Computers are used in many aspects of modern life; their main effect is in the home or workplace. The main difference with these computers is that computers in the home will be used for many things (games, internet, entertainment etc.) whereas ones in the workplace will be mainly engineered to do only a few necessary things. This freedom with the home pc has driven some users to modify their PCs to be exactly what they need to run games at the highest possible settings. I will be looking at the different components of a computer, their development, then will be giving an example of a high-end gaming computer with all the necessary equipment to get online.
The main backbone of any computer system is the motherboard; this is the main device into which everything is connected (hard drives, RAM, CPU etc.). The design of a motherboard, however, is dependent on the type of CPU that is going to be used. There are two CPU companies, Intel and AMD, and a motherboard can only be developed for one company not more information on CPU's will be discussed later on. The expansion slots on the motherboard (PCI [Peripheral Component Interconnect], PCI-Express, AGP [Accelerated Graphics Port]) are where items such as graphics cards, sound cards and physics cards are connected. There are various types of PCI slots (PCI-E, PCI 2.0) and they hold different cards. Graphics cards will be connected to the PCI-E slot (x16 slot). TV cards are normally connected on the PCI-E x1 slot [x1 and x16 are the speeds of the slots, this is calculated by multiplying the number proceeding the x by 250Mb/s (therefore x16 = 4 GB/s transfer speed)]. On the back panel of the motherboard are all the external connections, such as mouse and keyboard [PS/2], parallel port, audio [if supported], USB and Ethernet connections to name just a few. Due to advancements in technology most motherboards now boast 5.1 audio inputs along with e-Sata and more USB interfaces. Beside the CPU there are two chips on the motherboard that control all communication, the north and south bridges. The north bridge controls communication between the video output, RAM and CPU, whereas the south is in control of the input and output information. The motherboard also holds the BIOS (Basic Input Output System) which, in short, contains all the code required to allow usage of the keyboard, mouse disk drives etc...
CPU (Central Processing Unit)
As stated before, there are two companies producing processors - Intel and AMD. There are several series of processors within each company, for example AMD has the Athlon 64, Athlon 64 X2, and Turion to name just a few, and the same is for Intel with the Pentinum 1 - 4, Core 2 Duo and Core 2 Extreme. Within each series there are different processors with different core speeds and cache capacity (e.g. AMD Athlon 64 X2 5200+, AMD Athlon 64 X2 6000+). Most systems today have dual-core CPU's. These are basically what they sound like, two processors in one. The benefits this has over a standard single core CPU is that whilst one CPU is working on a task the other can access the system bus and get another task, thus making the system more efficient. Quad core systems are now on the market, this is the same concept as a dual core system expect instead of two cores there are four. There are a two parts to a CPU. Firstly there is the ALU (Arithmetic Logic Unit), this is in charge of all the arithmetic that needs to be done, from simple sums to more complicated AND OR functions. Secondly there is the control unit, this lets the CPU communicate with the rest of the computer, sending signals to the appropriate devices that the current instruction that is being carried out requires. Besides these two units there are a few registers that hold information on current tasks and upcoming tasks
RAM (Random Access Memory)
RAM is also known as the computer memory; it provides short-term storage of data. As RAM is volatile, when the power is turned off the data in the RAM is lost. There a few types of RAM, namely, “SRAM” (Static RAM), “DDR RAM” (Double Data Rate RAM) and “DDR2 RAM” (Double Data Rate RAM 2). DDR2 RAM is what will most likely be inside a modern home computer, although DDR3 is now becoming more popular and in a few years will be the “status-quo” for home computer RAM. Until 2005 SDRAM was considered to be the normal RAM to be used, but this quickly changed with increasing processor speeds and demands from computers. SDRAM has a maximum, official, speed of 133 Mhz. Compare this to DDR RAM's maximum speed of 400 Mhz and DDR2 RAM's sped of 800 Mhz, and you can see why it changed. DDR RAM effectively doubles the efficiency of aRAM stick by using both sides together, DDR2 does exactly the same except it boasts much faster clock speeds. RAM is used by all applications, whether they be games, office utilities or operating systems, to load data that is needed quickly. Increasing the amount of RAM in a computer can greatly increase speeds. It's common to find 2-4 GB in most modern 32-bit systems.
Again, there are two companies that produce the chips used in graphics cards, “nVidia” and “ATI”. These companies produce the chipset for the cards (with set clock speeds). It's the manufactures of cards that customize the clock speeds to push the card to its limits. This process is called “Factory overclocking” (same as normal overclocking, but instead this is done by the manufacturer and is no risk to the user). Each company has a “series” of chips and within this series are individual chips of different features. Take “nVidia” for example, they have many series of cards (GeForce 4, 5, 6, 7 and now 8), yet within this series are a number of other cards, each with their own set of stats e.g. GeForce 8600, GeForce 8800. There are also chips which are “super” version of others. These chips are often identified by a “GT” or “GTS” after the card number, e.g. GeForce 8800GT. With the introduction of higher specification cards they have also created the “GTX” and “Ultra” chips which, like the “GT” and “GTS”, are better versions of an existing chip, but these cards push the chips as much as possible. The same is for “ATI” but they have their own naming convention. The companies that customize these cards to sell under their name are ones like “XFX”, “BFG” and “Gigabyte”. Graphics cards have many different technical specifications, but the ones these companies mainly look at are the core speed, the memory speed, the memory size and sometimes the way the card is cooled (normally via a fan). Recent cards (Geforce 8800 mainly) have increased in length quite a bit and this has resulted in issues with cards covering SATA slots on motherboards. There is also a new trend to have two (or more in some cases) graphics cards in a machine, this is done by using “SLi” [Scalable Link Interface] (if using nVidia cards) or “Crossfire” (if using ATI cards). This process requires the user to have two identical cards and a motherboard that supports this feature too. Though having two cards in theory would give a 100% increase in graphics power, this is not the case. It is normally around a 50% increase (if that). A lot of programs have issues with systems with dual graphics cards, and it is not uncommon to find that games need special drivers installed to use these functions, and then performance is jeopardised.
Sound cards have advanced a lot since their beginnings in the 1980's. Initially they were not compatible with the IMB PC, which meant that users were left with the beeps and blips coming from the internal speaker (the beep made during a system POST check is made by the internal speaker). As time advanced, so did the technology, and today we have sound cards capable of delivering cinema style 7.1 audio, and they can even emulate 7.1 sound on a 2.1 system. Probably the most popular sound cards at the moment are the “Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi” cards. They have many different cards within the X-Fi range, and their specialities vary per card. There are cards designed purely for gaming named the “Fatal1ty” gamer cards (after Johnathan “Fatal1ty” Wendel [professional gamer]), they also manufacture ones that cater to audiophiles with the “Xtreme Audio”. These are just two examples of the cards they offer. The obvious benefit of these cards over “on-board” (from the motherboard) audio is the quality. The cards are dedicated to the sound and only the sound, so the quality is greatly improved.
Hard drives are the main storage devices in any computer system where all the installed programs and operating systems are stored. They are non-volatile, which means they retain their data even after the power is turned off (unlike RAM). Systems can have as much hard drive storage space as the user wants. It's not uncommon these days to see systems with a terabyte of space. The quality of a hard drive is determined by a few factors other than the capacity, the seek time; the rotation speed, and the cache size also determine the quality. If a hard drive has a huge capacity, and spins at 7200 rpm but only has a 1Mb cache and a 30ms seek time, then it's going to be a poor quality hard drive. The average rotation speed is 7200 rpm, but some companies like Western Digital have made hard disks that spin at 10000 rpm (part of the “Raptor” series), but these have been known to overheat and crash due to the fast rotations. Hard drive failure is something that worries a lot of pc users, but with sufficient backup it shouldn't be a problem. There are now external hard drives that can connect via USB, Firewire, or more recently e-Sata. These are a good resource on which to backup important data as if there is an error that causes the internal hard drives to fail, the external one will not be affected. The way in which hard drives connect to the motherboard is also changing. In past years they used to connect via an IDE (Integrated Drive Electronics)[also known as a PATA (Parallel Advanced Technology Attachment)]cable to the corresponding socket on the motherboard. Today, however, as technology moves forward we are seeing more and more hard drives connect via SATA (Serial Advanced Technology) connections. This connection is much faster than IDE (SATA is 3.5 GB/s, compared to IDE's 133 Mb/s [maximum]
Case: Antec 900
CPU: AMD 64 X2 6000+ (3.0 Ghz)
Graphics Card: XFX 8800GT Alpha Dog XXX Edition
Hard drive: 2xSamsung SpinPoint T 400 GB (RAID 0), External 500 GB Western Digital My Book Premium ES Edition
Headset: Creative Fatal1ty
Keyboard: Saitek Eclipse
Memory: 4 GB (2x2 GB) OCZ PC2-6400 800 MHz Reaper
Monitor: Samsung SM226BW 22inch LCD
Motherboard: ASUS M2N32-SLi-Premium Vista Edition
Mouse: Logitech G5
OS: Windows XP SP2
Power Supply: Enermax Liberty 620W
Sound Card: XFi-Fatal1ty Championship Edition
All these components were selected as they are not out of the price range of your average gamer, yet they will run any game (bar Crysis, as this is a game that even the highest specification computers struggle with) at its maximum specification without any slow down or lag. They were picked from customer reviews on Overclockers UK and Scan Computers, and also from firsthand experience.
The operating for this gaming system is Windows XP because there is a lot more support from games and software for it. Even though Vista has been out for over a year there are a lot of programs and games that do not support it, and if they do, they run worse than they would on an XP machine. Vista does support DirectX 10 but the benefits of this over DirectX9.c are yet to be completely determined. The differences in presentation are so minute that you would have to completely pause the gameplay to notice them, when you're in the rush of battle the minute differences aren't important. Vista has been proven to fall behind XP in many benchmarking tests performed on TomsHardware.com. XP has got lots of support around on the internet, lots of updates and patches for it, and it's hard to find a program that doesn't work with it. There are also Linux operating systems around too, but there are very few applications that work 100% with them. The same is for Mac OS, there is not a lot of gaming or software support for it to make it worth having for gaming.
To connect a system to the internet you need, firstly, an ISP (Internet Service Provider). This is a company that has the ability to connect you to the World Wide Web. There are many companies out there, Zen, Virgin Media, BT, AOL and Bulldog to name a few. They all offer different connection speeds and packages, but they all do the same basic function; they connect you to the net. If a user only has one computer to connect to the net they will only need the external modem (normally supplied by their ISP) to convert analogue signals into digital ones so that the computer can understand them. If a user requires to connect more than one computer to the net, how they do this will be determined by the type of connection they have (ADSL or Cable). If using an ADSL connection, an ADSL modem routercan be purchased which will perform the tasks of a modem whilst allowing multiple computers to be connected to it. If using a Cable connection the user will have to purchase a Cable router and connect the modem to that. This will perform the same task but it will mean having to use an extra piece of equipment. The connection between the modem, or router, to the computer is made via an Ethernet cable. Most modern day systems have either one or two Ethernet ports on the motherboard. If a system does not have an Ethernet port on the motherboard, users can purchase additional PCI cards that have the required ports on them (NIC cards [Network Interface Cards]).
Gaming online is as simple as installing the game, loading it up and finding a server to play on. The biggest aspect of online gaming, however, is the community side to it. Many people form together to make “clans” or “guilds”, and to perform effectively they require certain software. Every version of Windows XP comes with Windows Messenger, which is now known as “Windows Live Messenger”, and whilst this serves its purpose as an instant messaging device, it is not geared towards gaming. Programs such as “Xfire” and “Gamespy Arcade” allow users to chat to each other in-game, and to easily play together with the touch of a button. Typing is not the quickest way to get a point across in online gaming, which is why programs like “Teamspeak” and “Ventrillo” were created. They follow the same principle as programs like “Skype” as they are VOIP programs (Voice over Internet Protocol), except instead of making “calls” users go into set rooms to talk.
There are a lot of viruses on the internet these days, but it's not that hard to protect a computer against them. There are many Anti-Virus programs that require a subscription fee, but there are also a few that don't. The main difference between anti-virus programs that are paid for and those that aren't is that the ones that aren't generally get virus updates a little bit after the paid for ones, a very small price to pay for having it free. AVG is a very popular anti-virus and is available in free and subscription versions. A user will also need some form of Anti-Spyware program (AVG Anti-Spyware, Spybot Search & Destroy) to stop phishing and other forms of data capture on their computer from happening. The same is for these as it is for the anti-virus; you can buy them or get free versions. This software is essential for anyone who is using the internet to download music or movies, or for anyone who uses the internet for banking. A firewall (Zone Alarm) may also need to be installed, but these are mainly found on servers. They only allow certain applications to use the internet, and if anything needs to use the internet an alert is often made to the user.
As the inside components of a computer become custom to each user, it's not a shock to see that even the aesthetics of a system are as well. LED lights, window cases, neon lights and more add a personal touch to each system. It's not uncommon to find most computers have at least one fan with LED lights on it. Most cases today have windows in the side so that all the components can be seen. It's a way of showing off your system and all the expensive parts inside. Computer modification may look nice, but it's not cheap and often power supplies have to be increased to cope with all the extra lights and fans. Bibliography
PC Review - Motherboard
XFX - Graphics Cards
Creative - Sound Cards
CP65 - CPU
Toms Hardware - XP vs Vista (all pages of article)
Patrick Schmid, Achim Roos
MPA Systems - RAM explained