Computer Hardware 101

I thought it necessary to touch on this subject as later tutorials will assume you know something about computers. This is the page where I’ll try to touch on the basics of computer hardware.

Let’s start with hardware. There are a lot of parts to a modern computer, but I’ll just go over the essentials at first. Every modern PC has

Motherboard (a.k.a. mainboard)
CPU (Central Processing Unit)
RAM (Random Access Memory)
Hard Drive
Optical drive (CD-ROM, etc)
Various expansion cards
PSU (Power Supply Unit)
and a Case

First and foremost, we need to talk about what a computer really boils down to. A computer is literally just a controlled fluctuation of electrical currents. Computers don’ understand words or phrases. If I can quote “Short Circuit”,”It doesn’t get pissed off, it doesn’t get happy, it doesn’t get sad, it doesn’t laugh at your jokes. IT JUST RUNS PROGRAMS!!!” This is very true. The only thing your computer underestands are 1’s and 0’s. This is called binary data. 1 represents one distinct voltage, while 0 represents another different voltage. By going back and forth between these volatges, the computer can then understand the 1’s and 0’s to do it’s job. But dont think these 1’s and 0’s are given willy-nilly (that’s a technical term I’ll have you know) When talking about computers in the fashion we are now, you’ll hear two words; bit and byte. You’ll probably recognize byte more. (HINT: think of your RAM. You may have 512Mb or five hundred twelve mega bytes of RAM.) See, 8 bits make up a byte. Bytes are how your data is stored in the computer. For a more indepth explanation, I advise you check this out.

The motherboard is probably the most complex peice of hardware in your PC. It has many parts, and it’s where all the parts act together to get everything done. The CPU does all the real grunt work, but there’s some other chips on the motherboard that do some work too. Just under the CPU in importance, are the Northbridge and Southbridge. The Northbridge connects the CPU to the RAM via the Front Side Bus (FSB) It also connects the AGP and/or PCIexpress busses to the FSB. The Southbridge is slower than the Northbridge, thus having less demanding jobs such as managing the PCI busses and other things like USB, and SATA/IDE controllers. The Northbridge, Southbridge and all other chips are essentially processors just like the CPU, but they perform far limited functions. Modern motherboards feature many on-board features such as built-in video, audio, networking. The motherboards also have all the connections for expansion cards. The most commmon of these slots are PCI. Other variations are PCIx and PCIe. PCI slots are very common and have been used for many years. PCIx is similar to PCI in more than just name. It’s a different length and voltage, so you’re guaranteed not to confuse the two should you come across a motherboard with PCIx slots. PCIx slots are very common in servers, so dont expect to see them all over the place. Because PCI slots are quite old, PCIexpress slots were engineered to take their place. PCIexpress slots come in different varieties, measured by lanes. PCIe 1x slots are used for the same type of devices that would normally use PCI slots. However PCIe 1x use less power, yet has over twice the bandwith. PCIe slots also come in 4x, 8x, and 16x lanes. PCIe 1x cards and slots are very common as of the last couple years, but 4x are only present on a few boards. Not only are these slots not very common, neither are the cards for it. PCIe 8x are common in server boards, but I’ve never seen it for the desktop boards. PCIe 16x are almost exclusively used for graphics cards, and are very common. For the longest time, AGP slots were used for graphics cards, but PCIe slots are again better for power, and bandwith, thus better performance.

The Central Processing Unit is my next topic here. I don’t really think the CPU needs a ton of explanation. It’s where all the hardwork is done. The CPU is the engine to a car. The Muscles to the human anatomy. I’m not too good at analogies, so I’ll just stop now. You’ve probably heard of a couple CPU makers, there are lots of different companies in on the processor market. We’ve all heard of Intel and AMD. These are the two CPU powerhouses in the desktop and server market, with VIA and Sun Microsystems a distant third in the desktop and server arena’s, respectively. Freescale makes the type of CPU you’d find in PDAs, Cellphones, and mobile internet devices, like the Nokia N810. Freescale makes a lot of CPUs, but Intel is also a big player in this field. Via specializes in small embedded hardware, but a few desktops and laptops can be found fitted with Via C3 (Eden), C7 (Luke), and CoreFusion CPUs. Intel also produces a few embedded CPUs, but VIA is really the top of this game with intel in second and AMD with their Geode LX series in an even further distant 3rd. These embedded CPUs are great for low-power applications, such as a light duty server/firewall/backup server for the home. The only arena where Intel and AMD don’t have a real hand in is the graphics chip market. These have a few players, but mostly its dominated by Nvidia and ATi. As of current, Nvidia produces the best top-end card, but ATI still makes great cards. It’s mostly about preference. I was an ATI guy for quite some time cause the ATI Radeon 9700 Pro was the best consumer video card you could buy, but brand-name loyalties change quickly in the PC world.

There are lots of numbers on the spec sheets for any given CPU, but there are only a few that most really care about, such as Clock speed, Front Side Bus, and Cache sizes. most people aren’t too conscerned about the which nanometer process it was manufactured, or the number of transistors it contains, but you’ll see those numbers many times too. The Clock speed for a CPU is like the top speed of the car. Clock speed isn’t everything, but it does play a siginicant role in your CPUs performance. Clockspeeds are measured in Megahertz, or MHz. Very few modern CPUs are under 1000MHz, so these are measured in GHz, or gigahertz. the Front Side Bus is the life-line between the CPU and the RAM, brought together by the Northbridge. This too is measured in MHz, however often this number is above 1000. FSB is still operating at GHz speeds on new systems, but is almost always noted in a 1000+MHz. The Cache is like the RAM, but smaller, built-in to the CPU, and much faster than RAM. The Level-1 and Level-2 (and on very new CPU’s, Level-3) cache is litterally like a line where jobs waiting to processed stand. Much of the time, the OS kernel will use the RAM in the same way as the on-board cache, but RAM is slower cause all communication between the CPU and the RAM is done over the Front Side Bus. These spec numbers can be decieving. The bigger the number doesn’t always mean the better the performance. When Intel released their Pentium 4 processors, they were the top-end because their clockspeed and FSB were faster, while their L1 and L2 cache sizes were bigger than their AMD AthlonXP competition. When AMD released their Athlon64 CPUs, they featured a slower clockspeed, but twice the FSB and L2 cache. They also toted such features such as an onboard memory controller, (virtually no FSB for CPU-to-RAM communication), and being a “pure 64-bit processor.” For once, AMD had the performance crown. Intel fought back, bringing a feature called Hyper-Threading to their CPUs, from the 2.8GHz P4 and up. Hyper-Threading was basically one physical CPU acting and appearing as 2 logical CPUs. It’s an incredibly innovative feature, but it wasn’t enough to beat the Athlon64. For the next couple years, consumers saw the the clockspeed wars. Instead of innovative new features, consumers saw a about 2.5 years of nothing more than faster, hotter, power hungry CPUs. Intel was hitting 3.8GHz from the plant, while AMD was hitting 2.8, 1Mb L2 cache with their top of their FX series, the FX-57. Even today, the FX-57 is still the king of single core CPUs. After the clockspeed wars (with AMD still the top CPU around), Intel and AMD raced to put out the best dual-core CPUs. AMD stuck with their winning formula, and did the dual-core right, titled the Athlon64x2. These began life on the socket 939 interface, and then moved to AMD’s new AM2 socket. During the P4 craze, Intel had moved it’s Pentium operation from the somewhat aging socket 478 to the new LGA 775. LGA 775 was uniqe because it featured the pins on the board with small contacts on the CPU, while all other CPUs featured pins on the CPU’s underside, and sockets (literally) on the motherboard. Back to the dual cores, Intel had also hatched a dual-core scheme, but it just didn’t pan out like AMD’s. Intel’s Pentium D series CPUs were literally just 2 CPU cores on one physical die. Doesn’t sound so bad, eh? In theory this was ok, but both cores could only communicate over the FSB. The FSB on any system is magnatude’s slower than two cores with a dedicated communication tunnel (like that of the Athlon64x2s.) Because of this Intel lost the dual-core battle, but Intel came back big time last year with a completely redisigned CPU architecture. The Pentium had an aging architecture, codenamed “Netburst”. It was great for 2001, but times change. Applications needed a bit more horsepower, and don’t get me started on Microsoft’s Vista OS. Intel came to the table with a new “Core” architecture. Lower clock speed, lower voltage, more transistors, lower heat output, yet, 20% more efficient than AMD’s best. Intel’s Core 2 Duo CPUs were amazing. They’re currently the top performing CPUs you can get. Intel started using different processing for their CPUs in manufacturing. They went from a 90nm processing to a 65nm, and now they’re moving to 45nm. This means, lower voltage, which spells out lower heat output and power consumption, while boosting performance. Nvidia and ATI have begun taking notice and doing the same with their graphincs processors (GPUs). Now you’re pretty much cought up with what’s happened in CPU technology since 2002.

The RAM, or memory is slightly more complex. Going soley by it’s name, you’d think that this is where all your data is saved. A good try, but that answer would be wrong. See, every expansion card, and processor can do some work, but when it can’t do something it sends it to the CPU to take care of. And there are a lot of parts that make up a PC, and if you figure each one is sending some jobs to the CPU to do, you can bet, even the fastest CPUs get a lil backed up now and again. Now, the CPU has some memory to store these waiting jobs, but not nearly enough. This is where the memory comes in. The memory stores the jobs in order for the CPU. It’s also used for temporary storage by the Operating System. Data like dynamic files, such as those in the /proc directory on UNIX/Linux systems are stored in memory. Now that we know what memory does, let’s look at the different types of memory. The standard you’ll find are DDR2 on newer machines, DDR on older ones, and SDRAM on even older machines (the ones that are good enough to keep, but not worth upgrading). DDR was the de facto standard in mainstream PC memory for serveral years. By the way, DDR stands for Dual Data Rate. It’s basically a larger diameter pipe for the flow of data to and from your memory. DDR2 is the same thing, but capable of higher speeds. DDR goes from 266MHz and tops out at around 500MHz (though most memory is sold as 400MHz), while DDR2 starts at 400MHz and is currently up to 1333MHz, though the standard is 800MHz. Memory also has other features such as ECC and Registered. ECC stands for Error Correcting Circuits. ECC memory is usually a bit slower, but is much more reliable. Perfect for environments such as servers where uptime and stability is critical. Registered memory is simple memory with a register (or buffer) between the memory modules and the memory controller. This allows the system to be more stable with more modules than it would’ve been before.

If memory is your short-term storage, then you Hard drive (also referred to as a hard disk) is your long term storage. Insted of memory modules on a strip of PCB, your harddrive is a form of magnetic storage. It’s at least magnetic platter spinning at 4200 rpm with small ferrite read/write heads hovering microns over the surface of the platter. Remember that talk about 1’s and 0’s? That’s all thats on your harddrive. However, instead of two different voltages beging sent to a RAM chip, the different voltages are sent to to a small peice of metal with a wire wrapped around it. The wire carrys the voltage, while the peice of metal, sort of “converts” the voltage to a magnetic frequency. This is written to the platters in the harddrive, which are very sensitive to magnetic charges. Most harddrives are virtually the same, but have different specifications. There’s the connection type, spindle speed, and buffer size. There are a few different connection types (also known as interfaces). SCSI, SATA, SATA-II, and PATA (commonly called IDE or EIDE). Spindle speed just means how fast the harddrive’s platters can spin. The higher the spindle speed, the faster you harddrive is, but it’ll produce more heat and sound than a standard drive. All harddrives have a small bit of memory on board so they can store a que of instructions, very similar to the way the cache does for a CPU. SCSI stands for Small Computer Systems Interconnect, but is often pronounced as “scuzzy”. SCSI drives are rare in all but the oldest machines, or servers. Even high-end PC’s from your favorite manufacturer still use SATA drives. SCSI drives are known for their speed, reliability, and price. Their speeds can be from 7200 rpm (standard for todays SATA and IDE drives) and up to 15,000 rpm, with capacities up to 320Gb. SCSI connections come in either 68-pin or 80-pin configurations, and up to 320Mb/s transfer rates. Their reliability is unmatched by other drives. The motors for the spindles are of much higher grade than consumer products. “Fast and reliable? I’ll take 4.” Is this you? think again. SCSI drives go for around 5X the price of a SATA or IDE drive of the same speed and capacity. They’re often sold to businessesfor their mission-critical servers. They cost so much because they are that good, but the general public usually doesn’t need the reliability or speed. Most people tend to use IDE or SATA drives. IDE drives use the traditional long, flat, ribbon-style cable, allowing for up to two devices per cable. most mainboards can take 2 cables, though IDE drives have dropped in popularity compared to SATA drives. A standard IDE drive can vary in capacity (from 100’s of megabytes, up to 750Gb with a buffer from the Kb’s to 32Mb. IDE drives run at either 4200, 5400, or 7200 rpm and have transfer rates ranging from 66Mb/s to 133Mb/s. IDE drives were popular for quite sometime, but the last few years have seen advances. IDE was old and has been the PC standard since the mid 90’s. SATA drives started like all other technologies. Started as high-end, and slowly trickled down to being popular on all fronts. Chances are your new system from your favorite local electronics store will feature SATA drives. SATA uses less power, and has twice the theoretical transfer rate than that of an IDE drive. SATA drives can do everything IDE drives can, but can out perform them too. SATA drives have the same spindle speed as similar IDE drives, but select SATA drives can reach 10,000 rpm, and it shares the same buffer sizes with IDE. SATA has higher connection rates ranging from 150Mb/s to 300Mb/s. Motherboards are also better at supporting multiple drives as basic mainbords feature 4 SATA ports, with high-end boards featuring up to 10 connections. Another topic that goes hand-in-hand with harddrives is RAID. RAID is an acronym for Redundant Arrays of Inexpensive Disks. It means configuring multible disks as 1 logical space. RAID comes in varying levels 0, 1, 5, 6, 10, 50, etc. I’ll discuss the common ones. RAID 0 is also known as stripe. What it does is spans all your data across at least 2 drives, so that each drive has half. This is done simply for speed, since you have 2 drives with 50% less work, working together, compared to 1 drive carrying this burden. RAID 1 is also known as mirror. It doesn’t offer any increased speed, but does offer benefits in being being data redundant. in RAID 1, all your data is copied to at least 2 drives, so that if… I mean, when one drive fails, all your data is still safe on another.

Slightly similar to the magnetic storage of a harddrive, an Optical drive is another part of your computer. By the way, an optical drive is just fancy term, meaning your CD-ROM drives. I haven’t come across a computer that doesn’t have some sort of optical drive in it. Older computers will have a plain ‘ol CD-ROM which reads CD’s. After that, we started seeing CD-R/-RW drives. These are the same at CD-ROMs drives, but can also write data to CD-R (recordable) or CD-RW (re-writeable) discs. Very soon after that, the consumer market started seeing DVD-ROM drives and DVD/CD-R/-RW drives. Basic DVD-ROM drives can read both DVDs and CDs while the DVD/CD-R/-RW drives (also known as “combo drives”) can read and write CDs, while only readin DVDs. Now a days, an off the shelf computer at your local electronics store will probably have a DVD+-R/+-RW (commonly called a DVD writer or DVD burner)

Expansion cards are still available, but not absoultely necessary today. In todays mainboard market, mainboards are available with built in video, audio, networking (some including WiFi), USB, Firewire, Serial, Paralell, PS2 ports, and drive controllers with some basic RAID functionality. A computer could do some basic things, but expansion cards allow you to do more with your computer. Some years ago, a basic computer didn’t have a lof of now-standard items. Like sound. A computer was a basic mainboard, some RAM, a CPU, a harddrive, a basic video card, a power supply, a case, a keyboard and mouse, and a monitor. You could hook up a printer, but that’s about it. Some even came with a 56k modem! Yeah! What if you wanted to hook your PC to a LAN? Get a network card with an RJ-45 port. Want to listen to music? Get a sound card. Want to do enjoy some of those cool new games? get a (better) video card. Want to have more than 2 harddrives? get a RAID card. I won’t delve too much into the nitty gritty of these expansion cards, but the truth of it is, usually the built-in items on the mainboard aren’t as good as a decent card. For instance, 99% of motherboards sold today have onboard audio, video, and networking, but you’ll get better sound from a dedicated sound card, better video performance from a real video card, and a faster network connection from a dedicated network card. Not only this, but your whole system will seem a bit faster. Why you ask? The onboard devices, in conjunction with being lower quality, can’t do anything for themselves. They rely on the CPU to do their work. With the power of todays CPUs it’s not a huge deal to a basic user, but to the users who need as much horsepower as they can get from their systems will appreciated a freed-up CPU and dedicated cards. The cards do their jobs better because they have their on onbaord processors, specifically designed to do their jobs. your sound card has an audio processor and other chips to produce your audio better, and your video card has it’s own graphics processor and own RAM supply to do it’s job. Same goes for network cards. Some things can’t be found built into a mainboard though. Like TV-tuner cards. Thes are cards that feature the same stubby cable connector (technically known as RG-6 connector) found on the back of all modern television sets. These cards allow you to hook up servaillance cameras or even hook your cable box up to. Imagine watching TV and working on that web-site without turning your head (yeah, Im doing it right now. I love House M.D.). Many mainboards also feature on-board drive controllers, if you’re serious about storage, you need to pick up a RAID card. Like a dedicated expansion card, a RAID card will almost always perform better and be more flexable than the on-board solution.

All of this hardware doesn’t run on hopes and dreams. In side your computer (typically in the upper-rear) resides a box with a fan in it and a large bundle of wires coming out into the case. This (drum roll please…) is your power supply unit, but is commonly called a PSU. Many PSUs appear to look the same, and they all do essentially the same job? “I can just pick up any old thing, right?” WRONG! The PSU is often the most overlooked part of the whole computer, yet, it’s probably the most important too. You could be setting up top of the line hardware, but trying to get by on that cheap, no-name brand PSU can mean, re-buying all those fancy parts. I personally stick to the brands I trust, and I always read as many reviews, both professional and user, as I can before even giving serious thought to buying it. While lots of companies make PSUs, Only a handful make good ones. Antec, Seasonic, Silverstone, PC Power & Cooling, Corsair, OCZ, Thermaltake generally make great units. Many of the companies that make PSUs also make other products. Antec, CoolerMaster, Thermaltake, and Silverstone make some of the best cases, Corsair and OCZ some of the best RAM, Zalman makes some of the best cooling products, etc. Seasonic and PC Power&Cooling are the only two companies I would recommend that only make PSUs. Brand loyalty aside, All PSUs have several different specifications about them. The main spec you’ll notice is their total wattage, or simply put, how much power they can supply to your devices. It’s sometimes difficult to know how much power you need. With a basic machine, you’ll need at least a 300W psu. This is pretty much the standard, even for brand new hardware. (keep in mind that this wattage rating is good for an Intel Celeron or AMD Sempron CPU, basic mainboard, 1 harddrive, 1 DVD burner, and 1Gb of RAM). Generally, a harddrive will need about 40w, a mid-range video card will need about 30w, while a high-end model can require up to 150w! If we take our basic machine and upgrade some parts, going from a basic to a high-end board will require an extra 20w, while a Server-grade board will need an extra 50w. Upgrading our budget CPU to a Pentium 4 or an Athlon64 would require an extra 25w while bumping up to an Athlon64 FX or a Core 2 Duo dual-core CPU would need an extra 80w. A high end sysetem with an Intel Core 2 Duo Extreme CPU, 2x 8800GTXs in SLI, 8Gb of RAM, 2 10k rpm SATA harddrives, on a high-end board would need about 850w! Pretty insane huh? Not only does wattage and quality vary between units, but so does type. The most basic type available today is ATX. An ATX PSU will have a 20 pin ATX connector, and varying amounts of 4-pin Molex connectors (for things like harddrives, optical drives, and case fans). While ATX PSUs are still available, the current rage is the ATX12V type. ATX12V is an updated version of the aging ATX type. Changes with the ATX12V are a dedicated 4 pin CPU power connector, a 6 pin auxilary connector providing 3.3v and 5v (also known as a PCIe connector), and a 15 pin SATA power connector. The ATX12V standard was updated to v2.0 and went through a major change ditching the 20 pin ATX connector to a 24 pin set up (In an effort to be backwards compatable, many manufacturers make their PSUs with a 20+4 pin ATX connector, while others feature a 24 pin). Another important feature of the ATX12V v2.0 is that is splits up the 12v load between multiple rails, leaving 1 dedicated to delivering CPU power. v2.1 and v2.2 don’t feature any extraordinary changes. The last type we’ll discuss is EPS12V. There are a few differences between the ATX12V v2.x and EPS12V, but the only one that’s worth noting for desktop systems is the CPU power connector. EPS12V PSUs use an 8 pin connector, as opposed to the 4 pin. EPS12V units were originally designed for entry-level servers, but have found a good home on the desktop computing front. Aside from quality, wattage, and type, we have differences in PFC, or Power Factor Correction. PFC is a technique that counteracts the unwanted effects of electric loads (reactive power) that make the power factor less than 1. The Power factor (PF) refers to the ratio of active power (measured in watts) to the apparent power (voltage multiplies current – volts x amps or VA), which includes both active and reactive power, and only active power is capable of doing work. For a power supply unit, the higher the PF value, the better it is able to convert current into useful power. For residential and commercial users, only the active power is measured and charged, so the PF of the PSU does not directly affect your power bills. However, PF does matter in the bigger picture, since the more reactive power there is, the less active power can be transferred. Completely a waste of power. PSUs without built-in PFC circuits usually have low PF values, sometimes below 0.60. For PSUs with built-in PFC circuits, there are two types of PFC being used active and passive. Passive PFC consists of components that do not need power to work, for instance, ferrite core coils. Active PFC uses components such as integrated circuits and transistors, which do need power to work. Passive PFC can result in PF values between 0.60 ~ 0.80, while active PFC is able to deliver 0.95 ~ 0.99. PSUs also have efficiency ratings. A unit’s efficiency is meausered by the percentage of total output DC power in relation to total input AC power, with the rest being lost as heat. For example, if you have a 300W power supply with an 85% efficiency rating, that unit will draw 353 watts of power from the outlet. Unlike active or passive PFC, the efficiency rating does directly relate to cost savings. PSUs also have other features such as SLI or Crossfire ready certifications, and modular cabling, and different cooling schemes. SLI and Crossfire are technologies from Nvidia and ATI, respectively, that allow 2 video cards to render the image of 1 monitor. It’s used mostly by gamers, but drafting and graphics workstations will like the extra graphics power too. Modular cabling is an interesting new feature on many PSUs. Traditionally, a PSU will have a big bunch of wires coming out of one point on the back of it, and often this was more cables than one needed. With modular cables, you can basically just use the cables that you need. The cables for your system have their corresponding ports on the back of the PSU so you can use only what you want. This usually makes for a much cleaner look and improved airflow in the case. As far as cooling schemes go, almost all PSUs have fans. Most of the cheaper ones have a single 80mm fan, exhausting air out back of the system. If you’ve ever been annoyed by a loud computer in a quite environment, the PSU was probably one of the biggest contributions to that. Today, most higher end units have a single 120mm or 140mm fan on the bottom, pulling air from the case and yet again exhausting air out back. (Reminder: a larger fan can spin slower than a smaller fan while moving the same or more air, and doing it quieter). “What if you take the fan out?” Other manufacturers have tried this with varying degrees of success. Antec has their Phantom series of fanless PSUs, and some others are out there, but they’re mainly for use with low power systems. Perfect for the office or home desktop, but not for the gaming machine or server.

And don’t think all these parts just sit out on the floor. Every computer has some sort of enclosure, or case. Beleive it or not, cases can be quite complicated too. Different cooling set-ups, materials, sizes, styles, types, colors, etc. Personally, I keep up on the new cases on the desktop/enthusiast market, as I love the subject of thermodynamics and silent PCs. While indepth looks in to the quiet computing and advanced cooling isn’t in the scope of this writing, I will touch down lightly on the subjects. Most people don’t think the case matters. The truth of the matter is that the case can make or break a good system. It plays a very important part of cooling, dictates what and how many of certain components you can use, etc. The most basic cases are made of steel with the front panel being plastic, while some of the best cases are 100% Aluminum. Cheaper aluminum cases have a tendancy to vibrate badly, so make sure you’re not getting very thin aluminum. Cases have range in how many drive bays they feature. The basic ones can have 3 to 4 external 5.25″ drive bays (for CD drives and the like), 2 external 3.5″ bays (for floppy drives, flash card readers, zip drives, etc.) and a few internal 3.5″ bays for harddrives. They have different types of cases too. Cases can be made to fit certain mainboards, such as AT, ATX, Micro ATX, Mini ITX, BTX, DTX, Nano ITX, and Pico ITX. Many cases can still fit AT baords, as AT wasn’t a far stretch from today’s ATX standards. Cases are made for certain boards, such as those alredy listed. However, if you find an ATX case you really like, but you have an ATX or Mini ITX case, don’t cry. Most ATX cases can fit MicroATX boards, and some can accept the Mini ITX standard. Even in these ATX and MicroATX cases there are differeces still Cases can come as desktop (sits on the desk… duh) and tower cases (like those that sit on the floor under your desk). In the tower style cases, you can find Full, Mid, and mini-size tower, while MicroATX have tower and desktops as both standard and slim sizes. It’s confusing I know, but I told you cases were complicated. A few years ago, the defacto standard for fans were 80mm. Most cases had at least one of these in the back near the CPU, acting as an exhaust fan. It wasn’t uncommon to see gamer/enthusiast cases having up to 7 80mm fans. (if you’ve heard some of these fans, imagine a 747 under your desk!). Most new cases only use 120mm fans and have anywhere from 1 to 8 fans (most have 2 spots, but only 1 fan included). Some cases are meant for water-cooling set ups (more on that later, but it is similar to what you’re thinking), and some for phase-chage cooling (complicated: don’t ask). Cases also have many different, interesting features. Some are marketed as “tool-less” cases, while other can have windows on the sides with lights and LED fans. Some have very cool designs and color schemes that do nothing but look cool, but the most basic cases are black or silver. The toolless feature is seen on many cases on today’s market, but only Cooler Master and Thermaltake have seem to get it right, while others usually end up being more frustrating. It’s one of those technologies that every manufacturer does differently, each with varying degrees of success. Now, you’re up to speed on the basics of computer hardware. some people try to water it down more, but I wanted to give you something a bit more indepth to try and digest. There’s a lot more to it, but there are entire books on the subject of one of these parts, let alone all of them together. A computer system is exactly that; a system. If you’re in the market for a new computer, looking to upgrade your current computer yourself, or just want to learn a bit, possibly studying for an A+ certification, I hope this paper helped you. As always, if you have any question, just ask.

-that Linux guy


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