Acing the A+ is FSET’s guide to CompTIA A+ Certification, which is the standard basic training for IT professionals looking to break into the field – but even if you’re just looking to learn more about computers, this is still a great place to start! 

Computers and devices of all kinds have hardware on the inside, just like vehicles have engines, axles and a bunch of other parts working together to make the technology function. While desktop computers and laptop computers share a lot of the same hardware, they also have some key differences and unique components that differentiate one from the other. 

Let’s break down laptop hardware, shall we? 

Keyboards – Because laptops have way less room to make everything work than a desktop computer, laptop keyboards are generally more compact than their desktop counterparts. For example, the function keys at the very top will usually be found a lot closer to the number keys on a laptop than they are on a desktop keyboard.   

Depending on the size of your laptop, you may have more keys than some other models. A larger laptop with a 17” screen may have room for a numeric keyboard (or “numpad”) on the right side, but even in these cases, all of the keys will still be shrunk down and closer together than they would be on a desktop keyboard.  

Every laptop is a little bit different, and the total amount of keys, as well as their layout generally varies from model to model. Some laptops may feature home keys, end keys, or page up and page down keys, but they’re never guaranteed. If you’re in the market for a brand-new laptop, it’s always a good idea to do a bit of research and double-check if it has the keyboard layout you’re looking for.  

Touchpads – As laptops are meant to be mobile and work in areas with less room, they often completely forgo the idea of using a computer mouse. As a solution, most laptops feature a touchpad usually located just under the keyboard. You can use it by moving your fingers along the surface, as well as using its buttons just like you would a regular computer mouse, such as right clicking a file to inspect it. If a touchpad has no buttons, then the pad itself will be clickable.  

Some laptops also have pointing sticks, which are little nubs in the middle of the keyboard that you can push with your finger to move your cursor on-screen.  

Screens – Most laptop screens feature a liquid crystal display (LCD), a type of flat-panel display that uses backlit liquid crystals as its primary form of operation. LCD screens are generally the most fragile component of a laptop, and it is for this reason that it is always wise to buy a protective cover or casing for your laptop to provide extra protection. Replacing an LCD screen is not cheap. 

In most cases, a laptop’s resolution – the amount of pixels the screen is meant to display – will be fixed, meaning that if you change the resolution for any reason, it may not look as crisp as it should, or it might even look outright fuzzy. For example, if a laptop’s native resolution is 1080p and you change the display to 720p or 1440p, what you see with your eyes may look less than ideal. 

Frames – Laptops need to be durable. Frames are often made of plastic to offer some protection while also keeping the computer lightweight. In some cases, laptop frames may instead be made of aluminum, which is even less breakable, but also heavier and susceptible to scratches and other hard-to-fix blemishes.  

Speakers – In order to fit inside of a laptop, speakers are usually much smaller than their desktop counterparts, meaning their sound will generally be of lower quality. Some laptops may have only one speaker (monaural or “mono”), while other higher-end models may have a third subwoofer speaker installed in the bottom.  

Power Supply & Batteries – Laptops need direct currents (DC) to charge and operate. Whereas desktop computers often have power supplies built into their cases, laptops don’t have the room, so power conversion must be done on an external device, usually in the form of an AC adapter built into the power cable.   

Almost always, a laptop’s power cable (as well as the power it can provide) will be specific to its exact make and model. For this reason, it is NOT advisable to ever use one laptop’s power cable for a different laptop, unless all of the information listed on the AC adapter is an exact match – including how much voltage, amps, and wattage it can input and output (hint: don’t mix and match). 

In most cases, laptops will feature lithium-ion batteries (Li-ion). Unlike older battery technology, Li-ion batteries do not suffer from a memory effect, meaning you won’t face any consequences if you don’t entirely deplete the battery’s power before recharging it. 

It is important to note that, however, every time you do charge a Li-ion battery, it will lose a very small amount of its overall life/charging power. Over the years, this diminishing capacity means that it will slowly but surely stop charging as much as it used to, and after enough usage, it will have to be replaced – but don’t worry, reaching this point usually takes years.  

When the time comes to replace your laptop’s battery, you must be aware that different laptops often feature different battery form factors, meaning that each and every Li-ion battery will likely have a different shape and way of plugging into your laptop. If it becomes necessary, you must make sure you replace your battery with the right match, based on your laptop’s specific make and model. 

Storage devices – The components used to store information like pictures, songs, and videos are generally much different between laptops and desktops. For data storage, desktops most often use a 3.5” hard disk drive (HDD), whereas laptops – in order to try and help save space on the inside – usually use a 2.5” or 1.8” solid state drive (SSD).  

SSDs have no spinning parts or moving components, instead using newer technology known as flash-based memory that is typically faster and more reliable than the tech found in HDDs. Whereas HDDs have moving parts and make noise, SSDs are silent and perform better overall.  

It is important to note that some laptops do still use HDDs, which are capable of holding more information than SSDs. Notably, some models also feature solid state hybrid drives (SSHDs), which combine technology from both HDDs and SSDs for a best of both worlds-approach to storage. Some laptops may even have more than one kind! 

Storage devices are usually easily accessible on laptops by removing the unit’s back cover panel, which in almost all cases will require a small (and sometimes special) screwdriver to remove several screws. Once the panel is taken off, the storage device will most likely also have to be unscrewed before it can be taken out or replaced – usually the drive will have a thin tab you can tug on to help pull it out, and pushing it (or a new one) back in should be just as easy. 

It is important to note that when removing a laptop’s back panel to examine or exchange storage devices, you will also be exposing several other kinds of hardware, such as the central processing unit and cooling system. It is wise to exercise caution when working around these components, as some are more susceptible to being damaged than others.  

Central Processing Unit – Usually abbreviated as a CPU, central processing units have the information and the power necessary for your computer to work, kind of like an engine in a car. In laptops, CPUs are designed to be smaller not only so they can fit inside, but so they draw less power and generate as little heat as possible, as laptops are harder to cool than desktop computers.  

Laptop CPUs often have a lot of other integrated components – such as memory and video controllers – so there are less pieces to be plugged into the system board (creating additional free space, which is vital in any compact device). Because they are designed to be smaller and draw less power, laptop CPUs are generally less powerful than those found in desktop computers, but it may be possible for you to upgrade your factory component with a CPU that’s a bit stronger – so long as it’s compatible with your motherboard and can still fit inside your computer! 

System boards – Also known as motherboards (or MOBOs for short), system boards are the backbones of computers that tie all other components into one spot so they can work together in unison. With laptops, system boards are usually customized and specific to each make and model, enabling them to fit inside the unit’s small space along with all the other components. As is the case with most other laptop hardware, this means that if you need to do a replacement, you will need a motherboard that is made specifically for your own laptop. It is also important to note that if any part of the MOBO breaks, the entire component will need to be replaced – meaning that if you do take your laptop apart to add more storage, you must be extra careful to not damage the system board.  

Memory/RAMRandom-access memory is one of the most important components that goes into determining a computer’s performance and processing power. While it took only 4 megabytes of RAM to put astronauts on the moon, computers today often use gigabytes of RAM instead just to run things like internet browsers and games. 

Laptops usually feature one of two kinds of memory components: small outline dual in-line memory module (SO-DIMM) or micro-dual in-line memory module (Micro-DIMM). These components are usually held in by clips or hooks that can be popped off before the memory itself can be removed from the slot it’s plugged into. Sometimes, there may be more than one set of memory components installed (e.g., 2 x 4 GB or 2 x 8 GB).  

When you remove memory, you will notice the bottom portion that plugs into the memory slot is comprised of copper contacts. You will also notice a little slot in the memory chip, which is meant to help you line it (or new memory) up properly when plugging it back in.  

Video cards – Also known as graphics cards, video cards are the main technology responsible for generating output images, or in the case of a laptop, sending imagery directly to the screen. With laptops, video cards are often integrated into the central processor or motherboard, as there is not enough size for regular video cards inside most laptops (as they tend to be quite large). If the graphics card is indeed integrated, it will not be upgradeable – however, in some larger laptops, it is possible to upgrade non-integrated “dedicated” or “discrete” graphics cards, which is a common tactic for gamers and graphic designers that are in need of extra-powerful graphics technology.  

Wireless cards – Most laptops have several wireless adapter cards, sometimes three or more. The most common types are 802.11 wireless connection cards for Wi-Fi, a wireless wide area network card (WWAN) for 3G or 4G signals, and personal area network (PAN) cards for Bluetooth signals.  

If replacing any of these card adapters, you must be extra careful as their wires will usually run throughout the entire laptop, sometimes all the way around the LCD screen. Much like memory/RAM, wireless cards must usually be pulled out of or pushed into place and may sometimes have to be screwed or unscrewed before and after. You will also need to refix the antenna cable (wire) to the card in question when doing a replacement. 

Smart cards – In secure environments, such as organizations or offices that require confidentiality or deal with sensitive information, you may be required to use a smart card, also known as a chip card or integrated circuit card (ICC or IC card) as a form of multi-factor authentication. Smart cards are usually the same size of a credit card, complete with an embedded chip that is scannable by your laptop.  

Some laptops have smart card readers that are built in, and some laptops do not. In the latter case, you will need an adapter known as a smart card reader, which can connect to your laptop externally through a USB plugin.  

Optical Drives – Optical drives are the proper term for what most know as a CD or DVD player. As technology continues to get smaller and increasingly digital, optical drives in laptops are becoming rarer and rarer – and if they are there, many users opt to remove them and dedicate the space for more storage or other hardware meant to boost performance. Some optical drives have the ability to write on blank CDs and DVDs, meaning that data can be permanently “burned” onto the disc, much like pictures or videos are saved to a hard drive.  

And there you have it! If you’ve made it this far, you probably know a thing or two you didn’t before about laptop hardware and what makes computers tick on the inside. Please keep in mind that while FSET is happy to help you learn, this blog is not an official training method for CompTIA A+ certification or a career in information technology. If you want to know more about laptop hardware or anything else the A+ exams cover, we suggest seeking out an accredited trainer or training program. They will be able to teach you even more with accurate picture and video references, as well as potential hands-on experience. 

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