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Hardware vs. software: What's the difference?

When it comes to hardware vs. software, the difference is simple. Hardware is physical, while software makes hardware functional.
Written by Melissa Sartore, Contributor
Black man and Black woman tech workers looking at a computer together
Maskot/Getty Images

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 would not do anything. Without hardware, your software wouldn't have anything to do. 

Hardware includes monitors, keyboards, speakers, printers, and any other tangible computer part. 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. 

What is hardware?

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

Internal computer hardware includes motherboards and CPUs. These are, essentially, your computer's heart and brain. Random access memory, or RAM, gets cleared when your computer shuts down, while hard drives and solid-state drives keep long-term data. 

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

Examples of computer hardware jobs

Hardware jobs sit 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 jobs require knowledge of different types of hardware, their uses, and how they function. Technical skills for computer hardware professionals include:

  • Hardware design, building, and testing
  • How to connect machines, change parts, and make repairs
  • Hardware debugging and troubleshooting
  • Using engineering tools to prepare diagrams and prototypes
  • Coding and software fundamentals 

Getting started in a hardware role

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

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

Earning a degree from a program accredited by ABET demonstrates to future employers the quality of your education. Some advanced jobs may require a computer engineering master's degree.

What is software?

Computer software tells your computer how to function. System software directs your hardware, while application software carries out tasks for specific purposes.

System software includes operating systems like macOS and Microsoft Windows. System software controls your computer's speed, memory, security, and overall efficacy. 

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

System software runs whenever your computer is on, while application software launches when you open it. System software functions independently of 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:

Software career skills

Software careers require knowledge of programming languages, software design and testing, and how software and hardware relate to one another. Skills for software careers include:

Getting started in a software role

You can take many paths to a software role. You could teach yourself programming, attend a bootcamp, or earn a computer science degree or a degree in a related field.

In addition to computer programming, you'll benefit from understanding cloud computing platforms such as Amazon Web Services and database software like 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 $110,140 on average.

Earnings aside, the job opportunities for software professionals outnumber those for their hardware counterparts. 

The BLS projects 2% growth in employment for hardware engineers by 2030. Meanwhile, software developers are projected to see 22% employment 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 count. 

To help increase your earning potential, consider: 

  • Proving your skills with tech certifications
  • Seizing professional development opportunities
  • Earning advanced degrees 

Which is right for me: hardware or software?

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

You might enjoy working with hardware if …

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

You might enjoy working with software if …

  • You enjoy 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 are drawn from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as of July 1, 2022.

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