From time to time, you’ll hear me throw around computer terms like fish at Seattle’s Pike Place. If you’re not careful, you might just get knocked around a bit and nobody wants that. To ensure that you keep your wits about you as you read here, below is some basic learnin’.
A note about UPGRADE SCOREs – the lower the score, the harder/more expensive/less feasible it is to upgrade the component, which means that special attention should be paid to them when buying. The best option should be given more weight in the decision. Also, these scores apply to desktops only. Laptops upgrades are very limited and usually only include RAM due to heat and physical constraints.
Motherboard/MOBO/board | This is the skeletal frame for all of your computer components. All MOBO’s have the same core features that allow the required components to connect, but manufacturers are always adding new bells and whistles to make those components work better together. It is physically represented as a square or rectangular, green circuit board that is mounted to the computer frame.
UPGRADE SCORE: 0 – Limited advantages between boards that would accommodate the same components. Upgrading the MOBO is akin to building a new computer.
Processor/CPU/chip | This is the brains of your computer. The Central Processing Unit (CPU) sits at the heart and coordinates all activities. It has a default speed that can be adjusted by something called “overclocking” (explained below). Like most computer components, it generates a great deal of heat and; therefore, is typically hidden from sight behind a large fan. Today’s chips house multiple CPUs, or “cores”, on one physical piece of silicon – hence the term “dual core” or “quad core.”
UPGRADE SCORE: 2 – Limited to same “family” of processor due to physical constraints on motherboard.
RAM/Memory | If the processor is the brain, memory is the blood. Officially called Random Access Memory (RAM), this component provides a high-speed area for the processor to perform it’s calculations. RAM is typically about 80 times faster than a typical mechanical hard drive and the more you have, the more programs that can run at one time without noticeable performance problems. RAM is physically built on long skinny circuit boards affectionately called “sticks” and have a default speed that can also be adjusted or overclocked. RAM is considered volatile memory, which means that if you turn off the computer, any information stored in RAM will be lost.
UPGRADE SCORE: 8 – Limited to same physical format and speed family, but many options are typically available and can be done with minimal effort.
Hard Drive/HD/drive | The hard drive is the main storage facility in a computer. This is where your pictures, e-mails and programs reside. Sizes vary greatly and a typical desktop computer can accommodate multiple drives for both storage, disaster recovery and performance reasons. Hard drives are considered non-volatile memory, meaning that power is not required for the data to remain in tact. There are two types of hard drives available at the time of this article: mechanical, spindle-based and Solid State Drives (SSD).
Mechanical drives use a spinning platter and a mechanical arm that “sweeps” back and forth across the surface of the platter and reads magnetic fluctuations and the processor interprets them as data and represents that to you on the screen. Mechanical drives have a set spin rate measured in revolutions per minute (RPM). The faster the better.
Conversely, SSDs are essentially the same as RAM, except that they too are non-volatile memory. The performance gains are quite extraordinary based on the lack of any mechanical operations required to obtain the needed data. Data retrieval literally happens at the speed of light and are electric (rather than magnetic) in nature. SSDs are also typically much smaller in physical size and capacity than their mechanical counterparts. They are also much more expensive – at least at the time of this writing.
UPGRADE SCORE: 10 – An industry-standard connection specification makes it very easy to add/upgrade hard drives provided you have transferred all of the information from the old drive to the new one.
Video Card/Graphics Card/GPU | The video card is what takes the information from the processor and translates it to images on the screen. The gaming industry has been very influential in developing this technology and introduced the Graphical Processing Unit (GPU) – literally a CPU that physically lives on the video card and enhances the number and quality of the images seen. These cards fit into special slots on the motherboard called PCI slots. Special versions of the PCI slot, called PCI-e have been added to isolate the video data from other data flowing the computer in an effort to improve the speeds.
Today’s high-end video cards can be installed in one, two or three card configurations where each card is adding it’s processing power to the overall effort. If you are a serious game player, video editor or 3-D artist, this technology is very beneficial.
UPGRADE SCORE: 9 – Limited to slot type availability on motherboard and physical space inside case. Installation can be done with minimal effort.
POWER SUPPLY/PSU | The Power Supply Unit (PSU) is what provides the distributed power for the various components inside the computer. From the wall, a special cable is connected to the back of the PSU and special connectors inside the computer connect different kinds of cables to the motherboard, graphics cards, hard drives, CD/DVD ROMs and whatever else needs it.
The PSU is rated at a fixed wattage output rating. This rating will determine what types and how many components can be powered inside your computer. Again, the gaming industry has pushed manufacturers to provide not only larger wattage ratings, but cleaner and cleaner (free from fluctuations) ratings as well. Some cases will accommodate multiple PSUs, which might be helpful when replacement is too costly.
UPGRADE SCORE: 10 – All PSUs come with standard connector types and replacement can be done with basic computer hardware knowledge.
CD, DVD, BD-ROM DRIVE | Most software and movies are still delivered on CD or DVD and require a CD-ROM or DVD-ROM to read them. Just like hard drives, more than one of these drives can be installed at one time, which is particularly handy when copying discs.
The ability to write data to this media type opened a whole new world of possibilities and ushered in the demise of the floppy disk. The term Read/Write (R/W) came to be part of the computing lexicon to describe a drive that can read and write data from/to these discs. BluRay Discs (BD) appeared as a natural evolution of ever-demanding capacity needs, which were needed for HD video to become portable. Below is a table of each type’s capacity:
*SL = Single Layer; DL = Double Layer
1 GB = 1,024 MB
To take advantage of the various types, you’ll need a drive that specifically supports it, which will be indicated on the front of the drive or the retail packaging.
A special note about movies should be made here. Just because you have a drive that can play BluRay movies, the experience isn’t guaranteed. HD video is takes a good deal of processor and video power to display on the screen. The BD Drive is just providing the data stream, the computer still has to have the power to process it. Before purchasing a BD ROM, do some research and make sure your computer specifications meet the manufacturer’s minimum requirements.
UPGRADE SCORE: 9 – Limited to same connection type and can be done with basic computer hardware knowledge.
OVERCLOCKING | This is a term used to describe the manual increase in frequency of processors, RAM, GPUs and anything else that uses frequency to determine speed. This technique is a way to get more processing power from less expensive hardware. The degree of overclocking is directly proportional to the degrees in additional heat that is generated and must be accounted for with increased cooling inside the computer case. This act should only be done for specific reasons and with a methodical and measured set of procedures. Overclocking can lead to system instability and possible hardware damage, but can also lead to improved performance without additional costs.