other tools could not be used at all.
User hardware requirements are a key factor in terms of optimizing websites. Today, for example, the kinds of devices being used are much more sophisticated than at the beginning of the 2000s. At that time, the Internet was accessed mainly at home with a desktop PCs. Today, a variety of devices with different hardware are used to connect to the Internet. Moreover, we are no longer bound to a stationary Internet connection, but can surf the web with smartphones or tablets on the go. A definite result of this hardware development is responsive design that adapts to the respective output device. Mobile optimization is another a direct consequence of the changed user hardware requirements. Web analytics had to be adapted as well and can now do cross-device tracking.
The current hardware development plays also a role in website assessment through Google’s algorithms. For example, load speed of a webpage is a ranking criterion which can be optimized with appropriate hardware such as faster servers.