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Software Vs. Hardware

John from Manahawkin, NJ asks:

I have been using a computer for over a year now, and would really like to know something: What’s the difference between software and hardware?

Very good question, John. My daughter (she’s 15) spends a lot of time on the computer and I showed her the difference between software and hardware awhile ago. It was like pulling teeth (“But I don’t care about this stuff, Mom, you’re the one that is into all of this”), but I think it’s important to know what each one is; it’ll make your computer a lot easier to understand.

For instance, if we went shopping for music programs at the mall, would you be looking for speakers or would you be looking for something like ‘How to Play the Guitar’?

The difference between software and hardware is physical. Hardware is something you can touch, like your computer monitor or your keyboard. Software is the stuff you can’t touch, like your operating system, your anti-virus program, your browser, your graphics editor, etc. You can download software programs off of the internet; if you buy them, they are most likely stored on a disk (i.e. your Windows disk). Software that is installed on your system (either from a download or disk) is stored on your hard drive, which is a piece of hardware. (And if you’re thinking the disk is hardware, you’re absolutely right.)

One cannot function without the other. The hardware is told by the software what to do, so if there is no software then all you have is a computer tower with a lot of non-working parts. If you have no hardware you can just sit and stare at the disks your programs are installed on because cuz they ain’t goin’ anywhere.

There are two types of software. Application software is individual programs, such as games, graphics, anti-virus, office management, etc.

System software is your operating system software, i.e. Windows. System software makes the computer run; in addition to telling the hardware what to do, it tells the application software how to function correctly. Without system software you wouldn’t need anti-virus protection because you wouldn’t need a browser because there is nothing there to tell either one what to do or how to behave.

Since software tells hardware what to do, it stands to reason that if you upgrade your hardware, you have to upgrade your software, too. New hardware may not recognize older software, which will leave you with non-working programs.

Hardware and software are constantly improving and they kind of go back and forth. Let’s take Windows 7 (system software), for example. Here are the recommended minimum system (hardware) requirements for Windows 7:

– 1 Gigahertz (GHz) or faster 32-bit (x86) or 64-bit (x64) processor
– 1 Gigabyte (GB) RAM (32-bit) or 2 GB RAM (64-bit)
– 16 GB available hard disk space (32-bit) or 20 GB (64-bit)

Whew! Pretty hefty numbers. Take a look at Windows XP Professional (system software) minimum system (hardware) requirements:

– 300 MHz or faster processor
– 128 MB or RAM (can operate on 64 MB but may limit some functionality)
– 1.5 GB available hard disk space

That is in incredible jump for your computer hardware if you want to get the latest and greatest system software (Windows 7). Okay, let’s figure that you have Windows XP and you go and get a computer with the hardware that can handle Windows 7. What about your application software? If you have a 7-year old program on your WinXP computer, there may be a very big chance it won’t run on your new one. I know of many people who are having to change some of their software preferences because “it won’t run on Windows 7”. When you download off of the internet, don’t get caught; check and see if the application will run on Windows 7. Sadly, there are a lot of programs that can’t (right now). But hang in there! The software makers will catch up.

You see why it’s important to know the difference between software and hardware, and that is why your question was so awesome. Hopefully, John, we have helped a few people who didn’t know what the difference was between the two.

Thanks for writing!