Computers Microcomputer System

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Computers in the 21st century are very much a part of everyday life and are used in a vast range of roles, from business, commercial to educational, as well as a wealth of recreational purposes. These machines differ to suit specific duties, though all contain a complex system of hardware components that are necessary to allow computers to perform even the most basic of tasks.

A modern microcomputer system, such as those typically found in a home or office environment, will contain a number of common, key components. At the centre is the motherboard, a large printed circuit board to which some of the computer's hardware components are directly mounted. These components are mostly integrated circuits (ICs) made of silicon and connected by conducting tracks. Some components that provide audio, networking and limited graphics capabilities are now on-board, though these often have limited scope and are generally only suitable for basic tasks. A motherboard usually has parallel ports and increasingly, since the late nineties, USB ports for connecting Input/Output devices. Monitors, printers, external drives, keyboards, a mouse and other peripheral devices are connected to the machine through these ports. An ethernet port shall also be present, where network cards are on-board, which allow connections to LANs and the internet.

The Central Processing Unit (CPU), or microprocessor, is the main component that carries out calculations upon data at the core of the system, and will be slotted into the motherboard. Also on the motherboard of a microcomputer are slots for primary storage known as Random Access Memory (RAM), which provides temporary, limited storage that can be accessed quickly by the CPU. There are many different sizes and speeds of RAM, though the presence of these are vital to the efficient running of a computer.

Secondary storage is connected to the motherboard via IDE or Serial Advanced Technology Attachment (SATA) ports. These are used to store data on a more permanent basis, and retain information when the power supply is switched off, unlike RAM. These devices will usually include hard drives, and readers for removable storage such as CD and DVD drives, and possibly tape readers for business use.

Peripheral Component Interconnect (PCI) slots are used to connect additional cards for audio, video and graphics processing to the motherboard. While these cards are not essential, they are commonplace in many multimedia and gaming PCs which run programs that demand higher quality or faster output than the standard components of the computer would otherwise be able to provide.

A combination of fans and heatsinks are often present to aid cooling of the components, especially processors that can generate a considerable amount of heat, and to improve the circulation of air inside the computer while the power is on. For high-end PCs, these cooling systems can be elaborate and very expensive.

To power the computer, a Power Supply Unit (PSU) must be installed to supply power to the motherboard, cards and other devices. A normal PSU can supply around 300W for an average computer, though specialised machines need much larger PSUs to be able to operate.

All of these components must be protected and contained to be able to run, and because of this, a case to place the hardware into is as important as the components themselves. Cases come in many different forms, and range greatly in price and styles.

In addition to the inner workings of a computer, Input/Output (I/O) devices are required. A keyboard, monitor and mouse are needed to be able to interact and operate the system as a user. Other I/O devices may include printers, speakers, scanners and graphics tablets, that all connect directly to the motherboard or to installed cards through a range of different external ports.

At the present time, trends in hardware components in PCs include multi-core processors, such as dual-core and quad-core. These are independent processors on a single IC that are capable of far more than a single processor. While Quad-core is available, much of the software currently available does not make use of this extra power, though this will certainly change in the next few years.

The Motherboard includes ports and plugs to attach hardware and peripherals, and these are changing with the evolution of technology. Parallel ports are fewer and more external devices are connected through USB and USB 2.0 ports. Internal sockets and plugs are developing too with Serial Advanced Technology Attachment (SATA) replacing Parallel (PATA) for secondary storage, and the PCI expansion card interface being phased out in favour of newer PCI-Express (PCI-E) technology.

SDRAM in Double Data Rate (DDR) high-bandwidth format doubles the bandwidth of the memory. This is achieved by transferring data twice per cycle on both the rising and falling edges of the clock signal[1]. DDR2 has been available for a few years, though DDR3 SDRAM is now also available and motherboards such as the Gigabyte GA-P35C-S3 are currently being manufactured in order to exploit this new technology.

Separate graphics cards (GPUs) are popular, especially for computers that are used for digital media and entertainment. These are attached through PCI-E slots on the motherboard and become dedicated processors for visual graphics, taking some of the workload from the CPU. Separate graphics cards have been around for some time, though recently multi-card setups have become popular, such as NVIDIA's Scalable Link Interface (SLI). This links up more than one graphics card for parallel processing, which shares the workload between the cards and increases the graphical processing power of the machine.

Modularisation is also becoming a common set-up with microcomputers. Many components and hardware can be replaced or interchanged to extend the lifespan of the machine and increase its capabilities, such as increasing memory, and installing separate graphics and sound cards. This is particularly useful where PCs are used for gaming and producing visual media where graphics and effects can be demanding in terms of processing power and RAM, and individual components may become obsolete quickly due to improving technology.

In addition to suitable hardware to increase processor speed and resolution, the use of Universal Serial Buses (USB) has allowed further modularisation. Solid state drives, and devices such as keyboards, mouse, printers, MP3 players and game peripherals are often connected through USB ports mounted on the computer. As USB becomes more commonplace, machines now offer many more ports that increase the ability to connect multiple USB devices simultaneously.

Home gaming consoles have started to become more modular since the introduction of the current generation of games consoles. An external HD-DVD Player is available for Microsoft's Xbox 360 as well as removable hard drives. This allows the machine to become much more versatile and enables it to evolve with technology to an extent, increasing its lifespan and capabilities. This is likely to continue in the console market where modularisation and the ability to upgrade may give a product an advantage over its competitors.

A growing sector of the PC market in the last decade involves machines designed primarily for playing games. Desktop computers can, with the right combination of hardware components, match or surpass the capabilities of current generation home consoles. Other advantages include being able to replace hardware to increase the abilities of the machine and the use of input devices such as a keyboard and mouse, which are more popular among dedicated players of first-person shooter games such as Unreal Tournament, Far Cry and Counter Strike than game pads that often have limited functions or responses. Gaming PCs are built with graphics-intensive programs in mind and require advanced processors, separate graphic cards and enough RAM to enable the machine to cope with the demands placed upon it by the software. Lately, more and more of these high-end machines use advanced water cooling systems to keep the temperature of the processor and graphics cards as low as possible, increasing system performance. Sophisticated and elaborate cooling systems in these machines are often also designed to act as a safeguard for when the user attempts to 'overclock' a computer, which pushes the speed of certain components past their default settings and could otherwise cause them to overheat, causing system instability and potential damage to the hardware. Overclocking tends to be a practice carried out only by enthusiasts, and usually voids the warranty of components.

An ideal high-end gaming PC for 2008, which is also capable of running programs such as Adobe Photoshop, 3D Studio Max, UnrealEd and Autodesk's Maya 2008 for modelling, animating and game modification purposes, would need powerful, specialised components geared toward increasing processor power. This would in turn also require a larger PSU and an effective cooling system to keep the machine running at an optimum level.

I have chosen a selection of hardware components to be part of a PC built to high-end gaming specifications as well as being suitable to run the programs mentioned previously, so that this theoretical machine could easily handle advanced game modification and 3D modelling. Starting with the processor, I selected an Intel Core 2 Quad Extreme Edition QX9650, with 3.00GHz clock speed. While it is argued that many current games do not make use of the quad-core and that a dual-core is better suited for gaming PCs, the quad-core processor would be beneficial to the other applications this machine would need to run, though that said, both Crysis and Unreal 3 already take advantage of the new quad-core technology. Eventually more games and programs will utilize this, and the processor's useful life could be longer than a dual-core at this time.

A motherboard compatible with the chosen processor is absolutely necessary. I chose the Asus Striker II Formula nForce 780i PCI-Express DDR2, which was determined mainly due to the processor, but also because it supports DDR2 RAM and SLI technology for graphics cards, and also offers PCIe ports and ten USB 2.0 ports. This should be more than enough to allow for modularization, offer enough ports for peripherals and other devices, reducing the need to swap them over when needed.

For primary storage, I decided on four Corsair 4GB DDR2 XMS2 QUAD Dominator PC2-8500C5 Quad2X modules to give my system 4GB of RAM. These DDR2 modules are compatible with the motherboard and would be sufficient to give the system enough RAM to operate comfortably. In addition, I would purchase a Corsair Memory Cooler to keep the temperature of the memory modules down when in use.

For secondary storage, a Seagate Barracuda ES.2 1TB hard drive would be installed. This is connected to the motherboard via SATA, and the 1TB of storage space would be more than enough to hold a wealth of game titles plus several high-end 3D modeling programs with plenty of free space to spare. An additional optical drive needs to be included in the system and this would be the LG GGC-H20L Blu-Ray Reader & HD-DVD ROM Serial ATA Drive, chosen as it is capable of reading Blu-Ray Discs, HD-DVDs and standard DVDs as well as being able to operate as a DVD writer.

One of the most crucial features of a PC built for games is its graphics processing capabilities. This is an area in that the machine needs to excel, and this can be achieved with leading GPU cards. To make sure this computer would be capable of playing recent games at high settings, I decided that making use of NVIDIA's SLI technology would be appropriate, and opted for two BFG GeForce 8800 Ultra OC 768MB GDDR3 HDTV/Dual DVI cards working together. This is a fairly extreme choice of hardware but the extra processing power would undoubtedly benefit the system where visual effects are concerned and would definitely take much of the work away from the computer's main processor.

Sound is as important as visuals in a high-end gaming experience, so an additional sound card should be considered. Though the Asus Striker II motherboard has 8-channel on-board audio, a gaming PC usually has separate GPU and sound cards. The Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Platinum Fatal1ty 7.1 Champion Series sound card has an additional I/O drive that allows various external devices to be connected to the computer that may be used for sound editing. Creative also do modular I/O drives though I felt that keeping the audio inputs contained with the rest of the machine would be tidier and easier to manage. To allow the sound card to be used to its full potential, compatible Creative GigaWorks 7.1 S750 THX speakers should be included as part of the set-up, giving the user a full surround-sound experience that enhances the gaming experience.

The PCU of a machine with these specifications would have to be powerful, so I chose the PC Power & Cooling Turbo Cool 1KW-SR 1000W Power Supply. With 1000W output the unit should be able to power this machine without struggling.

A system with this kind of set-up would need to be cooled down to maximize performance, and a number of fans would have to be installed. A way to improve the circulation of air inside the machine could be the AcoustiFan DustProof Quiet 120mm Fan, which is large but quiet and has three speed settings. In addition, the processors should have their own methods of cooling - for the two GeForce 8800 Ultra cards, the Arctic Cooling Accelero Xtreme 8800 VGA Cooler would aid in keeping temperatures down, and is fully compatible with the 8800 and SLI technology. The quad-core Intel processor could be cooled with a Zalman CNPS9700-NT nVidia Tritium CPU Cooler, which is designed for use with the LGA775 socket on the Asus motherboard and processor.

For a case to contain the hardware, I chose the Thermaltake VD500LBNA Sword M Aluminium Full Tower Case for its obvious leaning toward housing a gaming PC. Ventilation is prominent in its design, featuring its own set of cooling fans and convertible hard-top that can be opened as well as ventilation openings all around the case. It is generously sized and my choice of hardware should be able to fit inside, including the dual 8800 SLI cards which are large components on their own.

Input/Output devices should not be overlooked - a powerful gaming PC is made somewhat redundant without a monitor to display its abilities. I decided that a Samsung SM-305T 30" Widescreen LCD monitor would be a suitable addition to the setup, with a 2560x1600 resolution. For user controls, I chose a Logitech DiNovo Edge Bluetooth Keyboard and Logitech MX Revolution Advanced Cordless Mouse, both utilizing wireless technology that allows more freedom of movement for playing games. A Bluetooth adapter would also be required to make use of this set-up, and can be run from one of the motherboard's USB ports.

An essential part of any microcomputer is its operating system (OS). With this comes compatibility issues, and a computer built primarily for gaming should have an OS installed which supports the largest selection of games, including up-and-coming titles due for release.

Windows Vista is the most recent version of Microsoft's OS, recently replacing Windows XP. Vista's interface is attractive though it has been the focus of some negative attention since its release. Vista should perform more than adequately on a new computer constructed for graphics-intensive work, though many users feel that it is still too early to commit to upgrading. Vista includes a feature called ReadyBoost that allows a PC to use free memory on external Flash Drives to augment RAM and this could be a useful feature for gamers on a budget as opposed to buying RAM modules or a new motherboard to increase the memory of their machine. Admittedly, with a high-end specification machine this feature may not be used to its full potential and may not be required at all. Microsoft's focus on security might also have drawbacks - the US firm WildTangent alleged that the corporate giant "has gone overboard" by making Vista so secure it blocks or disables play[2].

Windows XP is Vista's predecessor and is still favoured by many PC users. Service Pack 2 has been available to download for some time and this addresses bugs and security issues on the OS. While this is still currently a suitable platform for games, official support for the OS from Microsoft will cease in a few years and updating to Vista or a similar product will be required sooner than if a newer OS was selected to be installed.

Linux is an alternative OS to windows, and reportedly more stable than products such as XP, though this may prove to be based on user bias and product favouritism. It is open source software and the source code is freely available and can be modified, potentially enabling the OS to be customised to increase efficiency and performance. However, compatibility is an issue for many hardware components and with many game releases, and as a large number of games are released by Microsoft, this is likely to be a major factor in choosing an alternative OS for use in a gaming PC.

After comparing these choices at the present time, Windows XP still appears to be most suitable on grounds of compatibility and performance, though as it is coming close to reaching the end of its marketable life, a new system built with XP may require its OS upgrading soon. That said, the OS is more stable than early versions of Vista and uses less of the processing power of the machine to operate, which is an essential factor when running graphics-intensive programs and games. Until more games list Vista in their basic system requirements and Service Packs are released to remedy some of Vista's issues, Windows XP 64-Bit edition would be the choice I make for my gaming PC's OS, as 32-Bit operating systems do not support 4GB of system memory.

With recent global gaming trends increasingly moving toward online-based multiplayer games and consoles such as the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 providing Wide Area Networks (WAN) where players can compete, a computer created with gaming in mind must also be able to access the internet in order to connect to global servers dedicated to any games that the user may have purchased.

Firstly, hardware needs to be installed to enable access to the internet. For my machine, I chose a D-Link DKT-410/B 300Mbps Cable/DSL Wireless Starter Kit. This hardware should enable fast data transfer rates. To be able to connect online, an Internet Service Provider (ISP) subscription is required, such as those offered by BT, Virgin Media and AOL. These require different forms of payment and offer a variety of services but are essential for any computer to be able to reach websites, gaming communities and servers online. These ISPs often provide modems as part of their service though alternatively, ADSL Modems can be purchased seperately. In addition to online gaming, Local Area Network (LAN) games should also be considered as an alternative multiplayer gaming experience. LAN gaming also requires a network card to be installed in the machine and ports for Ethernet cables, though motherboards sometimes have on-board ports and network cards.

Security is increasingly important as technology progresses, especially when computers are connected to the internet and can be particularly vulnerable when downloading content, creating accounts for games and accessing peer-to-peer networks. A firewall should be set up to regulate traffic flow from unpredictable locations online and across networks. Antivirus software may also be installed and this may take the form of freeware, shareware or commercially available software packs. Traditionally, purchased antivirus software offers a much more extensive level of protection but these may be expensive, and cease to offer updates if the software subscription is not paid. All antivirus software needs to be updated and maintained regularly to continue to be effective in protecting the computer system and removing harmful or volatile programs in the event of an attack.

In this report I have attempted to identify the key components of a typical desktop microcomputer, commented on recent developments in these components, and proceeded to describe the hardware required to make a PC built specifically for high-end gaming and game editing. Though the set-up I have described would requite a large budget beyond that of the average gaming enthusiast, it illustrates the level of power that can be achieved with technology that is available on the market today. PCs have evolved rapidly since their introduction to the home environment and this is a trend that is likely to continue with each passing year.



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