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Inside The PC

Understanding the Hardware/Software Inside Your PC

Understanding what hardware is inside a computer is important when you are buying a new PC or software program. Most software manufacturers list the "Minimum System Requirements" necessary to run a program on the side, bottom or back of the box. Below are descriptions of some of the major components you should be aware of.

Motherboard & CPU

The Motherboard is the main circuit board inside your computer. It is the interface for all other components of the computer. In other words, everything else is connected to it. The Central Processing Unit or CPU is plugged into this main board. This CPU is what processes all the instructions and commands you give the computer. When someone says "my computer is a Pentium II 400 Megahertz" (abbreviated Mhz) they are referring to the CPU type and speed. There are many types and speeds of CPU's. Basically the most popular brand names are AMD (Advanced Micro Devices) and Intel. Pentium, Pentium II and Pentium III are types of Intel CPU's. The K6 and Athlon are types of AMD CPU's. It's like Scott brand Kleenex, Scott is the manufacturer and Kleenex is the name of the product. Intel CPU's are the standard in computer processors. Most hardware and software manufacturers develop their products to be compatible with the Intel CPU's. There are different family's of CPU's. The first generation was known as the 8086, then the 80286 was developed, next came the 80386, 80486, Pentium (essentially the 80586), Pentium II (2nd generation Pentium), Pentium III (3rd generation Pentium) and Pentium IV (4th generation Pentium). With each advancement in processor technology the operating speed (measured in megahertz, Mhz or gigahertz, Ghz) increases. The first generation 8086 processors typically operated at 12 or 16 Mhz. Today's Pentium IV processors currently operate at 3 Ghz or more. The higher the Mhz or Ghz rating the faster the computer can process your commands and run your programs.

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Memory or "RAM" 72 pin RAM memory modules

The Memory or "RAM" (Random Access Memory) is used by your computer to temporarily store information that you are currently working on such as a letter you are typing or a picture you are drawing etc... and to store the program you are currently running, such as a word processor or CAD (Computer Aided Drafting) program. It is electrically powered and forgets it's contents when the computer is powered down. To permanently store your data, or documents you must SAVE them. Saving writes the information currently in the RAM to the hard drive for more permanent storage. Once the information is saved to the hard drive it will be there for you to recall until you decide that you no longer need it and then it can be erased. For example you may wish to OPEN or recall a letter you typed to reprint it. The more RAM your system has the better. RAM is expressed in Megabytes (abbreviated Mb). One Megabyte is one million bytes. A byte is equivalent to a character like the letter A or the number 4. Therefore you can store one million characters in a megabyte. The more megabytes of RAM your system has the faster and smoother the system will run. Early computers had 4 or 8 Mb of RAM, typical systems today have 128 or 256 even 512 Mb of RAM or more. The minimum recommended amount of RAM to run Windows 98 or above and to use the Internet is 32 Mb. Windows 98 is essentially limited to running with 512 Mb of RAM or less, (search for "vcache" in the Microsoft knowledge base for more information) while newer operating systems like Windows 2000 and Windows XP can take advantage of larger amounts of RAM.

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Hard Driveinternal hard drive with cover removed

The hard drive is also a type of memory, but differs from RAM memory in that it retains the information that you save to it after you turn the computer off. It is the filing cabinet for everything you create and save with your computer. It also contains the operating system software and all your applications such as your word processor or e-mail program. It is a mechanical device with a motor that spins a platter which resembles a CD ROM disk in appearance. It works in much the same way as Floppy Disks do in that it reads and writes the information to the disk through an electromagnetic read/write head. Hard drives can store a much greater amount of data than floppies however. A 3.5" floppy disk can hold 1.44 megabytes of information. That is 1,440,000 bytes. Early computers had no hard drives and used only floppy drives to run programs and save data. This meant every time you ran a program you had to insert the program floppy disk. When you wanted to run another program you had to change the floppy disk in the drive. Today's hard drives hold huge amounts of information, typically hundreds of Megabytes and most newer Pentium based systems have Gigabyte capacities. A 486 might typically have a 345 Megabyte or 500 Megabyte hard drive. This means it can store 345 million or 500 million bytes of information respectively. A Gigabyte is one billion (1,000,000,000) bytes. Typical Pentium III and Pentium IV computers have 30 or 40 Gigabyte (abbreviated Gb) and larger hard drives. This type of storage allows you to install your programs to the hard drive, thus making a copy of the program on the internal drive and eliminating the need to swap floppys each time you run a program. They are also hundreds of times faster than a floppy therefore allowing the programs to run much more quickly and efficiently. The hard drive is mounted inside your computer and is not visible from the outside. The downside of hard drives is that they do have a lifespan. Because they are mechanical devices with motors and other moving parts they will eventually break, which means that all the information they contain will be lost and your computer will no longer function until it is replaced. This is why it is essential to back up any critical information you have on floppy disks or Zip disks. Zip disks are relatively new. They are physically different in size than a 3.5" floppy disk and hold 100 Mb, 250 Mb and 750 Mb of data.

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Operating System

The Operating System is the underlying software that makes your computer function. It is the foundation on which all other programs are installed. It "boots" your computer, gives you your desktop, makes the mouse work, displays and manages all the icons (the little pictures you click on to run programs) and keeps track of where all your documents and programs are stored to name a few of it's functions. The operating system is to the computer as a cement foundation is to a house. Both support the structure above. If this foundation is compromised the rest of the structure begins to fall apart. The operating system can be compromised in a number of ways. Something as simple as incorrectly shutting off the computer can damage it. Other causes of operating system corruption are: a power failure, a failing hard drive, accidental deletion of critical system files, installing and uninstalling software incorrectly and computer viruses. More often than not the best way to fix a corrupt operating system is to erase or "format" the entire hard drive and start from the ground up by reloading the operating system and all your programs (much like you would if your were tearing down and rebuilding a house) . This is why it is so important to keep the data you create organized and to back it up regularly, because if you leave your possessions in the house when you tear it down they will be lost! DOS (The Disk Operating System), Windows 3.1, Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows Me, Windows NT, Windows 2000 and Windows XP are all Microsoft operating systems. There are other operating systems like IBM's OS2 (short for Operating System 2), UNIX and Linux to name a few, but these are less common than the Microsoft ones. Without the operating system your computer would simply be an expensive pile of circuit boards that doesn't really do anything.

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Display Adapter

The Display Adapter or "Video Card" is the circuit board that you connect your monitor to. Its job is to display all the information on your computer screen. Most Display Adapters or Video cards have their own RAM memory installed right on the card, but others use part of the systems RAM memory. Typical Video Cards now can have 8, 16, 32, 64 Megabytes or more of RAM. How much memory you need on your Video Card depends on what you use your computer for. For example, Video games, Image Editing applications and CAD (Computer Aided Drafting) programs sometimes require more advanced Display Adapters with lots of memory and 3D graphics capabilities, where office type applications such as word processing, spreadsheets and databases require less sophisticated Video Cards.

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CD-ROM Drive

CD-ROM stands for Compact Disk - Read Only Memory. CD's can hold 74 minutes of audio or 650 Mb of data. Because of their large storage capacity many programs are distributed on CD's. For example, if you go to the store and buy a game or word processing program it will probably be on a CD-ROM disk. Typically you will then place this disk in your computer, execute an installation program on the CD, which in turn copies the necessary information to run the program to your hard drive and creates an icon for you to click on to start the program. Generally you won't need the CD after that, except to reinstall the program if your hard drive crashes or you purchase a new computer. There are exceptions to this however. For example, there are Encyclopedias, Family Tree programs, and Clip Art collections to name a few that come on CD's, sometimes even multiple CD's. These types of programs will only copy a small amount of information to your hard drive, just enough to make the icon and run the program, but say you look up Neil Armstrong, or Beethoven in your PC's encyclopedia, it will then prompt you to insert the correct CD in the computers CD-ROM drive to retrieve the information. This saves valuable hard drive space for installing other programs and saving your data. Recently other types of CD drives have hit the market. There are now CD-RW drives available. CD-RW drives allow you to write your own data or audio to a special type of CD-R and CD-RW discs. CD-R stands for CD-Recordable; these types of discs can only be written to once. CD-RW stands for CD-ReWritable; these discs can be written to, erased and reused hundreds or even thousands of times.

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Floppy Drive 3.5" 1.44 Mb internal Floppy Drive

The Floppy Drive was until recently the main type of media used to get programs and data in and out of your computer, and to move information from one computer to another. With the introduction of ZIP drives and Writeable CD's they are used less and less today. Many data files are still small enough that they can be backed up on Floppies, and some programs, although not many are still distributed on Floppy disks. The most common type in use today are the 3.5" Floppy Disks. These disks can hold 1.44 Mb (that's 1,440,000 bytes) of information. More and more computers today are shipping without a floppy drive installed in them. If you are considering purchasing a new PC, and you have the need for a floppy drive, be sure to check and see if the system you're looking at comes with one installed or not.

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10/100 Ethernet or Network Card

If you plan to connect your computer to a Network in your home or office, or to a high speed Broadband Internet Connection such as Verizon DSL, Charter Communications or Comcast you need a Network Card. Until recently Ethernet or Network Cards were typically options in home and consumer PC's. The dial up modem was more commonly used to connect to the Internet from home, and having a network in your home office was more of a luxury. Today with high speed Broadband Internet Connections more widely available and new homes being wired for Local Area Networks to share these connections, the 10/100 Ethernet or Network card is becomming standard equipmet in most new PCs.

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A modem (short for Modulate/Demodulate) is a device that connects your computer to your phone line and ultimately to the outside world and networks like the Internet. They also allow you to send and receive faxes and setup your computer as a sophisticated answering machine or even a fax back system that can automatically send people predetermined documents at their request. Modem speeds have increased from 300 bps (bits per second) to 56,000 bps over the last several years. The higher the bps rating the faster the modem can transfer information from the Internet to your computer and the smoother things appear to run.

internal data/fax modem
Internal Data/Fax Modem

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USB Ports

USB (Universal Serial Bus) Ports are a relatively new type of interface on today's PC's. Designed in part to help relieve the problem of hardware conflicts, USB ports allow the "daisy chaining" of multiple devices such as scanners, printers, digital cameras and other peripherals on a single connector or "port" in the computer. An improvement over its predecessor, the standard serial port, which can only manage one device at a time, the USB Port can also transfer information faster.

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