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What do you call the main component off your computer system. I am talking about the case plus all the guts (motherboard, cpu, hard drive, video, etc) minus the peripherals (video, mouse, keyboard).

Frequently I hear people call use words to describe the main box like case, hard drive, CPU, tower, desktop, motherboard, box, workstation, server, etc. It annoys me to no end when the use most of the those terms since they each refer to a specific component that part up the main box.

I personally do not think the word 'computer' is right. I believe the common usage of the word computer generally means the entire system including all the peripherals, but maybe I am wrong about this.

Since this is more of a poll then a question I have set it as community wiki. Please tell us what word(s) you use, provide some reasoning if you have any. I am hoping people will vote up the term that has the most common usage.


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23 Answers 23

Box, the plural of which is Boxen.

"Boxen"? Really? – mmyers May 15 '09 at 21:02
Great.. but no up vote ^^ – Oskar Duveborn May 15 '09 at 21:09
Yes, like the plural of ox is oxen, the plural of box is boxen. – Orihara May 27 '09 at 14:59
The "en" also comes from the older reference to multiple VAX minicomputers as VAXen. – Ward Jun 9 '09 at 15:49
Only a certain type of person would use this is real life, though. Most normal people would just look at you funny. – Adam Lassek Jun 9 '09 at 16:22

Box, System, or Machine.

"CPU" seems like a silly term to refer to the whole system. "Computer" is usually good enough but sometimes lacks sufficient specificity to exclude the monitor, keyboard, etc.


It's a "box"... if it's under the desk, in a rack, or somewhere out there on the network... to me, it's just a box!

Sample usage:

"Has that box got a console, or will I have to remote in?"

"Damn DNS box dropped its guts again!"

"Second rack from the left, third box down, the one with no lights on..."

"Just flick the box..." (tr: simply restart the system).

This is the best option because even the least technical user can (usually) grasp the concept of "box" versus "screen". Most of the other terms will have them poking their monitor in confusion. – Kara Marfia May 15 '09 at 13:01

I have always referred to it as the computer. I don't consider peripherals like keyboards and monitors to be part of the computer. Very often I will be more specific as to the type of computer, desktop, tower, laptop, and so on. The only usage that bugs me is that a number of people I work with have started referring to their desktop or towers as hard drives.


I think the correct term industry standard term is "base unit".

However a lot of people and not just end-users do refer to them as CPUs which obviously stands for Central Processing Unit, which usually means the actual microprocessor chip but it does also make some sense to mean the larger box as it does do the processing!

Many people do also refer to them as boxes however this term tends to mean a server rather than a general user's desktop.


for some reason I always call them a 'machine' - don't know why but it's the engine of the whole thing right, seems to fit. You might want to consider making this a community wiki.

It IS a community wiki. :) – Zoredache May 15 '09 at 8:20
Doh! Sorry, it's too early here :) – Chopper3 May 15 '09 at 8:45

I generally use the word system unit which is at least somewhat common, but I don't really like that word. It isn't common enough that I can tell one of my users to power cycle their system unit and expect them to understand what I mean.


I usually call it 'my box' or 'My System'. I prefer the latter as it implies it's own definition:

  • "a group of related hardware units" or

  • "a set of connected things or parts of a mechanism"

The term 'cpu' for referring to a computer system bothers me, but I CAN believe I've used it before.


For physical computers typically it's a server, machine, box, laptop, or desktop.

For virtual computers I think the term VM or vitrual machine is the defacto standard.


If it's Linux, server or not, you call it a box. If it's an Apple, server or not, you call it a Mac. Since PC excludes servers... If it's an MSFT machine, server or not, you call it a boat anchor.


This is my laptop! There are many others like it, but this one is mine!

In all seriousness though, it depends upon who I am talking to as more often than not I will just use what they refer to it as. When talking to another IT professionally it is usually just referred to as the desktop/laptop/server depending upon what system is being discussed.


I call mine Arthur


I use "box" and "machine" when just talking in everyday speech. If I'm presenting or talking to a group or management then I'll use more appropriate terms "PC", "Server", "Workstation", "Client", etc. based on the scenario of the discussion.

If any of them are acting up then they immediately get termed demon spawn.

  • Rechner (computer)
  • Kiste (box)
  • Pizzaschachtel (pizza box)
  • Brett (plank, board)

to throw in some foreign language terms. All of them are slang and except (maybe for) "Rechner" I'd not consider them to have a positive attitude


That would be the 'Console'. Hence the phrase 'Games Console' - the box minus all the peripherals.


I'd call it PC/Laptop/Server ... depends on what they are shape-wise

Box is a good term to speak with people that is very not used to using computer... a lot easier for them to accept when you told them to "Find the metal box around your desk, a big box with lots of cables coming out of it"

If I'm dealing with other techies, I'd call them the actual machine name "Whats wrong with Titanic? Someone plug it with too many fork?" -- This is when I was working in Uni, and Titanic is one of the Student server, and its fun time when the student get assignment that requires them to use fork().

I call my laptop Chobits :)


In general, I'll refer to it as a box or a tower (assuming it is, in fact, a tower). However, when trying to talk through with someone less than computer literate, I usually end up with something like this:

Me: "Okay, now look at the front panel of the computer itself and tell me what's lit up."
They: "Do you mean the hard drive?"
Me: " that the thing with a front panel?  And a bunch of lights?  That the keyboard plugs into?"
They: "Yeah, the hard drive."
Me: "...sure, why not.  Now look at the front panel of the hard drive and tell me what's lit up."

I have several computers in my house, which I refer to by various names.

  • Server - an old gaming PC in the basement.
  • Macbook - my work laptop.
  • Laptop - my wife's Dell laptop.
  • HTPC - the media / game system attached to the TV.

But generally speaking, any computer used for work purposes is a "workstation" even if it is a laptop. Any other is usually a "Windows Box". Servers are either instances (EC2), or servers (just about anything else).


Talking to myself or a fellow sysadmin: If it's a server and I'm in the datacenter(customer site), I'll usually call it a machine(Internal QA/Dev: server). If I'm logged in, I'll usually call it a system. If I'm not, a box. If I'm referring to this particular system among many, a host.

Talking to an end user(QA/Dev): pick one, or use the one they last used. End User, customer site(usually not very tech-savvy): computer.

And it's all very interchangable. So it's one of:

  1. server
  2. machine
  3. system
  4. box
  5. host
  6. computer



Box (boxen being plural according to The Jargon File), computer, or system is the most technically correct and accurate depending on personal preference and context of use.

Tower, desktop, mini-tower, server, laptop and HTPC all refer to the physical form factor of the computer and can be used to specify the type of case for the computer.

Workstation, HTPC, netbook, Ultrabook (TM) all refer to a specific usage role and related set of hardware specifications.

Case specifically refers to the physical container that holds the motherboard, processor, RAM and other essential components which make up the computer.

A computer does not require or indicate input or output devices such as video displays, printers, keyboards, mice, etc, those are all peripherals as they are not required for the computer to be completely functional (Mainframe and early minicomputers generally did not have most or any of these devices since they were intended to be used for batch processing or, later, remote interactive operation via teletype or video terminals and thus typically included only diagnostic lights and switches to allow the operator to observe basic functions, all input and output was handled by other connected devices).

Some older texts for introducing students to basic computing labeled the box as the "CPU" so this term may still be used despite being technically inaccurate although care must be used to ensure no misunderstandings with more pedantic or technically precise coworkers.


It's the CPU isn't it?


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