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A Quick Introduction to PC Hardware

written by: M.S. Smith•edited by: J. F. Amprimoz•updated: 9/17/2011

For most people, the inside of a computer looks no different from the inside of any other electronic device: circuits, cables, and connections. However, for the computer literate, everything makes complete sense, and a quick hardware upgrade or diagnostic need not cost an arm and a leg.

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    An Easy Approach to Hardware

    With this list of important computer hardware components and their explanations, you too can become computer literate. All it takes is a little knowledge, and knowledge need not be complicated.

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    What are the Hardware Components of a Computer?

    Computer Hardware Basics While different computers will have different hardware inside, there are similarities between most PCs. Below are the components you'll always be sure to find.

    • Motherboard: The electronic skeleton of the entire system.
    • CPU: A powerful calculator – The brains of it all.
    • RAM: The indispensable short-term memory.
    • Hard Drive: Where all permanent data is saved and stored.
    • Case: The shell that holds all components together.
    In addition to these components, there are others that are found in many, but not all, systems.
    • Optical Drives: DVD players, mini-disc readers, DVD burners, CD readers and burners, and Blu-ray players.
    • Expansion Cards: Graphic cards, network adapters, fax modems, sound cards, and other conveniently upgradable computer additions. Usually they connect via a PCI or PCI Express slot.
    • Fans: Most computers have active cooling in the form of fans. They keep critical components from overheating.

    Now, let's delve deeper into each category of hardware so that you can fully understand their function.

    Image Credit: Dell

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    The Role of Motherboards

    ASUS Motherboard Motherboards allow for all the other components in the computer system to become team players. By collecting and distributing information and power to and from all the right places, motherboards allow for connection between all the other components.

    While the mobo doesn't impact system performance directly, it does determine the components that can be installed. If you want to install a high-performance graphics card, for example, you need to have a PCI Express x16 slot on your motherboard. If you don't, you can't use that card in your computer.

    Every connection to and from the motherboard is labeled and coded. Making an error by connecting the wrong cable to the wrong connection or inserting the CPU in the wrong way is difficult to do, but not impossible, so be careful when plugging or unplugging components into motherboard. Improper connections can result in a computer that won't boot, and forcing a something that isn't supposed to fit somewhere or trying to do so the wrong way can irreparably damage a component.

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    CPU - The Brain of the Entire Operation

    CPU All computer components are important, but try to start your computer after removing the CPU and you will soon realize it is indeed the brain of the operation.

    The most powerful component of your entire computer system is not the biggest one but it is often the most expensive. With that said, choosing a fast CPU chip that is adequate for your needs will pay you back in higher performance and less frustration.

    Always make sure to read the instructions carefully on how to install the chip into the motherboard and fasten the dedicated cooling fan. Also, if you intend to buy a new CPU, make sure you know it will not just fit in the specific socket your motherboard has but be otherwise compatible with your motherboard in terms of things like power requirements.

    Remember, the motherboard determines what you can connect - and that includes the processor. You can't use one of Intel's new LGA1155 processors if you have an LGA775 socket.

    Image Credit: Intel

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    RAM - Memories, Anything But Faded Pictures

    RAM Try to think of the size of your computer memory as your own short-term memory. Anyone can do just one thing at a time. But if you're trying to multi-task, your memory becomes strained. Where did I put that? What does that do?

    Limited RAM in a computer has a similar impact. Because it can't store as much in short-term memory, it has to more frequently pause and search the hard drive for data. That takes time, and slows your computing experience.

    I recommend installing four gigabytes of RAM in most systems, but two is enough for some home computers that won't be used to multi-task frequently.

    Image Credit: Kingston

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    Hard Drives - Watch the Spinning Platter: What Do You Remember?

    RAM is only for short-term use, which means that nothing in RAM is stored when the computer is turned off. When the computer is on. as new programs are launched and others closed, the information in RAM changes to provide access only to the data a user is most likely to need.

    Everything else is stored in the hard drive. Again, a comparison to your own memory is apt. Every person knows many things, from the mundane to the specific. Imagine a nuclear scientist who plays the piano as a hobby. He knows physics and how to play the piano, but he doesn't keep all of this knowledge at the front of his mind. Smart as he may be, he doesn't discuss physics with his colleagues while improvising a solo, and it takes him a second to go from one to the other.

    Hard drives have a similar disadvantage - or at least, mechanical hard drives do. They take time to spin up and find date, resulting in a small but noticeable pause. One solution is the solid state hard drive, which operates more like RAM but has much larger storage capacity. However, SSDs are expensive, putting them out of reach for many buyers.

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    The Right Case for the Right Motherboard

    Not all motherboards will fit in a specific case, and not all cases are best suited for a specific motherboard.

    The right case will take advantage of all that a motherboard has to offer. For example, if a case offers earphone and microphone jack connections on the front of the case, it is best to take advantage of such conveniences. Front USB ports are always a helping hand as well so that you do not need to reach to the back of your computer every time you plug in your camera.

    Motherboards come in a variety of different from-factors. The most common are, in order of size from smallest to largest, mini-ITX, micro-ATX, ATX and extended ATX. When buying a new motherboard or case, make sure that the two are of compatible size. An ATX motherboard won't fit in a case designed for micro-ATX boards. The larger your case the less it will heat up and the more easily you will be able to change or add parts for repairs or upgrades. Of course, a larger case will take up more room and be heavier.

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    Optical Drives and Their Benefits

    Optical drives were once essential, because they were the primary method of installing new software to a computer. CD-ROMs and then DVD-ROMs carried software data that was transfered to the hard drive during installation.

    Many programs can still be installed this way, and since optical drives are inexpensive, they're still common on desktops. With that said, however, their importance is fading as more software becomes available for download online. In some cases, installing from an online executable is quicker than installing from a physical CD or DVD-ROM (if you include driving to a store and back to get the disks, online is almost always faster).

    Still, optical drives are useful for watching movies. It's now possible to install a Blu-Ray drive in a computer, which can be a wise investment if you have a 1080p monitor.

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    Expansion Cards – The Easy Upgrades

    Simply place a card in an expansion slot, install the drivers and you are ready to go! Expansion cards are one of the easiest upgrades to throw in a computer, as they don't require as much mucking about with power cords and connection cables.

    There are three types of expansion slots: AGP, ISA and PCI. PCI and PCI Express are the newest technologies and also now the most common. AGP and ISA are virtually never found on new computers, but if you have an older PC, you may still have to deal with them. Unfortunately, new hardware generally does not conform to AGP or ISA standards, so you may have trouble finding compatible products.

    Video cards and sound cards are the most common upgrades found in expansion slots. RAID controllers and even solid state hard drives are also sometimes connected via an expansion slot.

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    Finally, we come to the cooling solution, and important part of any computer.

    Most computers at least have a fan placed on the processor heatsink, and it's also common for a desktop computer to have an intake and exhaust fan installed in the case. This ensures proper airflow throughout.

    There are many different sizes of fans, but 80mm and 120mm are the most common. Larger fans are quiet when compared to small fans, because small fans have to spin quicker to generate similar airflow.

    Generally speaking, you won't have to mess with the cooling of a pre-built system. If you're building your own computer or upgrade your PC, however, you should consider cooling as well. A new video card can generate a lot of excess heat, so you may want to install an extra case fan. Overclocking a processor is also a common source of extra warmth, and may require the installation of a larger CPU fan.