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Old 14th November, 2002, 09:53 PM
Daniel ~'s Avatar
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Join Date: September 2001
Location: Seattle Wa.
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Building a PC By Maurice (aka Staz)

Although I posted this for him, the following is entirely the work of Maurice (aka Staz)
Daniel ~
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Building a PC

This will be the first guide walking you through the basic process of building a new PC. This first guide is going to describe the basic parts of a computer. The guide is broken-down into three sections. Components essential to a computer. These are parts that every computer needs to run. Components that are not necessary but that every working PC should have. And components that are just nice to have.

Components essential to a computer

This is the base of the system. All of the other components will plug into the motherboard. The motherboard’s job is to co-ordinate the transfer of information between various components plugged into it. An equally important role the motherboard fills is ensuring that each part receives the power it requires!

Each motherboard is designed around some components called a “chipset”. Generally, a chipset is a pair of chips, but some cheaper systems may have everything on one chip.

On a motherboard designed for AMD chips, the chipset is usually made up of a “Northbridge” chip and a “Southbridge” chip. The “Northbridge” chip co-ordinates the CPU, memory (RAM), and graphics (AGP). The “Southbridge” chip deals with the rest of the peripherals, such as hard disks/CD/DVD (IDE), PCI add in cards, USB, Sound, Network and just about anything else left over.

On a motherboard designed for Intel chips, the chipset is usually made of a Memory Controller Hub (MCH), and an I/O Controller Hub (ICH). These do exactly the same jobs as the “Northbridge” and “Southbridge” chips, but have slightly more descriptive names.

The chipset used on a motherboard can have a great impact on both the cost and the performance of the system. A poorly designed chipset will slow the computer down, no matter how fast the processor (CPU) is! As the chipset is the workhorse on the motherboard, it will influence which processor and what type of memory (RAM) you can use on the motherboard.

The processor is the heart of the computer. It performs all the calculations and decisions that make the computer do useful things! The processor may also be referred to as a CPU or Central Processing Unit. CPUs come graded by speed, generally the faster the processor, the more expensive it will be. Unfortunately, the speed is not a good measure of performance between different families of processors. It’s a bit like comparing the performance of cars by their engine size. Even more confusingly, sometimes chips of the same name differ in performance. Generally, this is because the design of the silicon (or core) has been changed slightly. For instance, a 1.8GHz Pentium 4 can either be based on a Willamette core or a Northwood core. Even though Intel calls them the same thing they are two very different processors. And the Northwood will outperform the Willamette at the same speed. Please make sure you know what you are buying.

It’s all very well having a motherboard to connect things together, and a processor to do dazzlingly complicated calculations, but somewhere down the line the computer will need to be able to remember things! This is where Random Access Memory (RAM) comes in.

RAM comes in a range of sizes, speeds and connections! However, the motherboard will determine the sizes, speeds and connections of RAM that you can use.

SDRAM (Synchronous Dynamic RAM)
SDRAM is now an older technology; it is not as fast as other types of RAM but can still be found on many value systems. It comes in speeds of PC66, PC100 and PC133. Slower SDRAM will not work in a faster motherboard! However, the motherboard manual should tell you the speeds of SDRAM that you can use. In addition SDRAM comes in two variants, CL2 and CL3. The CL number relates to how long the memory takes to deal with a command. CL3 is slower than CL2.

DDR SDRAM (Double Data Rate SDRAM)
Another mouthful from the computer world, DDR SDRAM is usually known as DDR RAM. DDR RAM is a newer technology than SDRAM. It can transfer at twice the rate of SDRAM making it nearly twice as fast. DDR SDRAM comes in speeds of PC2100, PC2700, PC3000, and PC3200. DDR SDRAM is measured by is theoretical bandwidth and runs at 133MHz, 166MHz, 185MHz, and 200MHz respectively. DDR SDRAM is often referred to running at double its actual speed. This is a marketing ploy in much the same way that hard drive manufacturers call 1,000,000,000 bytes a gigabyte or GB (more on this later). In addition, DDR RAM comes in two variants, CL2 and CL2.5. As with the SDRAM, the CL number relates to how long the memory takes to deal with a command. CL2.5 is slower than CL2.

RAMBUS Dynamic RAM (RDRAM for short) is a competing standard to SDRAM. It is only found on Intel based systems. Like other forms of RAM, RDRAM comes in a range of speeds, PC600, PC700, PC800 and PC1066. PC600 is the slowest RDRAM.

Graphics Card
This is what takes the information from your computer and draws it on the monitor. Graphics cards are far too diverse to go into in this guide and will require a guide of their own. For our purposes all you need to know is that every computer needs a graphics card. In many cases it is built into the north bridge of the chipset. A much better choice is an AGP based graphics card. Your motherboard will support different AGP speeds (1x, 2x, 4x, or 8x). I won’t go any further into graphics card except to say that you want to make sure if you plan on getting a high end card with 8x AGP support, you should also make sure the motherboard you chose supports the 8x AGP speed.

Hard Disk Drive
If the RAM is the temporary store, then hard disk drive (HDD for short) ranks as the filing cabinet. It takes much longer to find anything in the filing cabinet, but it can store far more!

Hard disks come in different capacities and speeds. The capacity is usually measured in gigabytes. Unfortunately manufacturers consider a gigabyte (GB for short) to be 1,000,000,000 bytes, whereas your computer considers a gigabyte to be 1,073,741,824 bytes. This means although you may buy a 120GB disk, your computer will tell you the disk holds 111.7GB. This is normal, if annoying.

Hard disks also come with different interface speeds. The interface is simply the connection between the hard disk and the motherboard. Interface speeds are ATA66, ATA100 and ATA133, from slowest to fastest respectively. The motherboard and hard disk will work out which is the fastest common denominator between them, and use that. That means if your hard disk supports ATA133, but your motherboard only support ATA100, the hard disk will use ATA100.

In addition to the interface speeds, hard disks come in different physical speeds. There are two factors to physical speed, access time and RPM. The RPM is a measure of how fast the disks inside spin. Generally, the faster the disks spin, the faster the mechanism can get the information off the disks. The access time is how long it takes the disk to find the bit of information requested. The lower the access time, the faster the disk can start to send information to the rest of the computer.

Just to throw in the last bit of confusion, hard disk drives also have a cache to store frequently used information. The bigger this cache is, the more information can be stored without having to look it up.

Power Supply Unit
Or PSU. Your computer will not work without power. A cheap PSU may affect system stability so it is a good idea to always purchase a high quality PSU. The only type of PSU we will discus here is an ATX PSU. They can either be a micro ATX, which will be a smaller PSU, designed to fit into a micro ATX case. A standard ATX PSU is designed to fit into a mid tower, full tower or desktop case. Both of these will have a 20-pin ATX connector and several 4-pin Molex connectors. A P4 ready PSU has an extra connector for power to the CPU. There is also a server ATX PSU that has a 24 pin ATX connector that is mainly used for some dual CPU motherboards. PSU are rated in watts. I would recommend a minimum 300w PSU and a 400w if you plan on a fast CPU and Graphics card along with case fans and extra peripherals.

Case or Enclosure
A case is an integral part of a system. It house all the parts of you system. It must provide good airflow. It also it needs to have enough room for all of your drives and accessories. There are several different sizes, micro towers for mATX motherboards, mid towers for ATX motherboards, full towers for ATX or eATX motherboards. Micro towers are too small and impractical for home builders and are usually low cost solutions for large-scale manufacturers like Compaq or Dell. Mid towers are the most popular size and have enough room a CD ROM and a separate CD-RW, along with a floppy, 2 HDD, and at least 2 extra cooling fans for airflow. A full tower will provide more room than most people could ever think of using. Space for 4 HDD, five 5 ¼ bays for CD ROMs or sound card panels, or anything else you can think of including a water cooling system. There are two schools of thought when it comes to cases. Buy a high quality case with all the extras and functionality or buy a cheap case and modify it to suit your needs. Cases can be modified with blowholes, windows, paint jobs, or just extra fans. It is a personal choice so it’s up to you.

Heat Sink Fan
HSF or another device is required to keep your CPU cool. Without cooling, a modern CPU can overheat and burn up in a fraction of a second. Never, never, never power up your system without a Heat sink and fan attached to your CPU. HSF can be made out of copper or aluminum. Copper cools better but is much heavier and more costly. A fan is used to push air though the heat sink. A powerful fan may be too loud for you to bear but a weak fan may not be enough to keep your CPU adequately cool.

Components that are not necessary but that every working PC should have

CD-ROM Drive
A CD-ROM drive is designed to read the information from a CD-ROM. Most commercial software comes packaged on a CD-ROM now. CD-ROM drives are available at many different speeds. The faster the speed, the faster the CD-ROM drive rotates the CD inside. However, see the DVD-ROM section.

Sound Card
If you want sound from your system, you’ll need something to generate the sound. Some motherboards have built in sound, which will be adequate at best. Separate sound cards offer different features that you may be interested in. Some sound cards have high quality converters that generate less distortion, and a cleaner sound, and are more suitable for audio work. Some sound cards have multiple outputs, so you can connect them up to a surround system in order to enjoy surround sound. Other soundcards have digital outputs and inputs, so you can hook them up to other equipment with digital input and outputs.

Floppy Disk Drive
Although a floppy disk doesn’t store very much information in the current world, it can be very handy in some circumstances. For example transferring small documents can be done easily with a floppy. In addition, a floppy disk can be nearly essential if something goes wrong with the computer. The computer can be started from a floppy disk in order to do certain maintenance operations. This includes recovering the computer from a virus infection!

Internet Access
Let’s face it; the Internet is becoming big business! In order to connect to the Internet you’ll need one of two devices.

A modem acts as the adapter between the telephone system and a computer. It translates the computer data into strange tones (like a fax machine), which can be sent across telephone lines. A modem is great for people who only want to sent and receive email, or occasionally browse the web. If you want to use the Internet more heavily, then a modem might not be the best for you. The modem has the advantage that most people have a fixed telephone line, and it simply plugs in to the telephone line.

Modems come in many shapes and sizes, but most operate at 56K (that is, they can receive up to 7,000 bytes of information a second. This might sound fast, but look at how big things like pictures and documents can be!). Some modems are internal; that is they fit inside the computer. Other modems are external; a separate box that connects to the PC. External modems are more expensive, but have the advantage that they are easy to move from one PC to another.

Some modems do all the work of converting the information that is sent to and from the computer. These are called “controller based” modems. They tend to be more expensive, but will work with any operating system, and with any computer with the correct connection. If you know you’re going to use an OS (Linux, BSD, OS/2 and others) other than Windows, then a “controller based” modem is a safer option.

Other modems only do the work of physically connecting the PC to the phone line safely. These modems rely on the processor in the computer to do the hard work of converting the information. These modems tend to be called “Win-Modems”, and will only work with Windows. They also tend to be cheaper.

As a basic rule of thumb all external modems that connect to a serial port are controller based. All external modems that connect to a USB port are win-modems. Internal modems can be either controller based or software based.

Network Card
The network card is a slightly different beast. It is designed to connect computers together. However, with the advent of devices like Cable Modems, the network card is also being used to connect PCs to the Internet. With cheap routers becoming more widely available, it is now possible to connect more than one PC up to the same cable modem, and have them all be able to use the Internet.

Network cards come in several different speeds. Originally, there was only one speed, 10Mbps (10 Megabits per second). However, as with everything computer related, faster cards came out. Now there are three main standards, 10Mbps, 100Mbps and 1000Mbps. 10Mbps is informally known as “ten meg”, 100Mbps as “hundred meg” and 1000Mbps as “gigabit”. Most modern cards support both 10Mbps and 100Mbps, automatically working out which speed they are connected at. Cards that support both these two slower speeds are known as 10/100 cards (or informally as “ten one hundred” cards).

Gigabit cards and equipment is far more expensive, and rare in the home. Most manufacturers produce equipment that supports 10Mbps, or both 10 and 100Mbps.

Connecting multiple computers together is outside the scope of this guide, and extra equipment is needed!

The following devices are not necessary, but can be a nice addition.

Some software is now available on DVD-ROM. A DVD-ROM looks like a CD, but stores far more information (Nearly 14 times as much!). However, a DVD-ROM drive is needed in order to read the DVD-ROM! In addition, a DVD-ROM drive can also read a CD-ROM, so you do not need a separate CD-ROM drive to read CDs.

With the addition of a decoder, you can also view DVD movies and some special DVD content on your PC. Decoders come either in software form, or in hardware form. A retail DVD-ROM drive will usually come with a software decoder packaged on a CD-ROM. An OEM DVD-ROM drive doesn’t come with any decoder! Some graphics cards may also be packaged with a software DVD decoder.

CD-RW Drive
If you want to be able to write to a writable (or rewritable) CD, then you need a device that can write as well as read. The CD-RW drive can read ordinary CDs, CD-ROMs, as well as read and write CD-R (write once CDs) and CD-RW (rewritable CDs). A CD-RW drive can be used to compile CDs with your favorite songs on, record your own music for friends (or for that record deal!), store photos and videos, and to backup and archive important information. Since these drive can read a CD-ROM it is not necessary to also have a CD ROM drive, but I would suggest having an independent CD or DVD ROM drive for ease of use.

Hope this helps.
Maurice (aka Staz)

Many thanks to Aidan II for his invaluable help in preparing this guide.

Last edited by Daniel ~; 26th June, 2003 at 09:57 PM.
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