Everyone knows there’s a difference between hardware and software (and you might have also heard about middleware), but can you explain what that difference is? Beyond tangibility, hardware and software form the foundation of a computer’s architecture, and while they work together and rely on each other to operate, they serve very distinct purposes. Learning more about these difference will help you better understand the tech we use every day — and if you’re a developer, it’ll also give you more insight into how your programs work and the breadth and variety of careers in the field.
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What is hardware?
Hardware is the physical part(s) of a device. It includes tangible devices you work with daily and all of their mechanical/electrical components, including desktop computers, laptops, tablets, modems, routers, and cell phones. Other forms of hardware include medical instruments (such as MRI machines), assembly-line robots, many electrical-related components in automobiles, and even sound equipment like microphones, speakers, and analog synthesizers.
The smaller parts that make up these devices are also considered hardware in and of themselves (or processing hardware), such as the CPU or hard drive. These hardware components work together for a computer to function, each part performing specific tasks.
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Today, we know data to represent facts and observations in numbers, text, images, and sounds. However, for the hardware components of a computer, the data is defined only by the numbers 1 and 0 – called bits (or binary digits). So how does the binary system work?
As we explain in our introduction to computer architecture, computer instructions are written in binary, also known as machine code. Computer hardware operates on a series of these binary instructions through pulsating power signals that signify either OFF or ON based on the binary digits 0 and 1 respectively.
So, machine code instructions are transferred between computer hardware components using either 1 or 0. Taking it further, binary is a numbering system built on a base of 2. When counting to ten in binary, every time a value reaches a power of 2, a digit is added, like so:
You may notice that binary digits can grow very large as the decimal number increases. Thankfully for us humans, we leave most of the work of reading binary digits to the computer (unless you are the one building the computer, of course).
So, computer hardware processes data by executing instructions for storage and movement between components, making information accessible to the user. The four primary functions of computers that allow for user interaction are:
- Processing (converting input into output)
- Memory storage
You can learn more about hardware programming with CircuitPython within our courses.
Von Neumann architecture: The stored program concept
The modern computer system follows Von Neumann’s architecture or the stored program concept. This idea allows computer memory storage to hold both instructions and data, thereby letting computer systems store both hardware data and software data.
The stored program concept ultimately allows users to change program data without interacting with hardware components. This design laid the groundwork from which software took off.
What is software?
Software is a set of pre-designed code that runs as a program on the physical computer. Software programs may need to be installed by the user, or they come with your computer already pre-installed by the vendor.
“The software determines the work to be performed and controls operation of the system.” – Irv Englander.
Creating software is possible using many different programming languages, such as Java and Swift. Each language has its pros and cons, depending on whatever you’re building. And at the root of it, software application programs define instructions to be executed by hardware.
Today, there are three main types of software commonly used, listed in the sections below.
Application software (or apps) are programs that can be installed onto devices like computers and phones, as well as many other devices as well. Examples include Microsoft Word, Zoom, and Spotify. The Apple and Android app stores host thousands of ready-to-be-installed apps for your phone.
System software comes pre-installed on devices. An example would be the device’s operating system, like Windows, Linux, or macOS. An operating system creates the main interface that you see every time you boot up your device. It manages input and outputs, executes programs, and allows for file management, among other things. Mobile operating systems are the system software in phones, including Android OS, Apple iOS, and Blackberry OS.
Programming software is what programmers use to develop other types of software. For instance, Java is a programming language that commonly uses programming software, such as compilers, assemblers, and debuggers.
Integrated development environments (IDEs) combine several programming software into one for ease of use. For example, this is possible in Java with a package called Java IDE. Some examples of popular and versatile IDEs that programmers develop with are Visual Studio, Atom, Brackets, and Sublime.
The components of software and hardware help illustrate the difference between the two. For software, there are not many components. The programming interface is where the application is made in the code editor. Then there is the user interface, which is the user-facing display of the programs.
Fundamentally, the main components of computer hardware are input, CPU, memory, and output. However, that is a grand overview. There are many components to computer hardware — from the processors like CPU and GPU to storage devices, such as the hard drive and RAM. Other main components, like the primary circuit board (called the motherboard) and input/output devices. Examples of these include your computer keyboard, monitor, mouse, power supply port, and audio jack.
More hardware components include:
- Embedded system
- Network controller
What is the difference between hardware and software?
As you can probably tell, hardware and software are very different. They can be confused because we usually just see the interface of computers — the displays of the operating system and application programs on our devices. So, we can easily forget everything that is happening inside the box.
The critical difference when comparing hardware to software is the code used to operate them. Computer hardware uses machine code that functions with the help of instructions in binary data. Software programs function via the code that makes them, which is possible with many different programming languages. And the data of software programs consists of much more than numbers, as opposed to hardware devices. The software works on hardware through the coded programs’ instructions that are ultimately translated into machine code.
The two are also different in how they perform after time. Hardware wears down over time and is susceptible to physical damage, whereas software doesn’t wear down because once it’s written, it remains how it is. If bugs are written in the code, they will stay in the code until fixed.
Both are similar in that they are both prone to becoming outdated. Newer versions of hardware components are released that simply have better technical specifications than previous iterations. As for software, program languages can become obsolete and risk no longer being supported. Most reliable programs have dedicated personnel to ensure the software is up-to-date and functioning as intended.
Hardware vs. software careers
Software engineers and hardware engineers do different jobs. The responsibilities of a computer hardware engineer consist of designing, testing, and updating hardware components. Whereas, on the program side, software engineers are coding either application, system, or programming software, defining instructions for every aspect of the resulting program.
However, most employers may require experience in both hardware and software. Not all positions use both, but some certainly do. Examples of job titles for the two include:
- Computer Hardware Engineer
- Computer Network Architect
- Mechanical Engineer
- Full-stack Engineer
- Computer Programmer
- Back-end Engineer
- Software Developer
- Software Engineer
- Front-end Engineer
- Electrical Engineer
- Aerospace Engineer
- Network and Computer Systems Administrator
- Computer and Information Research Scientist
- Computer and Information Systems Manager
Main functions of modern computers
Above, we mentioned four main functions of computers that allow for user interaction. Let’s take a closer look into each of these functions and see how they relate to the hardware aspect of computers. Below, we’ll dive deeper into the functional components of a computer today — all of which are required to work together for computer software to function properly.
Central processing unit (CPU)
The CPU is the most critical hardware component of a computer, as this is the piece of hardware that carries out the instructions of the machine code. There are three main components that make up the CPU: the arithmetic/logic unit (ALU), the control unit (CU), and the memory management unit (found within the CU). Below is a chart for the functions of each component:
|ALU||CU||Memory management unit|
|It makes calculations for the data that passes through the unit.||It determines and executes instructions via the fetch-execute cycle.||A component within the CU that is essential for fetching data and instructions.|
Primary storage: random-access memory (RAM)
RAM is memory available to the computer only when the computer is in the ON state (volatile memory). There are two subtypes of RAM: Static RAM (SRAM) and Dynamic RAM (DRAM). Modern computers use both. However, the primary memory in most computers is usually DRAM. The chart below compares features of SRAM and DRAM computer hardware.
|More expensive||Less expensive|
|Requires more electrical power||Requires less electrical power|
|Smaller storage capacity||Larger storage capacity|
|Faster to access||Slower to access|
Secondary storage: Hard drive
The function of hard drives is for permanent data storage (non-volatile memory). Without permanent storage, we wouldn’t be able to save software or documents on our computers without keeping power supplied at all times. Therefore, permanent memory is a crucial hardware component of modern computers.
Solid state drives (SSDs) are the standard for computers today — rather than the magnetic disk hard drives that had been previously used for long-term storage. SSDs are large-capacity flash memory units. They have better data access times and potential for storage capacity compared to hard disks. Flash memory is used in larger systems, and even in more portable systems, like smartphones and tablets.
Data from I/O devices passes through I/O controllers and onward to the CPU, such that the data can be processed accordingly. Without I/O, we wouldn’t be able to do much with computers at all. Even networking wouldn’t be possible. This is something we may take for granted today. Simply setting up a connection to the internet is a task that involves input/output devices.
- Input units take in data. Along the data path, data is converted into streams of byte machine code, allowing the computer to work with the information.
- After processing, output units provide data that has been converted back into something that is understandable to humans, such as what is transmitted on our computer monitors or through our headphones.
Computer system architecture
Modern computer architecture breaks down into four fundamentals: hardware, software, data, and networking. Without any one of these foundational pieces, a computer would not work as it does. So, learning what each one does on its own and then understanding how they work together is critical to conceptualizing the computer system as a whole.
Computer architecture is a complicated subject that takes time to learn. If you are building your own computer or just want a better understanding of how computers work, look no further than Codecademy. We have curated resources to help you understand vast areas of computer science — relating to both computer hardware and software. You can continue to develop yourself by learning more about computer architecture or branch out with our other courses and tutorials.