The Modern Computer
Any modern computer carries out two basic tasks that are essential to their purpose - To store and process data - this may seem simple at first but only scratches the surface of what forms of data are operated on, and what those processes are. Modern computers, never simple even during their inception; consist of a mass of interconnected components that work together, each performing their own role and communicating to a Central Processing Unit (CPU) which not only processes' data but also manages the movement of the data around the computer. The essential core components of a computer are the Motherboard, CPU, power supply, main memory and data storage memory as well as an assortment of input and output devices either plugged into or built into the case of a computer, allowing the user of a system to interact with the computer.
The Components in Detail
The role of a power supply unit is fairly straightforward, save that the amount of power required by the computer should always be taken into account when specifying the components of a new computer or when upgrading an existing computer. The other components however require more discussion:
Arguably the most important component, this is where a bottleneck is most likely to occur because all other components are plugged into a Motherboard, including the CPU - An old motherboard might not support the latest memory or fail to run it at full speed - it is therefore essential that attention is paid to the specification of the motherboard in order to prevent the wrong components being chosen to plug into it. Specific to a motherboard, data travels to and from the CPU to other components, in particular the data storage and input/output devices (Which may themselves be data storage) via a BUS, a term derived via metaphor for how data travels from one component to another arriving at bus stops along the way. Considering the speed of the Front Side Bus is critical when building a performance computer where the CPU needs to be able to receive and return data (processed or otherwise) quickly so that the CPU isn't wasting time waiting for the data to arrive.
The Central Processing Unit
Also arguably the most important component in a computer, the CPU processes data, internally stores data that is actively being processed (Via registers) and manages the movement of data within itself as well as on main/system memory and input/output devices.
Memory and Data Storage
Data that is being used regularly (Note that software programs are also data, just as a number in a spreadsheet or word document is) will be held within a computers main memory for relatively quick access by the CPU, main memory plug in cards such as DDR3 SDRAM (Double Data Rate 3, Synchronous Dynamic Random Access Memory) aim to provide fast transfer of data (low latency, so a request for some data is responded to faster) but have relatively small capacity for storage of large amounts of data. The various forms of Random Access Memory are ‘volatile' - losing the information they contain when the computer is turned off (This does at least make it harder for a virus to lurk in RAM when a computer is shut down). Data storage devices such as Hard Disks (which are internal to the computer) hold data regardless of the powered state of a computer and are ideal for slower access storage of data which isn't being actively used by a computer, this might include a program which hasn't been activated (Or run). Hard Disks are cheaper than main memory and tend to have much larger capacity than RAM. Their one significant weakness however is that when data is being regularly added to and deleted* from a computer the gaps between chunks of data might be used to hold one particular file - This results in ‘fragmentation' where a Hard Disk has to access different points of its surface to get one piece of information. * Data isn't exactly deleted, rather it's marked as safe to over-write with data so even if a file is removed from the deleted files folder in windows, the file could still exist on the computer, at least until it is partially or completely over-written by new data.
Input and Output Devices
This category covers a very wide variety of components which may be solely for input of data into a computer via external devices such as a mouse, keyboard, camera, microphone or a touch pad on a laptop (Equivalent of a mouse). These devices are plugged into the computer, usually into ports in the back of a computer, though some are now working wirelessly and are the primary means with which a human ‘communicates' with a computer. Meanwhile, in order to provide the user of a computer with responses to inputs given, the computer can use output devices (Also plugged or wirelessly connected to the computer) to give the user feedback, most commonly via a monitor and speakers (A ‘click' noise to acknowledge an action), though motherboards are built to handle basic 2D graphics it is common practice to insert a graphics card into a computer which handles processing of graphics and sends the processing out to the monitor, many motherboards now require a graphics card in order to run. Some devices can be regarded as both input and output, such as a headset which includes a microphone for input and earphones for output or a hand held game controller which takes input through buttons and gives feedback through tactile feedback (Rapid shaking/vibration) or even a small internal speaker. There are also data storage devices, mainly Disc Drives which can store data independent of a computer, useful for installing new programs or transferring data from one location to another. Also worth a special mention are Universal Serial Bus (USB) devices which are derived from a technology which allows a computer to understand what the device is, without requiring the installation of some software package first. Many existing devices mentioned above have USB variants that take advantage of this (Along with all USB devices using the same design of ‘port' on the computer itself). Finally, there are input/output devices which are designed to allow a computer to speak to other computers, either via wires or radio waves - These other computers can range from printers and network communication devices to other desktop computers anywhere in the world.
Development of Modern Computers
Currently the main focus on computers seems to be increasing performance and this will be the case for the foreseeable future with faster Processors, Memory and Graphics handling being the focus of efforts to improve performance and reduce power requirements. In addition, there is a battle raging over the latest form of Disc based storage between High Definition DVD (Digital Video Disc) and Blu-Ray, both of which essentially do the same job of storing data for access by a disc drive whilst trying to maximise the speed at which data can be transferred off the disc so that (For example) a higher quality image can be displayed in a video. USB has also been a significant influence on computers - Limiting the abundance of proprietary connectors which only work for one device or range of devices, whilst also making it easier for any device to communicate with a computer when following the USB standard.
Building an Advanced Modern Computer
The first and most important factor to consider before building a computer relates to what the computer is to be used for, the components detailed below are specific to an advanced computer that would be used for the latest generation computer games or for advanced graphics applications such as video editing or 3D computer aided design software. Detailed below is each component, along with reasons for each choice: Case: Jeantech Titan Midi ATX case, Front USB/Audio/Mic, **NO PSU**, http://www.novatech.co.uk/novatech/specpage.html?JEA-TITAN It doesn't tend to be necessary to purchase an expensive case in which all the components are placed, and since many cases tend to sit under a desk away from view an expensive fancy case design seems superfluous. The chosen case doesn't include a Power Supply Unit simply because most cases that come with a PSU included only tend to offer a low power 300 Watt supply. Power Supply Unit: 600W ATX Power Supply for AMD, P3 and P4 mainboards 24Pin, http://www.novatech.co.uk/novatech/specpage.html?NOV-PSU600 The main areas to be careful with a PSU choice are capacity (Suitable for running high powered graphics and processor) and also the number of pins on the PSU unit - It'd be unfortunate if you bought a 20 Pin PSU and then realised that the motherboard requires 24Pins. Motherboard: Asus P5E3 Intel X38 (Socket 775) PCI-Express DDR3 Motherboard, FSB 1333/1066/800 & DDR3 1333/1066/800, http://www.overclockers.co.uk/showproduct.php?prodid=MB-250-AS&groupid=701&catid=5&subcat=946 I have found it's generally advisable to focus on a high Front Side Bus and main Memory speed recently, especially with the latest ‘Next Generation' games that are coming onto the market. For instance, the high powered Playstation 3 merely uses a 256Meg Graphics card because that's not actually where a great deal of power is required. Currently, its not possible to purchase a motherboard that has 1600 Mhz Front Side Bus and DDR3 Memory speed (Without over-clocking components) combined though one is due to come out some time during 2008. If the Mhz rating is too low, you will risk having to replace the computer due to obsolescence far sooner than should really be necessary. Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 LGA775 'Wolfdale' 3.00GHz (1333FSB) - Retail http://www.overclockers.co.uk/showproduct.php?prodid=CP-192-IN&groupid=701&catid=6&subcat=793 A Front Side Bus rating of 1333 Mhz has been chosen in order to match up with the upper rating of the motherboard, though you could choose a lower one and upgrade the processor later to save money early on. It's always wise to make sure that the motherboard supports the choice of processor, in this case a Socket 775 (Which essentially designates the configuration and number of pins that the CPU uses to ‘plug into' the motherboard). Memory: OCZ 2GB DDR3 PC3-10666C9 1333MHz Gold (2x1GB) Dual Channel DDR3 (OCZ3G13332GK), http://www.overclockers.co.uk/showproduct.php?prodid=MY-093-OC&groupid=701&catid=8&subcat=923 A Front Side Bus rating of 1333 Mhz has been chosen in order to match up with the upper rating of the motherboard, with the option of a slower set of memory early on to save money prior to a later upgrade. For gaming/graphic intensive systems or where some form of rendering or code compiling occurs its advisable to have plenty of memory capacity, at least 2 Gigs worth which has become the standard minimum requirement, you could later add another matched pair of this memory as the motherboard supports 4 slots for DDR3 memory. Graphics Card: Point of View GeForce 8800 GT 512MB GDDR3 HDTV/Dual DVI (PCI-Express) - Retail, http://www.overclockers.co.uk/showproduct.php?prodid=GX-015-PV&groupid=701&catid=56&subcat=1008 The motherboard requires a PCI-Express graphics card (By nature of it having slots suitable for PCI-E cards) which are currently the best choice you can get, though there are faster variants (GDDR4 and 5) its debatable if you need faster than that even with the latest crop of next generation computer games being released which tend to place more of a drain on the CPU than on a graphics card. Sufficient capacity, in this case 512MB is required for storing all the textures (images on the surface of a character model and surfaces of a level) that games use to render what's going on. Hard Disk: Western Digital Raptor 150GB 10000RPM SATA 16MB Cache - OEM (WD1500ADFD), http://www.overclockers.co.uk/showproduct.php?prodid=HD-069-WD&groupid=701&catid=14&subcat=167 Though the capacity isn't huge it is more than sufficient, the main selling points of this particular hard disk are the high Revolutions per Minute (Which allows a large file to be transferred to memory/processing faster) but also a low seek time (How long it takes to find a new file, in this case 4.6 milliseconds). Monitor: LG L226WT 22" LCD TFT, Silver, 2ms, 16:10, 3000:1 Contrast Ratio, 1680 x 1050 Resolution, DVI, http://www.novatech.co.uk/novatech/specpage.html?LG-L226WT Often times a great deal of focus is placed on the resolution of a monitor, however its also worth considering the Response Time (2ms) which basically dictates how quickly output from a graphics card gets displayed on the screen of a computer. In this case, a widescreen monitor has been chosen because many 3D applications often have side menus with lots of settings and the extra width on the screen provides room for these without intruding on the graphics being displayed toward the centre of the screen. Keyboard: Microsoft Comfort Curve 2000 Keyboard (B2L-00005), http://www.overclockers.co.uk/showproduct.php?prodid=KB-054-MS&tool=3 As many gamers are guilty of playing for long hours without a break it's advisable to choose a keyboard this is comfortable to use, this also applies in a work place where its advisable to prevent a worker from getting Repetitive Strain Injuries by making sure the equipment limits that risk. Mouse: Logitech G5 Gaming-Grade Laser Mouse - Retail, http://www.overclockers.co.uk/showproduct.php?prodid=KB-069-LG&groupid=702&catid=23&subcat=3 The choice of mouse is dictated by the need for precise recognition of the movements of the mouse, also a higher grade laser limits the chance of random movements of the cursor on a screen which can sometimes occur with standard mice. The option is available to choose a more expensive mouse which includes scripting facilities (Essentially extra buttons that can carry out a chain of functions, such as a sequence of movements), but for most people this is entirely unnecessary. Speakers: Creative Inspire T3100 2.1 Speakers - OEM, http://www.overclockers.co.uk/showproduct.php?prodid=SP-092-CL&tool=3 These speakers will be well suited to most usage, though individual tastes might require a 5.1 surround system or greater - These often involve a large number of trailing cables or an expensive wireless system so may not be the best choice for a desktop computer.
|Component ||Price |
|Case ||£21.89 |
|Power Supply Unit ||£22.32 |
|Motherboard ||£152.74 |
|Processor ||£148.04 |
|DDR3 Memory ||£135.11 |
|Graphics Card ||£155.09 |
|Hard Disk ||£116.31 |
|Monitor ||£187.99 |
|Keyboard ||£14.09 |
|Mouse ||£41.11 |
|Speakers ||£23.49 |
|Total ||£1018.18 |
|Essential Components Only ||£751.50 |
In cases where the computer is simply an upgrade, the monitor, keyboard, mouse and speakers don't tend to require replacement - In which case the value of the computer can be reduced to £751.50. A computer with the specifications should last at least 2 years before reaching obsolescence, especially now that the initial technological surge brought about by the development of the XBOX 360 and Playstation 3 Consoles has reached their peak.
The next decision is the choice of an appropriate Operating System that is called upon when the computer is ‘booted up'. For the majority of usage that does not involve running a dedicated server, Windows tends to be the better operating system of choice, unfortunately the recent release of Windows Vista appears to have met some issues - Primarily that it is regarded as an even larger system resource drain than Windows XP. Currently Windows XP is the better choice of operating system out of the two as it has reached maturity and is now particularly stable, with the majority of significant bugs and security weakness' ironed out. XP does not support Direct X 10 at this time which means the potential for some graphics not being as rich as they could be, however it has been discovered that there are back door ways of achieving many Direct X 10 features in DX9 which reduces the need to consider Windows Vista for next generation computer games.
Broadband has now become the best choice for accessing the Internet, as there are wide variety of packages available for different kinds of usage from just occasional web browsing to the download of large files or playing online games which require significant bandwidth. The main requirements are access to a cable network near the house (Some areas still don't have cable lines, particularly remote villages and farms) and a Cable Modem which is wired to the computer using either an Ethernet or USB cable. Wireless cable modems/routers are also an option, in these cases it is absolutely essential that the network is pass worded as people have been arrested as a result of someone making unauthorised use of a wireless network for illicit purposes.