Hardware versus software: what’s the difference?

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Hardware includes the physical components of a computer. The software tells these parts what to do and how to do it. In other words, without software, your hardware would do nothing. Without hardware, your software would have nothing to do.

Hardware includes monitors, keyboards, speakers, printers, and any other tangible part of the computer. The operating system and the programs installed on your computer are software.

Below, we’ve broken down hardware versus software, and the jobs and skills associated with each.

Hardware includes the internal and external parts of your computer that you can touch and see. The hardware lets you type on a computer, see images, hear sounds, and move your cursor. You also store hardware data.

Internal computer hardware includes motherboards and processors. They are essentially the heart and brain of your computer. Random access memory, or RAM, is erased when your computer shuts down, while hard drives and solid-state drives retain data for the long term.

External hardware connects to your computer to control input and output. Think keyboards, mice, headphones and USB drives. Monitors, speakers, webcams, and printers are common external computer hardware.

Examples of computer hardware jobs

Hardware jobs are at the forefront of building, designing, and repairing internal and external computer hardware. Material roles include:

  • Computer engineer
  • Computer hardware designer
  • IT hardware program manager
  • IT hardware support specialist
  • assembly technician

Professional hardware skills

Computer hardware jobs require knowledge of different types of hardware, their uses, and how they work. The technical skills of computer hardware professionals include:

  • Design, build and test hardware
  • How to connect machines, change parts and make repairs
  • Hardware debugging and troubleshooting
  • Use engineering tools to prepare diagrams and prototypes
  • Fundamentals of coding and software

Start in a material role

To enter a computer hardware role, a bachelor’s degree in computer science and information technology or a degree in computer engineering provides basic knowledge and skills. (Degrees in related fields also work.)

You must have a background in math, science, and software systems.

Graduating from an ABET-accredited program demonstrates to future employers the quality of your education. Some advanced jobs may require a master’s degree in computer engineering.

Computer software tells your computer how to operate. System software directs your hardware, while application software performs tasks for specific purposes.

System software includes operating systems such as macOS and Microsoft Windows. System software controls your computer’s speed, memory, security, and overall efficiency.

Word processing and spreadsheet programs, databases, multimedia and communication applications, and Internet browsers are application software.

System software runs whenever your computer is turned on, while application software launches when you open it. System software operates independently from application software, but application software needs a software system to accomplish tasks.

Examples of software roles

Computer software roles range from entry-level coding to advanced software engineering careers. Software developers design, test and maintain computer systems and applications.

Common positions include:

Professional software skills

Careers in software require knowledge of programming languages, software design and testing, and the relationship between software and hardware. Skills for careers in software include:

Start in a software role

You can take many paths to a software role. You can learn programming, attend a bootcamp, or get a degree in computer science or a degree in a related field.

In addition to computer programming, you will benefit from understanding cloud computing platforms such as Amazon Web Services and database software such as Microsoft SQL.

Salary comparison: hardware and software roles

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for computer hardware engineers in May 2021 was $128,170. Computer software engineers earned an average of $110,140.

Aside from income, job opportunities for software professionals outnumber those of their hardware counterparts.

The BLS predicts 2% job growth for hardware engineers by 2030. Meanwhile, software developers are expected to see 22% job growth.

What you earn as a hardware or software professional depends on many factors. Education and experience, location and the type of company you work for all matter.

To help increase your earning potential, consider:

  • Prove your skills with technical certifications
  • Seize professional development opportunities
  • Obtaining higher degrees

Which is right for me: hardware or software?

To decide whether hardware or software is right for you, you need to take stock of your interests, strengths, and career goals.

You might enjoy working with material if…

  • You appreciate the convenient assembly and maintenance of equipment
  • You like to create models and prototypes to present to your colleagues and clients
  • Solving problems and implementing solutions is something you enjoy

You might enjoy working with software if…

  • You like to program and have an eye for detail
  • You value creativity and collaboration in your work
  • Finding solutions to problems in the software design process sounds exciting

Unless otherwise noted, employment growth and wage data are from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics as of July 1, 2022.

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