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Engineering LibreTexts

1.2A Hardware Components

  • Page ID
    11462
  • Tour of a PC

    All personal computers consist of the same basic components: a CPU, memory, circuit board, storage, and input/output devices. It also turns out that almost every digital device uses the same set of components, so examining the personal computer will give us insight into the structure of a variety of digital devices. So let’s take a “tour” of a personal computer and see what makes them function.

    Processing Data: The CPU

    As stated above, most computing devices have a similar architecture. The core of this architecture is the central processing unit, or CPU. The CPU can be thought of as the “brains” of the device. The CPU carries out the commands sent to it by the software and returns results to be acted upon.

    The earliest CPUs were large circuit boards with limited functionality. Today, a CPU is generally on one chip and can perform a large variety of functions. There are two primary manufacturers of CPUs for personal computers: Intel and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD).

    The speed (“clock time”) of a CPU is measured in hertz. A hertz is defined as one cycle per second. Using the binary prefixes mentioned above, we can see that a kilohertz (abbreviated kHz) is one thousand cycles per second, a megahertz (mHz) is one million cycles per second, and a gigahertz (gHz) is one billion cycles per second. The CPU’s processing power is increasing at an amazing rate (see the sidebar about Moore’s Law). Besides a faster clock time, many CPU chips now contain multiple processors per chip. These chips, known as dual-core (two processors) or quad-core (four processors), increase the processing power of a computer by providing the capability of multiple CPUs.


    Sidebar: Moore’s Law

    We all know that computers get faster every year. Many times, we are not sure if we want to buy today’s model of smartphone, tablet, or PC because next week it won’t be the most advanced any more. Gordon Moore, one of the founders of Intel, recognized this phenomenon in 1965, noting that microprocessor transistor counts had been doubling every year.[1] His insight eventually evolved into Moore’s Law, which states that the number of transistors on a chip will double every two years. This has been generalized into the concept that computing power will double every two years for the same price point. Another way of looking at this is to think that the price for the same computing power will be cut in half every two years. Though many have predicted its demise, Moore’s Law has held true for over forty years (see figure below).

    A graphical representation of Moore’s Law (CC-BY-SA: Wgsimon)

    There will be a point, someday, where we reach the limits of Moore’s Law, where we cannot continue to shrink circuits any further. But engineers will continue to seek ways to increase performance.


    Motherboard

    Motherboard

    Motherboard (click image to enlarge)

    The motherboard is the main circuit board on the computer. The CPU, memory, and storage components, among other things, all connect into the motherboard. Motherboards come in different shapes and sizes, depending upon how compact or expandable the computer is designed to be. Most modern motherboards have many integrated components, such as video and sound processing, which used to require separate components.

    The motherboard provides much of the bus of the computer (the term bus refers to the electrical connection between different computer components). The bus is an important determiner of the computer’s speed: the combination of how fast the bus can transfer data and the number of data bits that can be moved at one time determine the speed.

    Random-Access Memory

    When a computer starts up, it begins to load information from the hard disk into its working memory. This working memory, called random-access memory (RAM), can transfer data much faster than the hard disk. Any program that you are running on the computer is loaded into RAM for processing. In order for a computer to work effectively, some minimal amount of RAM must be installed. In most cases, adding more RAM will allow the computer to run faster. Another characteristic of RAM is that it is “volatile.” This means that it can store data as long as it is receiving power; when the computer is turned off, any data stored in RAM is lost.

    Memory DIMM (click image to enlarge)

    RAM is generally installed in a personal computer through the use of a dual-inline memory module (DIMM). The type of DIMM accepted into a computer is dependent upon the motherboard. As described by Moore’s Law, the amount of memory and speeds of DIMMs have increased dramatically over the years.

    Hard Disk

    Hard disk enclosure (click image to enlarge)

    While the RAM is used as working memory, the computer also needs a place to store data for the longer term. Most of today’s personal computers use a hard disk for long-term data storage. A hard disk is where data is stored when the computer is turned off and where it is retrieved from when the computer is turned on. Why is it called a hard disk? A hard disk consists of a stack of disks inside a hard metal case. A floppy disk (discussed below) was a removable disk that, in some cases at least, was flexible, or “floppy.”

    Solid-State Drives

    A relatively new component becoming more common in some personal computers is the solid-state drive (SSD). The SSD performs the same function as a hard disk: long-term storage. Instead of spinning disks, the SSD uses flash memory, which is much faster.

    Solid-state drives are currently quite a bit more expensive than hard disks. However, the use of flash memory instead of disks makes them much lighter and faster than hard disks. SSDs are primarily utilized in portable computers, making them lighter and more efficient. Some computers combine the two storage technologies, using the SSD for the most accessed data (such as the operating system) while using the hard disk for data that is accessed less frequently. As with any technology, Moore’s Law is driving up capacity and speed and lowering prices of solid-state drives, which will allow them to proliferate in the years to come.

    Removable Media

    Besides fixed storage components, removable storage media are also used in most personal computers. Removable media allows you to take your data with you. And just as with all other digital technologies, these media have gotten smaller and more powerful as the years have gone by. Early computers used floppy disks, which could be inserted into a disk drive in the computer. Data was stored on a magnetic disk inside an enclosure. These disks ranged from 8″ in the earliest days down to 3 1/2″.

    File:Floppy_disk_2009_G1.jpg)

    Floppy-disk evolution (8″ to 5 1/4″ to 3 1/2″) (Public Domain)

    Around the turn of the century, a new portable storage technology was being developed: the USB flash drive (more about the USB port later in the chapter). This device attaches to the universal serial bus (USB) connector, which became standard on all personal computers beginning in the late 1990s. As with all other storage media, flash drive storage capacity has skyrocketed over the years, from initial capacities of eight megabytes to current capacities of 64 gigabytes and still growing.

    Network Connection

    When personal computers were first developed, they were stand-alone units, which meant that data was brought into the computer or removed from the computer via removable media, such as the floppy disk. Beginning in the mid-1980s, however, organizations began to see the value in connecting computers together via a digital network. Because of this, personal computers needed the ability to connect to these networks. Initially, this was done by adding an expansion card to the computer that enabled the network connection, but by the mid-1990s, a network port was standard on most personal computers. As wireless technologies began to dominate in the early 2000s, many personal computers also began including wireless networking capabilities. Digital communication technologies will be discussed further in chapter 5.

    Input and Output

    USB connector

    USB connector (click image to enlarge)

    In order for a personal computer to be useful, it must have channels for receiving input from the user and channels for delivering output to the user. These input and output devices connect to the computer via various connection ports, which generally are part of the motherboard and are accessible outside the computer case. In early personal computers, specific ports were designed for each type of output device. The configuration of these ports has evolved over the years, becoming more and more standardized over time. Today, almost all devices plug into a computer through the use of a USB port. This port type, first introduced in 1996, has increased in its capabilities, both in its data transfer rate and power supplied.

    Bluetooth

    Besides USB, some input and output devices connect to the computer via a wireless-technology standard called Bluetooth. Bluetooth was first invented in the 1990s and exchanges data over short distances using radio waves. Bluetooth generally has a range of 100 to 150 feet. For devices to communicate via Bluetooth, both the personal computer and the connecting device must have a Bluetooth communication chip installed.

    Input Devices

    All personal computers need components that allow the user to input data. Early computers used simply a keyboard to allow the user to enter data or select an item from a menu to run a program. With the advent of the graphical user interface, the mouse became a standard component of a computer. These two components are still the primary input devices to a personal computer, though variations of each have been introduced with varying levels of success over the years. For example, many new devices now use a touch screen as the primary way of entering data.

    Besides the keyboard and mouse, additional input devices are becoming more common. Scanners allow users to input documents into a computer, either as images or as text. Microphones can be used to record audio or give voice commands. Webcams and other types of video cameras can be used to record video or participate in a video chat session.

    Output Devices

    Output devices are essential as well. The most obvious output device is a display, visually representing the state of the computer. In some cases, a personal computer can support multiple displays or be connected to larger-format displays such as a projector or large-screen television. Besides displays, other output devices include speakers for audio output and printers for printed output.


    Sidebar: What Hardware Components Contribute to the Speed of My Computer?

    The speed of a computer is determined by many elements, some related to hardware and some related to software. In hardware, speed is improved by giving the electrons shorter distances to traverse to complete a circuit. Since the first CPU was created in the early 1970s, engineers have constantly worked to figure out how to shrink these circuits and put more and more circuits onto the same chip. And this work has paid off – the speed of computing devices has been continuously improving ever since.

    The hardware components that contribute to the speed of a personal computer are the CPU, the motherboard, RAM, and the hard disk. In most cases, these items can be replaced with newer, faster components. In the case of RAM, simply adding more RAM can also speed up the computer. The table below shows how each of these contributes to the speed of a computer. Besides upgrading hardware, there are many changes that can be made to the software of a computer to make it faster.

    Component Speed
    measured by
    Units Description
    CPU Clock
    speed
    gHz The time it takes to complete a circuit.
    Motherboard Bus
    speed
    mHz How much data can move across the bus simultaneously.
    RAM Data
    transfer rate
    MB/s The time it takes for data to be transferred from memory to system.
    Hard Disk Access
    time
    ms The time it takes before the disk can transfer data.
    Data
    transfer rate
    MBit/s The time it takes for data to be transferred from disk to system.