Hardware vs. Software: What’s the Difference?

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Hardware consists of the physical components of a computer. Software tells those parts what to do and how to do it. Simply put, without software, your hardware wouldn’t do anything. Without hardware, your software would have nothing to do.

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

Below, we’ve broken down hardware vs. software, plus jobs and skills related to each.

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

Internal computer hardware includes: motherboards and CPUs† These are essentially the heart and brain of your computer. Random Access Memory, or RAM, is cleared when your computer is turned off, while hard drives and solid-state drives store data for the long term.

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

Examples of computer hardware tasks

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

  • computer engineer
  • Computer Hardware Designer
  • Computer Hardware Program Manager
  • Computer Hardware Support Specialist
  • Assembly technician

Hardware Career Skills

Computer hardware tasks require knowledge of different types of hardware, their uses and how they work. Technical skills for computer hardware professionals include:

  • Hardware design, build and test
  • How to connect machines, replace parts and make repairs
  • Hardware debugging and troubleshooting
  • Using engineering tools to prepare diagrams and prototypes
  • Coding and Software Basics

Getting started in a hardware role

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

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

Earning a degree from an ABET accredited program demonstrates to prospective employers the quality of your education. Some advanced tasks may require a master computer technology rank.

Computer software tells your computer how to function. System software controls your hardware, application software performs tasks for specific purposes.

System software includes operating systems such as: macOS and Microsoft Windows† System software controls the speed, memory, security, and overall efficiency of your computer.

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

System software runs when your computer is turned on, while application software starts when you open it. System software functions independently of application software, but application software needs a software system to perform tasks.

Examples of software roles

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

Common positions include:

Software Career Skills

Software careers require knowledge of programming languages, software design and testing, and how software and hardware relate to each other. Software career skills include:

Get started in a software role

There are many paths you can take to a software role. You can teach yourself programming, attend a boot camp or computer science degree or a degree in a related field.

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

Salary Comparison: Hardware vs. Software Roles

According to the U.S. 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.

Revenues aside, job opportunities for software professionals outnumber their hardware counterparts.

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

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

Consider increasing your earning potential:

  • Prove your skills with technical certifications
  • Seizing Professional Development Opportunities
  • Earning Advanced Degrees

What’s 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 may enjoy working with hardware like…

  • You like hands-on assembly and maintenance of equipment
  • You like to make models and prototypes to present to colleagues and customers
  • Solving problems and implementing solutions is something you enjoy

You may enjoy working with software as…

  • You like programming and are detail-oriented
  • You value creativity and collaboration in your work
  • Finding solutions to problems related to the software design process sounds exciting

Unless otherwise noted, job growth and salary data is from the US Labor Statistics Bureau as of 1 July 2022.

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