Computer hardware and software are two different types of products. You probably already know the fundamental differences between the two, but in this post, we are going to explore, in detail, the differences between computer hardware and software.

Hardware and software depend on each other for successful computing, but they are not short of differences. The most outstanding difference is that hardware is tangible while software is intangible.

We will first define what each of the two is, and the categories under each product. We will then look at the functionality differences between hardware and software – that is what each of the two does. We will look into the development of each product category and highlight the differences.

We will also discuss hardware and software failure, by looking at the nature, causes, and solutions to such failures. Also discussed here are the differences between software and hardware firewalls.

Computer software refers to all kinds of programs that run on computers to perform various tasks. Software can be categorized into system software, programming software, and application software.

Software is an ordered set of instructions that enables interaction between the user and the computer. Software does not have a physical component.

Hardware, on the other hand, refers to any part of a computer that has a physical element, that is, any computer part that can be physically touched. Hardware runs the software and is made primarily with electronic components.

Hardware and software are interdependent for successful computing There are multiple differences between computer hardware and software. We will discuss these differences below.

Hardware vs Software Categorization

Hardware Categories

Hardware is classified into input hardware, storage devices, processing hardware, control devices, and output hardware

Input Devices

Input devices are the equipment used in the process of relaying data and instructions to processing hardware. Keyboards and mouse are examples of input devices.

Storage Devices

Storage devices are pieces of hardware used for holding information. Information can be held in these devices either temporarily or permanently. An example of a primary storage device is RAM while a hard drive is an example of a secondary storage device.

Processing Hardware

Processing hardware is where raw data is transformed into usable information. The data is processed according to instructions relayed by the user through the use of input devices. CPU (Central processing unit) is the processing hardware for personal computers.

Controlling Devices

Controlling devices are used to connect the computer and an external device.

Output Devices

Output devices are utilized in sending data from a computer to a user or another device. Examples include monitors, speakers, and printers.

Software Categories

Software is categorized into system software, programming software, and application software.

System Software

System software is a computer program that runs the computer hardware and application software. A perfect example of system software is the operating system. The OS runs the programming and the application software. The BIOS (Basic input/ output system) is also a system software.

Application Software

Application software is any kind of computer program that performs a defined task for the user or another application. Examples of application software include web browsers, image editors and data processors. This type of software runs on the operating system.

Programming Software

Programming software is the type of computer program utilized in developing other software. Examples of programming software include compilers, interpreters and debuggers.

Computer Hardware vs. Software Functionality: Hardware functions as the system by which software solutions are delivered to the end user. Without hardware we cannot access software or software solutions – therefore hardware is a requirement for the functioning of software. 

Also, the hardware of a computer remains unchanged for long periods of time, sometimes even unchanged for the entire useful life of the computer. Hardware cannot be easily created or modified.

On the other hand, software is the computer programs that perform specific tasks for the end user, or sometimes for other applications. When, for example, a user wants to create a word document, they use a word processing software to complete their task.

Computer software is generally not a requirement in the performance of hardware’s basic functionalities such as turning the computer on and off. Computer software can be frequently changed in a computer. Software is easy to create, modify and erase on the computer.

Hardware vs. software failure: A hardware failure involves the malfunctioning of electronic circuits within the components of the computer. Hardware failure tends to increase as the hardware is used over and over. Hardware wears off with repeated usage thus causing an increase in failure rate.

Hardware can only be fixed by hardware engineers, and the process involves changing the physical components within the device.

Software failure results from errors in the software code that cause software bugs. Any flaw within software is referred to as a software bug, and it produces unintended results.

Software is fixed in a process called debugging, which involves finding the bug and fixing it by re-programming. This is done by software experts. The failure rate in software does not increase with software usage. This is because software does not wear off with repeated use.

Hardware vs. software durability: Hardware is a physical product while software is logical and non-physical in nature. Hardware is tangible while software is an intangible product.

Hardware vs. software firewalls: Hardware firewalls are devices placed between the computer network and the device meant for internet connection. One hardware firewall can serve multiple personal computers. These firewalls inspect the data coming in from internet sources and block data that they consider harmful to the system.

You need an expert to set up hardware firewalls. They are difficult to maintain because updating and configuring is complicated. They don’t use up the PCs resources since they are dedicated and optimized system security devices. They are mostly used in business settings.

Software firewalls are computer programs installed on computers for the purpose of protecting the system from unauthorized access via the internet. Software firewalls serve individual computers.

They filter incoming data, and outgoing data as well. Maintenance of software firewalls is done on each individual computer, which can be hectic especially in organizations with many personal computers.

Hardware vs. Software Development: 

Hardware development: Hardware development involves the creation of electrical and electro-mechanical devices. Hardware development involves coming up with a detailed design of the product, followed by manufacturing the hardware. Ones it is manufactured, the hardware is tested and inspected. Any changes in the product mid-development can cause very expensive disruptions.

Major changes are usually postponed to be incorporated in future upgrades. Hardware bugs can only be fixed by physically altering the product, which requires new components thereby making the process expensive. Hardware is developed primarily using electronic materials

Designing hardware mostly involves architecture work. The architectural decisions are made before starting the manufacturing process. In most instances, the development of specialized hardware takes more time compared to the time spent on developing software products.

Hardware development costs tend to be higher in the later stages of hardware development. Costs include human labor and material costs. The hardware design must be capable of functioning properly for a reasonable length of time and within reasonable environmental conditions.

Hardware testing must look into whether the hardware will function without issues for a reasonable period and within reasonable environmental conditions. Testing hardware requires fewer tests compared to software testing. Hardware testing is carried out by the hardware engineers who are developing the equipment. There are generally no specialized engineers for hardware testing.

Software development: Software is developed by coding using a programming language In software development, a detailed design of the product results in the finished product. Once the software has been developed, it goes through rigorous testing for quality assurance. Making software changes, mid-development, can be done without major disruptions and wastage of resources.

The costs involved in software development tend to remain relatively flat in all stages of development. The majority of the cost is human labor. Software development is quite faster compared to hardware development. It is easier to code and come up with software, compared to designing and manufacturing hardware.

Software development involves coding using a programming language. There are no architectural decisions made in developing software. Software testing involves going through thousands of test cases, each of which tests a different issue. Software testing is carried out by Quality Assurance engineers who are specialized in software testing.

In software development, considerations on the length of time the software will remain usable is not a priority. This is because software does not wear out. Also, since software does not have a physical component, environmental conditions are not a consideration in the development.

Hardware vs. Software Upgrade

Hardware Upgrade: New hardware designs are usually based on the models of earlier hardware. The new designs utilize newly developed components with the aim of enhancing performance. You cannot add new functionalities to hardware once it is manufactured.

Hardware components cannot be improved: The only way to upgrade the hardware of your computer is by changing its hardware components.

Hardware upgrades tend to be expensive: Most hardware designs have standard components, and this poses a constraint on the extent to which hardware can change.

Software Upgrade: Computer software can be enhanced in multiple ways through the addition of new features and reprogramming so that the software can support the new features. Software tends to have multiple releases (consecutive versions) with improvements.

You can improve the functionality of software by simply introducing new code to the computer program.
Software upgrades are inexpensive

Software does not have standard components: Software can, therefore, be subject to dramatic changes in functionality. Changing the computer code that creates the software can be done inexpensively.

Hardware vs. Software Examples

  • Examples of computer hardware include monitor, hard disk and processor.
  • Examples of computer software are Microsoft Windows, Chrome Browser and QuickBooks.

Both hardware and software play essential roles in the computing process. The functions of either of them cannot be underestimated. They depend on each other to ensure proper running of the computer. 

Separately, the two cannot serve the purpose of computing. Hardware begins its function once software is loaded. It, therefore, depends on the software for it to perform it computing task.

The software provides instructions (in the form of a computer code) to the hardware for a specific task. Software cannot, therefore, function without the hardware.

Final Thoughts

The two have multiple differences which we have discussed above. Perhaps the most prominent difference is that hardware is tangible while software is intangible.

Hardware faults tend to be random in nature. Systematic issues is the main cause of software failures.
We also mentioned that hardware is less durable because of its physical nature. It wears out due to repeated use. Software, on the other hand, does not wear out due to repeated use, and thus more durable. Discovered bugs can be fixed as time passes.

It is important to note that hardware can only understand machine code. Software receives input from human users and converts it to machine code. It then communicates the instructions to the hardware which then gives the output.

The production of hardware involves coming up with a design and then manufacturing the product. Software development simply involves coding. Fixing hardware bugs requires replacing physical components within the hardware. Software bugs are fixed by re-programming.

Even if the process of software development is quite straightforward, software has to undergo rigorous testing before it is released into the market. Hardware testing is not as severe as software testing. Making changes to the hardware once manufacturing has commenced can prove to be very expensive. Software changes are done by altering the code which is not as expensive as the case of hardware changes.

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About the author

Paul Koroma

My name is Paul Koroma. I'm willing to learn what I don't know, and what I learn, I try my best to get good at. Koroma Tech is my little corner on the internet. I'm a solution-oriented and highly analytical Systems Engineer with years of cross-platform experience.

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