Table of Contents
Welcome to Computer Hardware 101, a basic overview of what-is-what in computers. Hopefully this article will leave you with a basic understanding of the nuts and bolts of your typical computer hardware, and equip you to make informed decisions about what you need in your next computer. Here’s a short list of questions that I hope this article will help you answer:
- What do all the part numbers mean?
- What does each piece of hardware do? Which parts are right for you?
- How can you figure out the bottlenecks in your current system?
Let’s start by taking a look at all the major components that make up your standard computer. The first piece of hardware that we’ll take a look at is the motherboard, Or you can jump directly to any page:
The motherboard is the very fundamental core of your system. Every single piece of hardware in your computer connects to it.
If you’re house shopping, the motherboard would be the property upon which the house is built – it’s the foundation of your investment, and it will influence many of the house-building decisions that will follow.
The motherboard will dictate a lot of things such as which type of processors your computer will use or how many different expansion cards it will hold. It is responsible for moving information between your other pieces of hardware, and the speed at which it can do this will vary. Generally a more expensive model will move information around quicker, and have more built-in features.
The motherboard has a built in “chipset”. This chipset acts like an Air Traffic Controller, directing information around your motherboard and making sure things get to where they’re supposed to go. Like most PC components, motherboards have faster models and slower models available, with the higher-speed models generally being accompanied by a higher price tag.
Modern motherboards do another very important thing: They provide you with a lot of basic services that you’ll need. Typically, modern motherboards include a network port (which is used to connect to a network, or internet), and a few USB ports (for all sorts of useful devices: mouse, keyboards, digital cameras, printers, and scanners to name a few). Some models even include built-in sound cards or very basic video cards. Finding out the features of your motherboard is a great way to make a shopping list for the rest of your computer.
Once you decide on a motherboard, you’ll need to make sure that all your other components are compatible with it. For example, if your motherboard has a PCI-Express slot, you’ll want a PCI-Express Video card. Most system builders don’t give you motherboard selection options. Those who do, like Puget Custom Computers (shameless plug!), should have a smart configuration page which will tailor your available hardware choices to those which are compatible with your selected motherboard.
If you’re into gaming or another 3D heavy application, selecting your motherboard is a very critical choice. You’ll want a modern chipset, and maybe even a motherboard that can support running multiple video cards at a once. Less demanding uses (email, internet, music, movies and office applications) don’t demand the latest motherboards and you can save a bit of money by considering one of the value lines rather than the premium.
Start by making a list of computer needs. How many USB ports would you like? Did you just need basic stereo sound, or did you want 8.1-channel surround sound? Write out all the things that you’d like to have in your system. Do you have a good idea which processor you want? Using this list, select a motherboard that seems to suit your needs. Now cross off all the features this motherboard offers that are on your list. You’re left with a handy shopping list for the rest of the system.
When motherboard shopping, if you think that you might have a future need for the features of a high-end motherboard, I suggest that you buy that motherboard up front. Replacing a motherboard is the most laborious, and often dangerous endeavor in computer upgrades and it can even invalidate some of your other hardware choices. Trust me when I say that it’s a pain in the neck!
So if you think you might need that faster chipset, or that onboard RAID controller, then I recommend you go for it! It could just save you a headache down the road.
As with most hardware, it’s good to stick to a reputable name brand manufacturer. Asus, Abit, MSI, Intel and Tyan are all motherboards that I trust. If you’re buying the system from a builder, check to see if they have a preferred brand of motherboard. Since they’ll also be providing support for your system, it’s a good idea to select a motherboard that they’re very familiar with.
The processor is the part of the computer that does the math. Every single thing your computer does involves your processor running many (most likely millions) of calculations, and telling the rest of your system how to behave.
Certain applications are especially calculation heavy. Playing games, editing videos, pictures or music, and any sort of 3D design or modeling are all very demanding on your CPU, so it’s important that you choose your processor wisely. In fact, when I help people configure a system, the first step is determining which CPU will work best for their applications.
There are many different types of processors being manufactured by different companies, but for the purpose of this article, I’ll stick to the two companies that comprise 99% of the market share: AMD and Intel. “Which is better?” is not an easy question to answer. People have written volumes extolling the virtues of one processor, while condemning the flaws of others, and these battle lines are constantly being redrawn as contemporary hardware evolves.
Processors are reaching speed limits where they can’t get any faster while remaining stable and not overheating. The newest trend to combat this challenge is by moving to Dual Core processors. Think of this as 2 processors being combined into a single physical chip. Your system can split up the load between the two of them, giving you a performance increase without pushing processors beyond the stable heat limits.
Dual Core processors are being embraced by more and more developers, and their costs have dropped to make them competitive with the rest of the market. Even programs that aren’t specifically written for dual core processors can still have a performance increase when your operating system can use one core to handle a good portion of the background tasks. Multi-tasking is the true strength of Dual Core processors. With a new version of Windows around the corner that promises more system overhead, I find that I have a very hard time recommending single-core processors these days.
What do the numbers mean?
The Megahertz Myth
Each processor has a clock speed, which is the approximate number of mathematical operations that the CPU can do per second. The latest processors are breaking 3.8 Billion calculations per second. Initially, the idea seems pretty simple: The faster the clock speed, the better the processor, right?
Unfortunately, no. It’s not that simple.
Processors have to move data along paths called “pipelines”, and the length of these pipelines are different, depending on the CPU. AMD processors tend to have much lower clock speeds, but also shorter pipelines. Think about it this way: Intel has a longer distance to drive, but drives a faster car. The AMD CPU’s have slower cars, but live very close to their destination.
So, when choosing a processor, don’t be fooled by the “megahertz myth”. Different processor architectures are really apples and oranges, and it’s very hard to compare them. The best way to do this is by examining “Benchmarks” from a reputable source. The goal of a benchmark is to keep all the other variables in a system constant, while comparing the real-world performance differences between different hardware. One of the best websites around for this is Toms Hardware Guide. You can find their hardware CPU charts here: http://www23.tomshardware.com/cpu.html
They include a wide variety of benchmark tests, which simulate the different type of applications you might be using: Gaming, 3D Rendering, Video Editing, File Compression, etc.
Selecting the right processor can be tricky business. It’s often really hard to know which applications are particularly CPU intensive, and which aren’t. Here are a few guidelines to help you out.
Highly demanding tasks: Video games, any sort of encoding (music or video production), media editing (pictures, video, music).
Less demanding tasks: Internet Browsing, email, office applications, listening to music, watching videos.
If your computer usage falls under the “Highly demanding tasks”, you should consider a CPU on the upper end of the market, and invest a significant portion of your computer budget here. For example, if you’re doing a lot of multi-tasking, or any sort of Media Editing or Encoding, you will see significant performance increases from a “Dual Core Processor”. If your tasks don’t demand much of the processor, then aim for the “sweet spot” of the market, which is where you get the most bang-for-your-buck. Generally this “sweet spot” region is found in the middle of the modern processor lineup.
There’s also a specific niche of processors designed to be low-power and low-temperature. These should be seriously considered if you’re purchasing a laptop or a computer where fan-noise is a serious concern. Any salesperson at any respectable company should be able to help you with this decision.
Did you know that Windows has a built in CPU Usage Monitor? When running Windows XP, hit Ctrl + Alt + Delete, to bring up the Task Manager. Select the tab at the top labeled “Performance”. Now go about your day with that monitor running in the corner of your window, and keep an eye on it. If you’re running your favorite program, and the CPU Usage never drops below 100%, you’ve identified one major bottleneck — your CPU!
These days, there’s very little reason not to buy Dual Core. Even for laptops, they’re starting to produce low-voltage Dual Core CPUs. If you’re in the market, I recommend you seriously consider a Dual Core Processor.
I also recommend investing more in your CPU than other areas of your system, if you’re on a tight budget. It’s easy to add more RAM, or upgrade your Video Card down the road, but replacing your CPU is a bit trickier – You’d have to remove the Fan, insert the new CPU (don’t bend any pins!), reapply thermal grease, and remount the fan. So, investing in a solid CPU can save you a lot of headache down the road, while many of the other components are a relatively painless upgrade.
Memory is like a blank piece of paper that your computer keeps notes in. Memory is accessed faster than your hard drive, so when your computer is running programs it copies information to your Memory, where it can quickly edit and access it. Memory only temporarily stores this information, and is constantly loading and unloading new information. The memory cannot permanently store information, which is why you lose unsaved information if your computer crashes or you lose power.
Memory has 2 important features to keep in mind: Size and Speed.
The size of memory you have, is usually expressed in Megabytes or Gigabytes, depending on how much you have. (1024 megabytes is 1 gigabyte). A few years back, 64 megabytes was a tremendous amount of memory for your computer to have. Today, I would sell a system with no less than 512 megabytes, and usually recommend 1 or 2 gigabytes of memory, depending on the customers’ performance demands.
The primary measure of your memory speed is the frequency, measured in Hertz, and is sometimes expressed as 400mhz, 667mhz, 800mhz, etc. It’s important that your memory speed synch up with your processor speed.
|It’s hard to make an accurate analogy for the Memory / Processor speed relationship. I like to think of it as two guys using one of those big ol’ lumberjack saws. If they’re not working at the same speed, they’re just not going to get anything done!|
RAM also has an attribute called “Latency”, which is best described by with another cliché car anology. As the term suggests, the latency is how long it takes the RAM to ‘get going’, much like the 0-to-60 measurements in car acceleration. The smaller the latency, the faster your RAM gets up to speed.
There’s also a common feature found on memory called “Dual Channel”. To simply sum this up, it means that RAM runs faster in pairs than it does as a single stick. So in theory, 2x 512mb sticks will give you more performance than a single 1024mb stick. Matching your RAM and CPU speed often involves significant amounts of math, and would best be left for a different article. In most cases, you can hope that the computer builder has done his research and matched the memory and processor together to maximize your performance.
It’s fair to say that more RAM is usually a good thing. You want to make sure you have enough for current and future demands, but not go overboard and spend money that you don’t need to. A typical home user will find 1gb to be plenty of RAM, while a video gamer might need 2gb, and some professional applications even demand 4gb or more!
When choosing your RAM, first come up with a ballpark amount that you’d like. Next, you need to know which type of RAM your CPU and Motherboard require. This might be DDR, SD-RAM, SODIMM, REG ECC, or number of other things that involves a lot of capital letters. Next, every processor should have a list of RAM speeds that it synchronize with. For example, a processor with a FSB (front-side bus) speed of 800 will synch nicely with 400mhz speed RAM. The person who is assembling your system should be able to help you with this.
Finally, you usually have a choice between a low-end and high-end series of RAM. The high-end line will have special timings designed for the fastest memory operation, but will be adjoined with an appropriate price hike. The lower-end series provides the best bang-for-your-buck memory performance. In my experiance, lower-end RAM often has a higher chance of failing than the premium series RAM does.
To start with the question of High-end RAM timings: If you’re maxing out your system with the highest end choices of processor, motherboard, etc, then the high-end RAM is for you. If you’re shopping with budget in mind, I recommend the value series of RAM. The extra money can be better spent elsewhere in the system.
The beauty of RAM is that it’s so easily upgraded. Most often, you don’t even have to replace old RAM – you just add more to it! This is a key to keep in mind when building your system. If you’re on a budget, go with two 512mb sticks of RAM now, and upgrade later on when you can. If you’re building a performance or gaming system, choose two 1024mb sticks. In the end, if it’s not enough RAM, you can just add more.
If your usage is pretty basic, limited to things such as Internet, email, office applications, music and movies, then 2 x 512mb of RAM is a great place to start. However, if you do some pretty intense work: CAD / CAM, video editing, Photoshop or gaming, then you’ll want to start with at least 2x 1024mb.
This is where your computer stores everything. The information written to the Hard Drive stays there, even when the computer is powered off. It does this by having magnetic platters upon which information is stored. These platters spin while a sensor reads the data, much like a record player reads a vinyl album.
Hard Drive storage boils down to 2 major things: Capacity and Speed.
Capacity is how much storage space you have. Video, Music and extremely large picture files are the biggest files that most people use. This storage space is measured in Gigabytes, and drives sizes are fast approaching the Terabyte mark (that’s 1000 Gigabytes!)
Speed is how quickly the hard drive accesses your stored files. On a fast hard drive, Windows boots faster and you can play, move, load, edit and delete files quicky as well. Hard drives speed is measured by the number of “revolutions per minute”, or RPM. Again, to think of your hard drive like a record: The faster you turn it, the more music you can play in the same period of time!
There are different ways that hard drives connect to your motherboard. You might have heard the terms: IDE, SATA, or SCSI. I’ve found that SATA hard drives are ideal for 99% of our customers, and give the best performance for their price.
There are several types of interfaces that hard drives use. For the last decade, almost all hard drives were ATA (Advanced Technology Attachment) format. Now that Serial ATA (SATA) has become the new dominant format, ATA has been retroactively renamed “Parallel ATA” or “PATA”. This format has bandwidth transfer limitations (see below).
What the heck do you mean “hard drive bandwith”?
The hard drive communicates with your motherboard, sending data back and forth between the two. This data is communicated by a cable which could be visualized like a big pipe. Older interfaces, like PATA, are a smaller pipe, and fills up faster. If you try and move too much stuff down the pipe at one time, it’ll back up at one end!
Newer interfaces have a bigger pipe, which let you move more information without getting all stoppered up!
The SATA format has become the new industry standard for hard drives. The transfer rate is vastly increased over ATA, allowing for faster hard drives and longer cables. In addition, SATA has support for better internal connections, which allow for “hot-swapping” and other features which PATA was unable to support.
“SCSI” is another format that has been around for a long time. While SCSI drives are still very fast and very stable, they’re also extremely expensive. When compared to SATA 10,000 RPM hard drives, you get about a 30% performance increase, but you end up paying nearly 300% the price.
The industry is looking to move past these rotational hard drive models, to a solid-state disk which involves no moving parts. While these drives look promising for the future, they’re currently still slower and very expensive.
Hard Drive pricing is certainly not linear. You might find that an 80gb hard drive is only $5 less expensive than a 160gb model. I typically recommend that you look for the “sweet spot”, where you’re getting the most bang for your buck. If you have exceptional storage space needs, you might need to consider the larger, but far more expensive models. Faster hard drives also tend to be smaller, and more expensive. Currently, 10,000rpm hard drives come up to 150gb, while 7,200rpm drives go all the way up to 750gb!
It’s often not easy to estimate your future storage needs. Typically, most users would take years to acquire over 100gb of data. However, a power user who deals with many installed programs or a media enthusiast who collects volumes of music and video might find himself running out of room quickly.
If you’re after speed, a 10,000rpm hard drive is a great solution. The 150gb model is expensive, but gives terrific performance with plenty of storage space for the average user.
Keep in mind that most computers can support 4 or more hard drives, so if you need to expand in the future, you usually have options. Fairly new to the market are external hard drives that connect to your computer via USB or Firewire. One of these lets you easily store your infrequently accessed files, and also gives you a great method of redundant storage for backing up your data. These external drives can store hundreds of gigabytes of data, making them the easiest and largest portable data storage available.
Many users want both speed and capacity, in which case multiple hard drives are a terrific solution. By using a 10,000rpm as your “primary drive”, you can install your operating system and programs onto this smaller drive to take advantage of the high speed, but you can still have a very large “secondary drive” for storing all your large data files.
A lot of hype has been given recently to ‘RAID Arrays’, which is a complex method of combining hard drives to increase either speed or redundancy. It’s my opinion that a RAID array is almost never the ideal solution. The performance increasing RAID setups are doubling your chances of a hard drive failure that destroys all your data, while giving an extremely marginal performance increase. The redundancy-based arrays are great for protecting your data from hardware failure, but don’t remove the need for proper data backup as it gives no protection against a virus or accidental file deletion.
When configuring systems, I consider 10,000rpm hard drives a luxury. If you can afford one, you’ll love it. However, if it falls outside your budget, I wouldn’t let it worry you, you can still get a fast, strong system.
Most importantly, purchase from a well known company and check on the warranty offered by that hard drive manufacturer. The best manufacturers are offering up to 5-year warranties on all their hard drives. You can never go wrong with a good manufacturer warranty.
Put simply, a video card is in charge of outputting a signal to your monitor. Depending on your task, this can be trivial, or very demanding.
This can be a very tricky step to visualize. When I talk to people about their video card needs, often they just know that they want a very clear picture and good graphics. At this point, it’s important to try and separate what is handled by the monitor, what is handled by the video card, and what the relationship is between the two.
The video card is responsible for taking the information from your computer, and preparing it to be shown on your screen. This means it does all the necessary calculations for drawing images, sets the appropriate transparencies and colors, and a whole slew of other things. Once it has done all of the math, it gets ready to send the image to your screen by converting it to the signal that your monitor is expecting.
Traditionally, a video card outputs an analog signal called from a “VGA” port (which stands for Video Graphics Array). Recently, a new pure digital connection has been supplanting VGA as the new standard. This new type of connection is called “DVI”, and has a much better signal quality. DVI is most typically found on Flat-screen LCD monitors. When purchasing a video card, it’s a good idea to know whether or not you will need DVI connections. A $5 adapter will let you convert a DVI signal down to VGA, but you cannot go from VGA up to DVI without significant costs (as a bonus, most DVI capable video cards already come with this adapter). This means that if you plan on using a DVI based monitor, projector, or TV, it’s wise to purchase a video card with a DVI port.
The clarity of the images you see are mostly derivative of the quality of your monitor.The video card mostly concerns itself with the preparation of these images for your display. The video card is actually like a motherboard of its own, with a processor, memory, and cooling system. When a computer is drawing images on your monitor, the Video Card does all the 2D and 3D work, freeing up your processor to work on other tasks.
Since the video card is like a miniature computer system, it’s really complicated to describe its speed with a simple number! It has its own plethora of traits: clock speeds, RAM, cache, pixel pipelines, and a host of technical sounding features like “Vertex Shaders”. Oh my! The complexity is only compounded by the rapid release of newer and faster cards.
I’m going to recommend the easy way out. Rather than comparing the gigahertz, the nanometers, and the megabits to compile some hypothetical model about which card outpaces which, let’s just compare their real-world performance head to head. The guys at TomsHardware have a terrific tool that lets you do just that, which you can find here.
I can save you a bit of effort and sum it up pretty easily: The more expensive cards are going to give better performance. The most fundamental question is “which card is the best one for me?” All the charts in the world might not answer this simple question for you.
Here’s the breakdown: If you’re doing heavy 3D work, you’ll need a very powerful video card. Here’s a list of 3D based applications:
- Video Games
- CAD / CAM (when doing 3D design)
- Some Video Editing uses 3D transitions
- Graphic Design – Maya, Poser, 3DMax, etc
If you’re not doing anything like this, you probably don’t need an expensive video card!
Beyond processing power, there are a few other considerations to keep in mind when considering a video card. As mentioned above, you should keep in mind the type of connections on the card. If you plan on using a DVI Monitor, buy your video card with that in mind! Also, don’t forget about the warranty given by the manufacturer. Most companies provide at least 1 year, and some even offer lifetime warranties! Finally, make sure it’s compatible with your motherboard. Most modern motherboards have a PCI-Express Video Card slot, while older ones take an AGP video card. As long as your Video card is the same standard, you should be set.
There’s one other thing to keep in mind about video cards: Windows Vista.
Windows Vista is the next version of Microsoft’s operating system, and it’s reasonable to expect many users to be upgrading to use it in a few years. If you might end up upgrading, then it’s a good idea to be aware of the heightened system requirements. The video card requirements are the biggest leap from previous system requirements, and merit a bit of conversation.
Currently, for Windows Vista, you’ll want a DirectX 9 compatible video card with at least 128mb of RAM. However, there are some features of Windows Vista which will only be available if you’re using a DirectX 10 compatible video card. The catch, however, is that as I’m writing this article, no DirectX 10 video cards are available for retail yet.
What is Direct X?
DirectX is a collection of tools for easily handling tasks related to game programming on the Microsoft Windows operating system. It is most widely used in the development of computer games for Microsoft Windows.
Microsoft is currently working on a large update to the DirectX. DirectX 10, and later Direct3D 10, it will appear as part of Windows Vista. According to Microsoft, Direct3D 10 will be able to display graphics up to 8 times faster than DirectX 9.
Up till now, Windows has pretty much used Direct X as a tool for developing video games. Under the upcoming Windows Vista, DirectX will be used for many of the core functions of Windows. This means that even the average user who doesn’t play video games will want to consider having a video card that can support Direct X.
So, in many cases for the average home user who plans on using Windows Vista, consider a really cheap video card now and then an upgrade when DirectX 10 video cards are available. If you’re a high-performance power user, odds are you plan on frequently upgrading your video card regardless, so this is less of a concern to you.
Either way, a good solid DirectX 9 Video card will do great, but without a few of the visual effects available that you would have otherwise.
If you read the Video Card section, then this Sound Card section might give you a sense of déjà Vu. The sound card does exactly the same sort of stuff.
The sound card prepares an audio source to be sent to your speakers, headphone, or other audio device. It takes the audio processing load off of your CPU, and does all the hard work. It has special features built in which make it much more efficient at this sort of work.
For a majority of users, the most basic sound card is sufficient for everything they do. High quality motherboards even include a basic on-board audio card, giving you all the basic features of a sound card without needing to purchase one.
Higher end sound cards will include support for surround sound, better audio quality, faster compression when recording, and a wider array of inputs and outputs. High end sound cards are typically associated with sound recording, surround sound home theater, or video gaming.
Typically, a sound card has 3 ports:
Line Out – Lime green, this jack connects to your speakers or headphones.
Line In – Light blue, this jack is for input.
Microphone – This pink jack connects to a microphone.
A higher end sound card might provide you with many more ports. Some will give you additional Line Out ports, offering up to 8.1 surround sound and more. High-end sound cards will even have S/PDIF Digital output or Optical outputs for high-quality data transmission to a receiver or other digital audio device.
The sound card also has a sound chip, which is a digital-to-analog converter, used to record audio and convert it to a digital file on your computer. Newer and faster models of sound cards have better sound chips. Most users do very little audio recording on their computer, and so a high-end sound card is not a high priority for them.
Two easy questions can diagnose your sound card needs.
- “Do you plan on doing any audio recording with your PC?”
- “Do you want surround sound output?”
If you answered “No” to both these questions, you don’t need a fancy sound card. Check your motherboard, many of them include a very basic sound card. If so, you’re probably all set. Don’t forget, a sound card is something that’s fairly easy to upgrade should you suddenly need a better one.
With the integration of sound cards into most modern motherboards, I think that most people don’t need a dedicated sound card.
That said, if you’re into gaming, or want to set up your computer as a Media Center for watching movies, a great sound card is a very important investment.
Really, to the consumer, it always comes down to the question “What does it mean to me?” In most cases, the difference between a basic level sound card, and an expensive $300 sound card is minimal. Only a true audiophile will notice the difference in audio quality. The biggest concern should be the inputs, outputs and features of a given sound card.
If you already have speakers, you should have a good idea of what sort of inputs you need (5.1 surround, 8.1 surround, etc.). If you’re ordering new speakers with your system, just check and make sure your sound card has the proper outputs to connect to your new speakers.
The computer case is pretty straightforward in concept. It’s the chassis that everything else is assembled inside and offers a few minor conveniences. For example, many computer cases these days have easily accessible USB ports on the front of the computer, and sometimes even a headphone jack so that you can access these while sitting at your computer rather than having to climb behind it.
There is a greater selection of PC cases than any other component, and there’s a wide variety of aesthetics, features, and prices. If you’re having a system built for you by a system builder, odds are they’ve narrowed down your selection to a very few choices. This allows them to design effective shipping solutions, guarantee compatibility, and probably has aesthetics associated with company image.
Cases are an often neglected piece of hardware when it comes to carefully selecting your system components. Too often people choose form-over-function, giving them some flashy case that does a very inadequate job of keeping the system cool and quiet.
Even if you’re not building your own computer from scratch, there’s a lot to keep in mind about computer cases. They’re the foundation of your cooling system, and a very large contributor to your system noise. Some are flimsy and plastic, others are steel and heavy. Inside, many are cramped with little space to expand, while others are large enough to fit 10 or more hard drives!
Cases are cooled by fans, and the placement, size and speed of these fans are critical to keeping your system cool and stable. So when considering computer cases, make your decision based on more than just the aesthetics! If you’re ordering from a system builder, don’t hesitate to ask them about your case.
As a general rule of thumb, look for two or three large fans, rather than a computer with 6 or more smaller fans. Larger fans are able to move far more air than small fans, while spinning at a lower speed. These larger fans keep the system cool, typically with less noise than smaller fans.
For more details on the relationship between your case and cooling, see the Cooling Systems page.
When shopping, I recommend that you decide how much of a premium you’re willing to pay for a quality case, and if quiet operation is important to you. I spent over $200 on my last computer case, and have sold systems with far more expensive cases than that.
If your budget is tight, there are many inexpensive cases (>$50) that will do the trick. They won’t feature the bells and whistles that many of the nicer cases do, and will likely be made from steel or plastic instead of aluminum – often regarded as the ideal material for a computer case. Check reviews of the system, see if there have been any reports of rattling or buzzing coming from poor construction. For higher end cases, there are nearly limitless options and permutations on various cases, truly giving you a huge selection.
If you’re having your system built by a vendor, see if they offer choices on their cases. A lot of system builders use the case as a good place to cut corners and inflate their margins. Ask if they offer a high-quality aluminum case, and see if the case has 90mm or 120mm fans instead of 80mm fans.
Regardless, keep in mind that your case is a lot more than aesthetics. It’s directly contributes to the noise, cooling, and longevity of your hardware.
I’m very picky about my computer cases. I’m a quiet computer enthusiast, so I demand very specific cooling systems from my case. I prefer the look and cooling efficiency of a metal case to a plastic one. I’m a big fan of Lian-Li cases, as well as Silverstone and Soldam (although the latter isn’t currently available for sale in the US).
In the end, it’s really hard to make judgments about a computer case without getting to see it in person. If you’re buying on the internet, find a vendor and sales representative with whom you’re comfortable, and see what they think about various computer cases.
The power supply fills a very specific and important role. The power supply is designed to convert 120 V or 240 V AC power (which is what comes from your electric company) to usable power for the internal components of the computer.
I really consider this to be the most important and most underrated section of the entire computer. If you’re skimming the article, I’ll throw this part in bold so that it stands out: The Power Supply is not the place to cut corners!
Like cases, there’s a huge array of Power Supply Units (PSU’s) out there. Looking around, I can find $20-case-and-psu packages for sale. A good quality power supply from a reputable dealer starts at about $80, and can scale all the way up to several hundred dollars for extremely high-end models.
Many system builders try and cut corners here by using poor quality, cheap power supplies. I can’t stress enough what a gamble this can be. The power supply is the electrical source of your entire system, and you can imagine the havoc it can cause if there is inconsistent power being supplied to your hardware. A standard electrical signal has frequent and periodic “spikes” and “surges”, both of which can be incredibly damaging to your hardware if your PSU doesn’t properly filter them out.
Every power supply has three factors that are important to consider.
The first is the Wattage. All that is important here is making sure that your PSU has enough power to supply your hardware, plus any upgrades you might be considering.Figuring out the wattage you need can be tricky, so don’t hesitate to ask a salesperson what sort of wattage your system will need. There are tools available to help you with this, but they can get pretty complicated. If you’re really interested, you can check out one here.
The second important factor: efficiency. Some power supplies are highly inefficient, which means they’re sucking up more juice and outputting heat! Personally I’m not a big fan of paying my electrical company to heat my apartment via my power supply, so I aim for the most efficient power supply I can find.
The last key item to consider: MTBF – Mean Time Between Failures. This is simply the average lifespan of that particular power supply. Some companies might not be very forthcoming with this information, but it’s a great number to ask about. A bigger number is better – you want the longest average time between failures that you can find.
First and foremost, you need a power supply with a reputable brand name. It should also come with a good manufacturer warranty.
Determining the size of the power supply that you need can get pretty complicated. You can use the power supply calculator listed above (but you might want to overshoot that number a bit, to leave some room for growth).
When choosing your power supply, keep in mind your upgrading needs. Perhaps your system only needs a 350w power supply currently, but in the future, are you going to add a second video card, two more hard drives and some more RAM? If so, leave yourself some room to grow. Upgrading a power supply can be frustrating because it requires rewiring the entire system.
Aim for a power supply with a bottom-facing 120mm fan, rather than a rear-80mm fan. You’ll find it has terrific cooling, and is much quieter.
PSU’s, being a self-contained unit, all appear the same on the outside. The only way you can really be sure you’re getting a quality unit, is to shop for a reputable name brand. As far as name brand power supplies, here’s some of the best:
PC Power & Cooling – Hands down the best power supplies on the market, but also extremely expensive and quite loud.
Seasonic – This is the power supply I recommend to anyone and everyone. Great bang for your buck, extremely high quality, and a phenomenally low failure rate. Out of thousands we’ve sold, we’ve seen less than 5 ever have a problem.
Antec – As with most of their product, they put out a high-quality line, and a very poor quality line. Their NeoPower, Phantom and NeoHE series is very popular, and does a bang-up job – But stay away from the SmartPower series.
Enermax – Same as Antec, they have some quality lines, and some value lines. With power supplies, I’d aim for the quality lines, like the “Liberty” line.
There are a few common types of disk drives, and below I highlight the features and considerations of the most common types.
Floppy Drives – Floppy drives are the oldest, and most familiar form of media that our computers use. Just pop in the disk, copy the data, and eject it. They’ve become more scarce recently, as they have a very small storage capacity, and are being eschewed in favor of larger optical discs.
CD-ROM – This drive plays CD’s, both audio and data. The speed that it operates is usually expressed in terms of the speed an Audio Disc plays at (which happens to be 1.2 megabits per second). Today, CD-Roms read at up to 52x, which is 52 times faster than an audio disc plays.
CD-RW – This drive can play CD’s, and even make them! With a blank CD and the proper software, you can make your own data files or audio CDs. These are usually described by 2 numbers: Read Speed and Write Speed.
DVD-ROM – As CD-ROM, but it can also play DVDs. Exceptionally large programs are starting to be distributed on DVD’s rather than CD’s, because DVD’s have much higher capacity. Since this drive can read both DVDs and CDs, and is only fractionally more expensive than the CD-ROM, I universally recommend the purchase of a DVD drive over a CD drive.
DVD/CD-RW or “Combo Drive” – This drive combines a CD-RW and a DVD-ROM. It can read CDs, DVDs, and Write CDs.
DVD-RW – This drive does it all. It reads CDs and DVDs, and it writes both CDs and DVDs. DVD has a few formats (referred to by obscure terms like “+”, “-“, and “dual layer”). Modern DVD-RW drives should support all these formats.
Some burners are starting to pack some neat features.
Lightscribe is a novelty that’s quite useful. If you’re using a lightscribe DVD, you can flip the disc over, and etch a label onto the surface. No labels or messy pens, just use the software provided, and burn the graphics right onto the disc. Nifty! Some of the more expensive drives (like the Plextor models), have a “silent operation mode” which can be useful if you’re in a recording environment, and are trying to keep things low-noise.
A good thing to keep in mind is software. Reading a CD is supported by most operating systems, but most DVD players need special software, as will any sort of disc writers. Some include reputable software suites (like Nero, Roxxio, etc), while others might come with some proprietary writing packages. You might find a drive that you think is a great deal, but if it doesn’t come with software you might not be getting the bargain that you thought you were.
Becoming more and more obsolete, the floppy drive has almost gone the way of the dodo. However, I still recommend including one with your system. At the time of the writing of this article, Microsoft Windows still does not include native support for all types of controllers. Without getting too technical, this means that if you ever needed to install or reinstall Windows on your system, you may have to load in some special instructions on how to do so. Even more frustrating, Windows Setup only knows how to get these instructions from one source – you guessed it – the floppy drive.
Purchasing a DVD drive is a smart investment as well, even if you never plan on watching a DVD Movie on your system. Since DVD’s store so much more data than a CD, larger programs and games are starting to be packaged on DVDs rather than CDs.
Lastly, I’d suggest getting at least one drive that can write to a Disc (either CD or DVD). When moving large files around, or trying to back up your data, copying it to a disc is both quick and easy compared to the alternatives.
If you’re only looking at a single drive, I’d recommend a DVD-ROM or a DVD/CD-RW combo drive. Since the price difference between a CD-Rom and combo drive is pretty miniscule, I’d recommend the latter.
When configuring a system, I sometimes recommend 2 drives. A DVD-RW and a DVD-ROM make a perfect pair. This gives you one drive to do all the reading, and one to do all the writing. You can even write directly from one disc to another, giving you a great way to copy an existing disk quickly.
One other thing to keep in mind: Be sure to get drives that match the color of your case! Nothing’s worse than mismatched drives!
The number one killer of computer hardware is heat. If your system is constantly hotter than it should be, it’s going to wear out your computer, and it will eventually fail. So let’s address the ways to keep your system cool.
Any case you buy should have a number of fans in it. Some only have one at the rear, while others will also have an intake fan in the front. This will provide a constant stream of cool air from the front of the case, over the hot components, and out the rear. Higher quality cases come with 90mm or 120mm fans, while mainstream cases typically come with 80mm fans.
One of the hottest places in your computer is the CPU, and it’s cooled with a heat sink and fan. The Heat Sink is a metal attachment to the processor which helps disperse the heat, usually using copper or another highly conductive metal. This heat sink is cooled with a fan, which keeps cool air moving past it. This makes the CPU heatsink and fan a very important selection when building a system. You want a fan that will keep your processor nice and cool, but you don’t want it to sound like a tiny hurricane inside your computer either.
There are a lot of after-market cooling solutions for other parts of the system. They make RAM coolers, hard drive coolers, blower fans, and every other sort of noisy fan-based gadgetry. In general, if you have selected a smart case with good air movement, you won’t need these extra fans.
One of the more popular alternative cooling solutions is Liquid Cooling. This works much like the radiator in your car. Cooling Liquid (mostly water), is held in a reservoir, and pumped through tubes to all the hot part of the systems. Eventually, the water is passed through a radiator, which has several fans cooling it.
The advantage of liquid cooling is that it can give you very stable, low temperatures. If you have extremely hot hardware, and are looking to keep it quiet and cool, liquid cooling is a terrific solution. The drawback is that liquid cooling is very expensive, hard to set up, and it makes upgrading your own system very difficult. Any major upgrades require you to drain the fluid from the system, replace the hardware, and often re-tube the whole thing.
It’s not easy for me to give you a recipe for the perfect CPU fan. Small fans tend to be light, but are often very noisy or don’t keep the CPU cool enough. Larger fans are great at cooling, and often very low-noise, but can be heavy and dangerous to ship over long distances. When selecting a CPU fan, it’s a good idea to do a little research, and read the consumer reviews on a website such as www.newegg.com.
Very few systems actually need Liquid Cooling. Even shopping for a quiet system, most of those goals can be reached with a good air cooling system. Even high-speed video cards and hard drives have some quieting options available for them. Liquid Cooling is really designed for enthusiasts who might have a hard time keeping the system stable under maximum performance load.
High Speed Hard Drives can also get quite hot. Check your case spec’s, and make sure the hard drives are located near a fan, which will keep them operating at acceptable temperatures. Again, a quality case selection is key to an efficient cooling system.
There’s a lot to keep in mind when selecting a good cooling system.
Quiet computers are something we specialize in at Puget Custom Computers. We pay special attention to the combination of hardware, cases, power supplies, video card coolers, CPU coolers, and case fans. If you’re really interested in quiet computing, Silent PC Review has a great primer here: Noise in Computing. That site has fantastic recommendations on contemporary quiet hardware.
My recommendations: Invest in a good case, and a high-quality CPU fan. Unless you’re designing an extremely high-end system, those two things should keep your system plenty cool.
Why should I care about all this?
It’s certainly easy to just throw up your hands and buy the first thing that sounds good. After all, this conclusion is preceded by 11 pages of information that barely scratches the surface. A lot of companies understand that people don’t have the time or inclination to learn all this stuff about computers, and will just sell them a pre-designed system. The advantage to the consumer is that they don’t have to bother learning the details about all this computer hardware.
Unfortunately, the odds that you get the ‘right system’ off-the-shelf are pretty low. There’s a pretty good chance that you’re paying for something you don’t need, or you’re not paying for something that you do need. Without a little research, it’s hard to know if you’re buying quality components, or getting suckered into buying a lemon with low-quality parts. With the information in this article, you should be able to work with a custom computer company and design the system that will give you all the features you want, without paying for some that you don’t need.
There’s a lot you stand to gain by choosing a reputable custom system builder, and knowing the basics of computer hardware. Some upfront knowledge is the first line of defense against a sneaky salesman. After reading this, hopefully you’ll know better if that salesman is assuring you a system will be 100% quiet, but it’s got a stock CPU cooler and eight 80mm fans.
Well, why use a system builder at all? Can’t I build my own?
Sure can! If you have the knowledge and ability to build your own system, this is certainly the way to save some dough. There are some drawbacks to building your own system though. Jon Bach, owner of Puget Custom Computers, wrote an article called: “The pitfalls of building your own computer“. He describes the common roadblocks people hit when trying to build your own system: delays, unforeseen problems, bargain shopping, defective parts, compatibility problems, support issues, and more. If you’re looking at building your own, that article is worth a read. If you’re comfortable handling those issues, then go for it! Hands down, it’s the best way to build a system cheaply and maintain control over each step.
If buying a off-the-shelf system isn’t for you, and neither is building your own, then what’s left?
The benefits of a custom system builder.
A custom system builder might just be the ticket, but first you have to find a good company.
A reputable company can offer you quality pre-purchase consulting, and will be happy to work with you to design your system. They should be open and honest with you about the benefits and drawbacks of each piece of hardware, and willing to be flexible to make sure you have the “right” system. They should have a transparent building process, where they’ll communicate frequently with you, giving you a progress report on how your custom system is coming along. Most importantly, they ought to be there if you have any problems, with first-class support and repair policies.
Other companies emphasize bottom line price, giving sub-par service, and using low quality parts. These companies might take days to reach via phone for service, and deliver you a lower quality product than you expect. It’s important to check around, and find the right kind of system builder for you.
A great place to research the history and feedback on system builders is the website, Reseller Ratings, which is all consumer driven reviews and feedback. Don’t be afraid to check with your local Better Business Bureau either. Barring anything else, I recommend you give the store a call, and see how they treat you on the phone. If you feel like they’re an honest and trustworthy company that goes a long way in making your shopping experience a comfortable one, then they may be the right company for you.
When you boil it all down, very few people have the time and knowledge to build their own computer, but off-the-shelf systems aren’t always a great fit. Shopping with a custom system builder can be a very rewarding experience, and a little background knowledge can help you make the right custom selections for your needs.
The goal of this article was to help equip you in making these sort of decisions, and demystify some of the more confusing decisions when you’re computer shopping.
In this article, I’ve purposefully tried to avoid listing specific model numbers of particular hardware. Were I to have done so, this whole thing would be obsolete within two months. Instead, I’ve tried to generalize about each piece of hardware, to help you have a basic understanding of how it interacts with your system. This article isn’t a replacement for the help of a professional sales rep, but it will give you a better understanding of whatever he or she is trying to sell you.
You should be all set! Make a list of your computer needs, find a company with a good reputation, and give them a call.
Questions or Comments?