Picture of a computer, for question below

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Computer-aj_aj_ashton_01.svg

How would I describe the part of the desktop computer in this picture that isn't the monitor, keyboard or mouse? The part that contains the CPU, hard drives, CD drives, and other components.

  • I find your question interesting. Because non-techies often refer to everything as their desktop computer or workstation because the monitor, mouse, and keyboard are bundled with it. These peripherals are not part of the "desktop computer", but my grandma would probably just call all of it her desktop computer. – RyeɃreḁd Apr 13 '14 at 17:06
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    When I used to do IT support, the terms "CPU" and "hard drive" were common. As an IT guy I cringed, but at least I knew what people were talking about. – Kramii Apr 14 '14 at 11:04

10 Answers 10


That 'part' is the computer. The other devices you describe are peripherals connected to it.

If the form factor is a traditional, vertical case, as pictured, 'tower' is often used as well. And of course, if you're looking for a term specifically for the housing, well, that'd be the 'case'.

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    While technically correct, in common conversation if someone said "my computer is broken" that could very easily refer to any peripheral. This is due to ignorance but nevertheless. I would probably choose to use "tower" to refer to the actual computer (the case and all contained within) unless I'm specifically referring to the case only. – Doc Apr 13 '14 at 17:37
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    Technically correct, is, of course, the best kind of correct. – LessPop_MoreFizz Apr 13 '14 at 17:38
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    Technically correct is not very useful if you aren't understood by other people. – Andrew Grimm Apr 13 '14 at 22:25
  • I wouldn't even say this is technically correct given that the first answer is that it is the computer. (That's debatable.) "Tower" or "case" is closer. – Two-Bit Alchemist Apr 13 '14 at 23:10
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    This answer is the most correct, in my opinion. Take away the mouse, is the setup still a "computer"? (Yes). Similarly for each of the other components of the system, other than the "part that contains the CPU, hard drives, CD drives, and other components". If you take that away, I would no longer consider the setup a "computer", while it could exist alone and I would still refer to it as a "computer". I might also say "tower", in an attempt to disambiguate for someone who thinks that "computer" describes the entire setup. – Trying Apr 14 '14 at 15:32

The outer box can be called any of the following:

  • computer case
  • computer chassis
  • tower
  • system unit
  • base unit

Though most of the times, people would refer it by just chassis or 'CPU' which is technically incorrect but widely accepted.

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  • I am not sure if it is regional or not but these terms are not acceptable in midwest or east coast. – RyeɃreḁd Apr 13 '14 at 17:45
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    @RyeBread: I disagree. As a Kansan, I often hear the term "tower" and have also rarely heard chassis and case. However, I'm inclined to think that case and chassis are technically the housing unit rather than the collection of housing and internal components. – Chuck R Apr 13 '14 at 19:45
  • as far as i know 'chassis' is the only correct technical term for what we generally refer to as the CPU of the computer. 'Tower' on the other hand can be used along with chassis to specify the shape of the chassis. The other terms are included for sake of completeness. Also, it doesn't matter if the chassis contains any other hardware or not, a fruit basket without any fruits in it would still be called a fruit basket. – thunderbird Apr 13 '14 at 20:08
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    As I've worked with computers longer, the names I use for things have gotten shorter and shorter. So I now just call it the box. – Patrick M Apr 13 '14 at 22:34
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    The chassis and CPU are totally different. The chassis is the frame, and the CPU is the central chip. "Tower" or "case" are the generic name for these, empty or otherwise. "Box" is tricky because that can refer to a virtual machine. – Two-Bit Alchemist Apr 13 '14 at 23:11

system box

An entire computer ... consists of:
a display, either color or monochrome;
a system box (processor, memory, disk drives, power supply, and communication interfaces);
a keyboard;
a pointing device, often a mouse.

It may also be called the [computer] base unit.

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    I won't downvote but you know this is an antiquated answer. Maybe this was used in the 70s or 80s but certainly I have never heard it in 20 years in the industry. – RyeɃreḁd Apr 13 '14 at 15:20
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    A computer need not have a display, a keyboard, nor a mouse. – nickflees Apr 13 '14 at 16:21
  • @nickflees: for that matter a computer need not be in a box, that's what rack mounts are for :-) – Steve Jessop Apr 14 '14 at 8:36
  • +1 for base unit – Chris H Apr 14 '14 at 9:15
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    Sorry but I have never seen this usage, at least not in the last 20 years. I think you could improve this answer by adding a note that this usage is somewhat dated and now computer can also be used to just mean the 'tower'. – Vality Apr 14 '14 at 9:37

It is often referred to as a "tower".

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    No, it's the 'system unit' or 'system box' or 'machine'. Tower is just one form factor it can come in, the others being minitower, pizza-box, mini (e.g. Mac Mini)... – smci Apr 13 '14 at 5:14
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    @smci - although I agree tower isn't right, system unit is worse. I can't imagine if I called my local IT department and said my system unit isn't working. They would have NO idea what I was talking about - at least tower they would understand with a slight snicker. – RyeɃreḁd Apr 13 '14 at 17:10
  • Where are you from, then - to echo your question? I never heard of an IT dept that didn't understand 'system unit' or 'system box'. They wouldn't call a desktop a laptop, would they? – smci Apr 13 '14 at 20:45
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    I have never heard anyone in my area commonly refer to this as "system unit", "system box", or "machine". Machine doesn't even sound right because it doesn't cover the case when it is empty. – Two-Bit Alchemist Apr 13 '14 at 23:13
  • google.com/… – Liamdev631 Apr 14 '14 at 2:27

In IT it will often be referred to as just box.

The problem with the term computer computer is that it's often used quite generally, and can refer to the whole system.

eg. 'There's something wrong with Sue's computer' - could mean that the mouse is faulty.

Whereas 'There's something wrong with Sue's box' explicitly tells us that it's something to do with the computer unit.

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  • Box can also be used colloquially as a substitute for computer, in the same way we sometimes use machine: my newest Linux box (or Linux machine) is a Raspberry Pi. – Mathieu K. Mar 13 '17 at 4:58
  • As for your use of the term, it occurs to me that I don't know whether it's specific to desktop computers. For instance, whether I would think of my Windows notebook as a Windows box, I'm not sure. – Mathieu K. Mar 13 '17 at 5:08

It exactly what you call it in the question. It is a desktop computer. A computer could reference a desktop computer, laptop, or server so computer used alone is not a full description.

Also desktop computers are often referred to as workstations. Still not as good as desktop computer but a close second. If it were empty it would be referred to as a tower or case.

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    This seems to be answering a different question to the one I asked. – Andrew Grimm Apr 13 '14 at 7:41
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    @AndrewGrimm - No, I am answering the question specifically. Maybe being in IT for 20 years has numbed my mind. But I really only hear desktop computer or workstation - a desktop computer has nothing to do with a mouse, monitor, or keyboard. – RyeɃreḁd Apr 13 '14 at 15:19
  • It's a tower whether it's empty or not. If it were empty it would be a case, or more specifically a tower case. – Mathieu K. Mar 13 '17 at 5:06

I've worked with computers a lot, and it's generally referred to (as @FumbleFingers said) as:

  • system unit
  • system box
  • PC or more colloquially PC box
  • or just simply machine

To what @Liamdev361 said: yes sometimes it can be called a tower, but strictly tower is just one form factor a computer can come in, the others being minitower, pizza-box, mini (e.g. Mac Mini), AIO (all-in-one), cylinder (2013 MacPro)...

To what @DavidM said: it is not the CPU. The CPU, motherboard (and many other things) are inside the system box, but isn't the CPU.

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  • Where are you from? – RyeɃreḁd Apr 13 '14 at 16:59
  • RyeBread, these are the terms used. Not that it matters, I'm from Ireland, and live in the US. Where are you from? – smci Apr 13 '14 at 20:43
  • @kinokijuf "In Europe" might be a bit too broad given the many different languages... E.g. at least in German language it's typically referred to as the "Rechner" (= Computer). I've never heard someone calling it "Systemeinheit" (= system unit). – Frank Apr 14 '14 at 12:13
  • @Frank I meant the English term used in Europe. Remember the ESL speakers. – kinokijuf Apr 14 '14 at 15:12
  • My partner worked in a PC repair shop and I'm an IT/Computing teacher. Her customers would call it the "tower", they would call it "the box the mouse plugs into". My kids at school call it simply "the box". Although, with the trend for all-in-one computers they now get confused between the monitor and the system box. – Piku Apr 14 '14 at 15:32

I would call it either the computer case / chassis or the system unit.

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I've always known it as the 'chassis'. The peripherals (mouse, keyboard etc) and display unit/VDU/monitor connect to the chassis which is the 'box' which contains the actual computer hardware (the motherboard upon which the CPU and RAM is connected, storage media such as hard drives are connected etc). I have heard it also called the tower, the desktop (depending on form factor), base unit, 'the computer' and incorrectly CPU.

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  • Chassis was already an answer - and it is incorrect. A chassis would infer that it is empty as would case or tower. – RyeɃreḁd Apr 13 '14 at 17:01
  • Just checked wikipedia en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chassis#Electronics "In an electronic device the chassis consists of a frame or other internal supporting structure on which the circuit boards and other electronics are mounted".Like I said, it's what I've always known it as (and was taught at college). – Richy B. Apr 13 '14 at 17:19
  • Yes. First you gave an answer already offered. Second a chassis is an empty computer case. Yes it is exactly what the wikipedia page mentions - an empty case that you would mount your motherboad, drives and other things to. If all that you had is a chassis you wouldn't need a monitor, keyboard or mouse. – RyeɃreḁd Apr 13 '14 at 17:21
  • The OP asked for the name of "The part that contains the CPU, hard drives, CD drives, and other components". – Richy B. Apr 13 '14 at 17:51
  • @RyeɃreḁd Case implies that it's empty but tower or tower block doesn't - it's referring to the whole box (contents and case). – starsplusplus Apr 14 '14 at 13:32

People will frequently refer to this as the CPU. While in strict terms, the CPU is the actual central processing unit (the chip that handles all the main functions), the case containing the unit is frequently referred to in the same way.

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    While idiomatically correct, I see no reason to perpetuate this fallacy when it can be avoided. – LessPop_MoreFizz Apr 13 '14 at 3:17
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    @LessPop_MoreFizz Whereas I make it my life's goal to perpetuate fallacies wherever possible! ;-) – David M Apr 13 '14 at 3:19
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    In seriousness, @LessPop_MoreFizz has a good point. We don't call the hood of the car the engine. The engine is somewhere inside/under the hood. – smci Apr 13 '14 at 5:18
  • @smci And what do you call the hall of a hall? – Edwin Ashworth Apr 13 '14 at 13:20
  • @LessPop_MoreFizz: English is an organic language, with lots of terms which have lost their original meaning due to popular usage -- such as "computer" itself. – DougM Apr 14 '14 at 13:32

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