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Build your own PC

2. Know a bit about the hardware basics.

Your average PC actually consists of a whole lot less stuff than most people imagine. I have lost count of the number of times people have remarked on how little is in the case when I have opened it up to see if I can fix it. The PC components themselves can be split into 3 types. I refer to them as absolutely essential bits, practically essential bits and nice bits.

Absolutely Essential Bits
The most obvious is the main processor which to keep things simple is effectively the brain of the whole system. It comes in all sorts of guises, and for those who like a bit of history it all started out with the Intel 8086 processor in the first IBM Personal Computer (PC) (which sold very well and made IBM a whole lot of money). Intel did a lot of research afterwards and then came up with the imaginatively named 80286 (usually just referred to as 286 series) processor. A bit later flushed with their success they followed their nose and launched another imaginatively named processor the 80386 (386 series). All this naming success clearly went straight to their heads because their next chip they lovingly named the 80486 (486 series). Then suddenly they really developed naming style when they figured that the number 5 series they could give a name to excite the masses and "the Intel Pentium Processor" was released. After all this excitement the naming department were worn out and so it was followed with Pentium II, Pentium III and Pentium IV.
There are other processors by manufacturers other than Intel of which the best known are AMD who's most recent processors are the K5, K6, K6-II, K6-III, Athlon, Duron. The only other major name is Cyrix known for its M-I, M-II, and M-III.

The next absolutely essential bit is the Mainboard (also called motherboard). The Mainboard is exactly what it says it is the main component board of the whole system and holds all the plugs and sockets for everything else to fit into. In addition to the plugs and sockets the Mainboard holds the BIOS (basic input output system) which can be considered to be the 'electronic glue' that makes all the components work together. Now Mainboards, like every other component in a PC, come in many different kinds and they are generally referred to by the socket or slot that holds the processor. Hence we have a Socket 7 motherboard, which is suitable for the Pentium series chips, and the Slot 1 motherboard for Pentium II and III. Note that sockets mostly have the same imaginative numbering system that the processors do. Sockets and slots in current usage at the time of writing are Socket 7, Socket 370, Socket A, Slot 1, Slot A.

Next in line is the RAM (random access memory) which is essentially temporary storage space for all the stuff that the processor does. Unsurprisingly this has all sorts of different types although there are only really 2 common types which are EDO simms (single in-line memory module) and SDRAM (synchronous dynamic RAM) dims (dual in-line memory module). SDRAM has a number of different sub-types but that doesn't really matter at this point.

The final absolutely essential component is a video (or graphics) card so you can see a picture on the screen.
Now if you plug just these components together and power them up with a power supply, plug in a keyboard and attach a monitor then you have a computer that will switch on and display a picture. It is however in that form of no substantial use whatsoever for doing even the simplest job regardless of how powerful the processor is and how much ram you have. In order to make use of it we need :

Practically Essential Bits
The first of these is the floppy drive and with it we can at last make some use of our computer because we can load an operating system into the ram from the floppy drive so that the processor can be given some instructions to do something. Mercifully floppy drives these days only have 1 size of 1.44MB. Add a case to this and you have the basic configuration for the very first PC's ever built.

However if you want a more useful operating system such as Windows then you need something with more storage space than a floppy drive (1.44Mb) so you will need a hard drive which at the time of writing start at about 8-10Gb (8000-10000Mb). Luckily for us hard drives lack complexity too and the only real variation to consider at this point is how big it is.

You will also need a CD ROM player in order to transfer the operating system from your shiny new CD onto your hard drive. There are two things to bear in mind with CD players, the first thing is that they are the most unreliable piece of computer kit you will ever get your hands on ( I often think that the only reason any of them last the warranty period is because nobody uses them) and the only variation to consider is revolution speed (e.g. 50x). My advice here is firstly to buy the slowest one that you can (because the faster ones are always the least reliable) and secondly to keep the receipt very safe (because you are likely to need it).

One arguably additional essential component is the soundcard. It is not essential for any office applications but so much software these days has a sound component that for the paltry price of a cheap soundcard then you should really include one.

Finally if you add a mouse then you have a complete and useful computer that will run 80-90% of all windows software in existence.

Nice Bits
Well of course the sky is always the limit. For a start there are always faster and newer bits of each of the basic components and then there are DVD's and TV cards and CD writers and re-writers, games cards, network cards, Joysticks, stuff to control the outside world etc etc.


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