Whether you are building your own computer or buying one from a manufacturer it is important to have an atleast basic understanding of the components in your computer in order to make efficient purchase decisions. Intelligent consumers should to be aware of how computer components interact and also be aware of the idea of bottlenecking in order to maximize performance gain from their computer.
Do you need a high performance computer? That is an important question to ask yourself because not every user needs to garner every last ounce of power obtainable from their computer system. High performance computers are generally reserved for the users who perform tasks on their computer that are particularly demanding on your computer’s components. These tasks include video and graphics rendering which puts a great amount of on your CPU (Central Processing Unit) and your GPU (Graphics Processing Unit). Performing these tasks on a low-end computer lead to slow performance and overall less efficiency. You will find your computer taking a long time loading details or objects in your high spec requirement games. If you are a video editor you will experience sluggish render times if you do not have powerful components on your computer. Eventhough, gamers, video editors, game developers and graphic artists are the ones who benefit the most from having high performance computers, it is still important for the average user to have a fundamental understanding of computer components. If you mostly use your computer for word processing and emails, but use it very frequently, those additional seconds to load your applications and web browsers add up. A faster computer will lead to greater efficiency.
Storage Component: HDD or SSD
One of the easiest and most effective upgrades that basic users can make is an upgrade to the storage device on their computer. There are two types of storage components widely available and used in computers nowadays. One is the hard disk drive, or HDD, the other is the solid-state drive, or SSD. Hard disk drives are the older of the two technologies while solid state drives became widely available to the public comparatively recently. SSD’s are superior to the HDD’s in almost every regard. SSD’s have faster read and write times, as a result of this users experience a noticeable improvement in application start-up times as well as their operating system startup time (Windows or OSX). Note that while SSD’s do improve load times, they do not make any improvements in processing power. For gamers and renderers SSD’s will improve the speed at which the game or application starts up and the speed at which new maps are loaded, however it will not make any improvements to texture processing speeds or render speeds. Gamers and 3d renderers will still experience sluggish behavior if high graphical processing power is required.
Another aspect about HDD’s vs. SSD’s worthy of note especially for basic users is that HDD’s are much more prone to failure. HDD’s contain high speed moving parts; it contains a disk which spins at between 5400 and 7200 rmp depending on harddrive model, and a read-write disk header which skirts just above the surface of the disk writing and reading magnetic data stored on the disk. Overtime as a result of friction and erosion the HDD will eventually succumb to failure. By contrast, SSD’s contain no moving parts and are not prone to the same risks as HDD’s. If you are using an old HDD to store your important user data like pictures, documents, music and movies, it is important to keep backups of your data to prevent potential data loss when the HDD fails.
A convenient feature of SSD’s relevant for custom computer builders is that SSD’s use the same data connection cable as modern HDD’s. They use a SATA connection cable to connect to the motherboard. In total both SSD’s and HDD’s take two connectors; one connection is for data which connects the computer’s motherboard and the other connector connects to the power supply for electricity.
Volatile Memory: RAM
Random access memory, or RAM, is a form a volatile memory, or a temporary storage space that is used for immediate processes. The more RAM a computer has, the more simultaneous processes or applications can be run without a performance dip. A low amount of RAM can make a computer very sluggish as processes can use up all of your RAM capacity and have to use your harddrive’s page files in order to store temporary data. Read and write from harddrive page files is substantially slower than read and write from RAM and this makes your computer processes very slow.
RAM went through multiple generations: DDR, DDR2, DDR3 and DDR4. With each generation the clock speeds and storage capacity improved dramatically. Currently it is possible to get 8 GB ram chips and most motherboards contain 4 RAM chip slots. This leads to a total of 8 X 4 = 64 GB of RAM, which is more than enough to ensure than RAM will not be your computer’s bottleneck.
General processing component: CPU
The computer’s central processing unit, or CPU, performs all non-display-related processing on your computer (unless GPU is built in, in which case it does display processing as well). The CPU does all arithmetic and logical operations on your computer. It is one of the most important components on your computer because the computer stores and reads data in binary so calculations and the rate of calculations is exceedingly important. Modern CPU’s can be purchased with multiple cores, also called multi-core processors. Each core or processing unit reads program instructions. By having multiple cores read instructions simultaneously it improves overall speed of computation. Multi-core processors for consumers can come as dual core, quad core or even hexa core.
The two companies that manufacture CPU’s for consumer computers are Intel and AMD. It is important to note that different CPU models need specific types of motherboard CPU slots on the motherboard. A custom builder should always make sure that their motherboard is compatible with the particular CPU model type.
A CPU’s clock speed (in hertz) modulates the rate at which the CPU performs operations. CPU clock speed is primarily limited by temperature as higher clock speeds produce greater heat. Many gamers an 3D renderers choose to “overclock” their CPU, i.e increase the clock speed of their CPU to a higher value than the factory standard clock speed of a particular CPU model. The factory standard clock speed is safe because manufacturers have tested that clock speed and have determined that temperature produced at that clock speed is safe, stable and will not cause harm to the CPU. Users who overclock should always take measures to install after-market cooling solutions in order to prevent harm to the CPU. Almost all consumer CPU’s come with a CPU fan in the box, the only exception being the Intel i7 3960X Hexacore processor for which the manufacture expects the consumer to buy a separate after-market cooling solution for the CPU (this is more price efficient because the boxed fan is useless if you are using an aftermarket cooling solution).
Cooling solutions come in a variety of forms. Many users choose to use larger CPU fans with a large heatsink to dissipate heat effectively. Other users choose the watercooling route which is comprised of pipes that constantly move water with a pump. The water is heated as it passes over the CPU and then it is cooled again as it moves past a radiator with fans connected to it. Watercooling used to be an option that was limited only to the hardcore enthusiasts who built custom watercooling loops, but nowadays watercooling has become much more accessible to the public as manufacturers like Corsair and COOLER MASTER have developed All-in-one closed loop water cooling solutions. While custom loops have a stressful and difficult installation process with potential leaks that can spill water onto your motherboard and cause damage, all-in-one closed loop water cooling kits don’t have the same difficult installation process. Furthermore, all-in-one water coolers do not have the same maintenance requirements and potentials of leakage as custom loops.
Display Component: GPU
The graphical processing unit, or GPU (also known as the video card or graphics card), of a computer is responsible for processing of anything that appears on your screen or monitor display. Most large form factor GPU’s are reserved for desktops, especially gaming desktops. Most non-gaming laptops and non-gaming desktops use integrated GPU in which the video chip is integrated within the motherboard. Integrated GPU’s are not ideal for high performance tasks like gaming and rendering. The GPU’s sole purpose is video and texture processing so gamers, video and 3d graphics renderers might want to invest in a good GPU in order to gain the best performance out of their machine. Next to RAM and CPU, GPU is most important determinant of the processing power of a computer.
The two companies that manufacture GPU’s are nVidia and AMD. Of the two nVidia is touted as the higher end, more expensive brand while AMD is considered to be the more affordable, less powerful GPU brand. There is a great deal of controversy over the topic of which manufacturer is better. In the end it depends on personal preference.
The most popular models of graphic cards by nVidia belong in the GTX series of graphic cards. AMD’s most popular series for gaming is the Radeon series. The pace of advancements in GPU technology is staggering, similar to the pace of advancements in game graphics and graphical requirements. The GPU is the component that is most often replaced by gamers as they have to keep up with advancing graphical requirements of games.
AMD was the first to develop a method to connect two or more GPU’s together in order to distribute their workload and improve performance. This method was called AMD’s Crossfire technology. All of AMD’s high end Radeon cards come with Crossfire compatibility and installing Crossfire is as simple as installing two or same model AMD graphic cards and connecting them with a Crossfire connector (comes with purchase of any Crossfire compatible GPU or with purchase of any high end motherboard).
Main Component: Motherboard
The motherboard is the main heart and soul of your computer. You could say that the motherboard itself IS the computer and the computer case is merely the external shell. Indeed, you can have a fully functioning computer without a case at all. The CPU is installed inside the motherboard. Graphic cards are installed on the motherboard via PCI-E slots. RAM is installed on the motherboard via DIMM slots. Storage drives are connected to the motherboard with SATA data connection. Optical drives are also connected to the motherboard via SATA cables. Any fans in your system are connected to the motherboard by 3 or 4-pin power connectors. The motherboard controls and coordinates all of the above.
Motherboards come in a variety of form factors, bigger ones have more PCI-E slots, generally come with better built in audio chips, have additional features like motherboard based fan speed controller and much more. Bigger motherboards are also more effective at heat dissipation. When buying a case for your motherboard it is important to know what form factor motherboard you have. The form factor for consumer motherboards can range from mini-ATX to extended-ATX (EATX). If you buy an EATX or ATX motherboard, make sure to not buy a case that only takes Micro-ATX motherboards, for instance.
Power: Power Supply
The power supply is the component of your computer that takes power from a wall socket and distributes an appropriate amount of power to the different components on your computer including: motherboard, GPU(s), storage drives, optical drive, and CPU. Of the components the CPU and GPU(s) and motherboard take up the most power. Users sometimes have to upgrade their power supply to a higher voltage power supply when upgrading or adding a GPU because additional or upgraded components demand more power. It is important to find out how much power all of your components will need and buy an appropriate voltage power supply when building your own desktop.
Laptops don’t use power supplies and instead favor the use of a chargeable battery.
The optical drive or CD or DVD drive is probably one of the least important components on your computer as CDs and DVDs are becoming less and less common and is being replaced by USB devices. For a long time the prevalence of Optical Drives have been dictated solely by the fact that Operating system software is commonly stored in DVDs (they can also be installed from USB, but they are not commonly purchased in a USB). The comparative uselessness of optical drives also means that they are fairly cheap, in most cases the cheapest component on your computer, nowadays costing between 10 and 20 dollars.
The decision on which computer case to buy is an important one largely due to thermal considerations. Not all cases can vent heat with the same level of efficiency. Some cases come with additional convenience features like hot-swappable harddrive bays and front mountable harddrives. Others come with an immense amount of fan installation spots to maximize air intake and venting. Yet others have less important aesthetic features like window and lighting options.