3 Hardware and Buyers Guide -
We will now look at the processor. So what
is the processor? Well in the simplest of terms, itís your computers
brain. The processor tells your computer what to do and when to do it,
it decides which tasks are more important and prioritises them to your
There is and has been many processors on
the market, running at many different speeds. The speed is measured in
Megahertz or MHz. A single MHz is a calculation of 1 million cycles per
second (or computer instructions), so if you have a processor running at
2000 MHz, then your computer is running at 2000,000,000 cycles per
second, which in more basic terms is the amount of instructions your
computer can carry out. Another important abbreviation is Gigahertz or
GHz. A single GHz or 1 GHz is the same as 1000 MHz . Sounds a bit
confusing, so here is a simple conversion :
1000 MHz (Megahertz) = 1GHz (Gigahertz) =
1000,000,000 Cycles per second (or computer instructions).
Now you can see why they abbreviate it,
could you imagine going to a PC store and asking for ďA one thousand
million cycle PC pleaseĒ. A bit of a mouth full isnít it?
So when buying a new computer always look
for fastest you can afford. The fastest on the market at the time of
writing this article is 3.4 GHz (3400 MHz). Remember though that it is
not necessary to purchase such a fast processor, balance your needs, do
you really need top of the range? Especially when the difference between
a 2.8 GHz (2800 MHz) and a 3.4 GHz (3400 MHz) processor will be barely
noticed (if noticed at all) by you, while the price difference is around
£100. With the money you save you could get a nice printer and
Now that we have covered the speeds, there
is one more important subject to cover. Which processor? There are 3
competitors at present, the AMD Athlon XP, Intel Pentium 4 and the Intel
The Intel Pentium 4 is the most expensive
of them all, and remains today the most popular on the market. In
laymanís terms itís the designer processor. Personally I would
purchase a Pentium 4 processor quicker than any of the others as I find
it more reliable.
The AMD Athlon XP processor is a direct
competitor to the Pentium 4, and if you want quality without the expense
than this should be your choice. One thing to note though is that AMD
lists its processor speeds at what it calls a comparable rating to the
Intel Pentium 4. An example of this would be the 2200+ Athlon XP
processor, which actually only runs at 1.8 GHz (1800 MHz). To me it
feels like a bit of a rip off.
Lastly there is the Intel Celeron; this
processor is a budget version of the Intel Pentium 4, the processor you
find in most budget computers. If the purse is tight, and you need a
computer, then this is your port of call. You will find many sub £500
computers fitted with this processor.
4 Hardware and Buyers Guide -
Continuing with the ďInside Your
ComputerĒ series, this week we will look at memory. Memory is simply a
part of your computer which has information uploaded to it temporarily,
allowing instant access. The more memory you have the more information
that can be uploaded, enhancing your computers performance.
Memory comes in many shapes and sizes, and
has changed throughout the history of computers. For the sake of
simplicity I will only cover memory sold with computers in todayís
The memory sold today is called DDR. It is
broken into two main groups. DDR 184-Pin DIMMs, (Desktop computer
memory) and DDR 200 Pin SoDIMM (Laptop/Notebook memory). The DDR 200-Pin
SoDIMM memory is available in one speed (2100) and is usually half the
physical size of its counterpart, whereas the DDR 184-Pin DIMM comes in
several speeds (2100, 2700 and 3200). The picture below shows a DDR
Most desktop computers sold in todayís
market will be sold only with DDR2100 (this is how you abbreviate DDR
184-Pin DIMMs running at 2100), and it best not to mix with the faster
types (DDR2700, or DDR3200) which can cause instability within your
computer. If you decide to change to the higher speed memory remember to
replace all of it.
So now that you know about different sizes
and types, the next thing you need to know the sizes. DDR memory comes
in 64mb, 128mb, 256mb, 512mb and 1gb chips.
So how much memory can you install? Well
unfortunately this is down to the motherboard installed in your
computer. There is three ways to find out, phone the manufacturer of
your computer, look up the motherboard manufacturers website, and if you
are lucky check out the motherboard manual.
In general though most new computers
should be Ok with two 256mb chips of memory, but it is best confirming
this before buying.
Finally, this memory can be installed a chip at a time,
some people still carry the old belief that you have to install two of
the same or it wonít work. Donít worry as that was along time ago,
and PCís have changed since then
5 Hardware and Buyers Guide -
hard drive is abbreviated to HDD, as in Hard Disk Drive. The HDD is used
as storage by your computer, think of it as a large bookshelf that you can
put everything into. This allows access to this information, without the
need to insert disks, CD's, or other items that you can store information
in. Your programs, personal information and operating system will all be
Hard Disk is often mistakenly called the tower unit (or case).
are 4 main different types of hard drives, SCSI, IDE, Serial ATA, and
external. We will cover these briefly.
HDD - these drives are for high end users or servers, they are high speed,
but at the same time come with a high price bracket. They can be around 3
times the price of a standard IDE drive, if not more. You should put
series thought and research into SCSI drives before buying.
for : Workstations, mid-level to high-end servers, storage area networks,
network attached storage, RAID storage arrays, filing and printing, EMA/Groupware,
databases, data mining, CAD, Data Streaming, and intensive graphic
- The IDE drive is standard in today's computers, it attaches to the same
connection as your CD and DVD drives, because of the competitiveness of
this market you should expect to buy at a very low price. If you
wish to change or add a new HDD then you should think IDE first. Remember
always buy the largest and fastest you can afford. In present day, as long
as your computer supports it, look for at least an 80GB drive that runs at
7200 rpm, and has a 2mb cache.
for : Home users, small businesses and most gamers
ATA - These drives are the new competitor for IDE. I can see in the not so
distant future these drives becoming the new standard. Most new
motherboards now come with connections for the serial ATA. These drives
have large capacity, big buffers and have fast transfer rates.
of the future, but best left alone until you do a major system upgrade.
Check with your motherboard manufacturer or manual for support of these
HDD - Not to be used as your main drive, these are best kept for backup
and large data transfer. With the USB 2.0 drives now being the leader of
the market this is the best to buy, but remember that before buying, make
sure you have USB ports on your computer, and that these ports will
support the drive. Always check with manufacturer, as older computers will
only have USB 1.1 ports. The drive should work OK, but just make sure.
are other types of connectors used by external hard drives, ie PCMCIA and
Firewire. Always check compatibility with your computer before purchasing.
Depending on what you are using your computer for, will help determine the
hard drive size.
Home user with low usage
- 20 to 80GB (mostly internet/word processing use)
Video and photo Editing
user - 80GB plus (Video and photo scans are very large)
Gamer - 80GB plus (due to
large install sizes of games)
Remember Hard Drive
prices are not consistent, the difference between a 20GB drive and a 80GB
drive is very low. Doubling, even quadrupling size does not double or
quadruple the price. At time of writing a 40GB drive can be bought for
£38 to £50 sterling and an 80GB drive is £53 to £71 sterling.
ROTATION SPEED: There
two main speeds. 5400rpm and 7200rpm. We will make this simple, always buy
7200rpm. Although you may find the larger drives are mainly sold with 5400
rpm drives, it is well worth the extra (small) expense.
BUFFER SIZE: Most
hard drives come with a generous size, usually 2mb or above, only buy the
large buffer size (i.e. 8mb) if you are a heavy computer user.
One again always buy the fastest you can get, although this can all depend
on your motherboard and what it can support. To get maximum performance
from your computer make sure the interface speeds match. ie buy ATA/100
IDE Hard Drive for an ATA/100 motherboard. Although the ATA/133 drive will
still work, just not at that speed.
INTERFACE TYPE: Buy
IDE for IDE, don't buy SCSI if you don't have a SCSI interface, or Serial
ATA if you don't have a motherboard that supports it. Always check with
your motherboard manufacturer, or manual for support.
SEEK SPEED: This
is listed in milliseconds, so of very little concern to you the user.
6 Hardware and Buyers Guide -
Create your own home movies on DVD, backup
your DVD collection, or use to backup your hard drive, for whatever
reason go buy one now. A DVD writer is used for exactly what it is named
for, writing DVD's.
Lets explain the formats. DVD writers come
in several formats. DVD-R, DVD-RW, DVD+R, DVD+RW, and DVD-RAM.
So which do you buy? Lets explain the
DVD-R/RW - This is the first format
that was compatible with home DVD players. This drive would be the more
popular, although not as technologically advanced as the DVD+R/RW drives
this format are ruling the market and is supported by 92% of DVD-rom
drives and DVD players.
DVD+R/RW - This is the more
technologically advanced drive. Supported by Microsoft in their next
version of Windows, this drive format is getting more popular, but is
slightly less compatible than its friend the DVD-R/RW drives, it comes
in at 87%.
DVD-RAM - This format is out years,
but unfortunately is better suited for large backups of your Hard drive.
Do not buy if you want to backup your DVD collection, or make home
So what do you buy, well luckily enough in
today's market you can remove the decision making and just buy a drive
that support DVD+R/RW and DVD-R/RW. The DVD-RAM drives are no good
unless you wish to use solely for backup, but even then I would consider
buying a 2nd hard drive first.
So which drive do you buy?
At time of writing we recommend the
Pioneer DVRA06 Internal DVD Writer. A very reliable and fast drive,
supporting both DVD-R/RW and DVD+R/RW formats, plus it is a CD-writer
also. Of course this article will eventually date, so always look for
the highest speed, duel compatible drive, and if possible stay with
branded models, i.e. TDK, Liteon, Pioneer , Sony, etc
7 Hardware and Buyers Guide - The CD-writers, DVD & CD-Rom drives
There are other drives you can get for your
computer, CD-writers (CDRW), DVD-Rom and CD-Rom drives.
CDRW drives are basically what they say,
they allow you to create your own CDís. There are 2 basic types of
CDís you can use, CDRís and CDRWís.
CDRís are the write once versions of these
disks, this means that once data has been added to the disk then it cannot
be removed. These are more compatible with other drives. (eg car stereos, computer CD-rom drives, Hi-fiís etc)
CDRWís are blank disks that can be written
to time and time again. They are mainly used as a backup medium. Through
the CD-writer software you will be able to add and remove data from the
disks. They can also be formatted allowing the disks to be used as mini
CD-Rom drives are for reading CDís. They
are the essential minimal standard for your PC.
DVD-Rom drives allow your computer to read
DVD disks, as well as CDís. Modern drives have all levelled out in the
quality and compatibility standards, but older ones you may find will not
read DVD copies or backups. You can also use these drives to watch DVD
movies on your PC. To do this will require DVD software to be installed on
So now that you have a fair idea of whatís
available, it is time to decide what to buy for your computer.
The price of the drives have dropped a lot
in the last few years, so no longer incur the large costs that they once
help. A CD-writer for example use to cost around £300 just 4 years ago,
but now can be bought with software for less than £30.
Instead of buying separate drives you should
consider just one. This drive is called a combo drive. Combo drives
consist of a single drive that allows you to burn CDís, read CDís, and
use DVD disks also, basically all the functions of the drives listed
8 Hardware and Buyers
Guide Ė Graphics Cards
A graphics card is used to display images
on your monitor. Without one you will not be able to see what your
computer is doing.
There are three main types, AGP graphics
cards (requires an AGP slot in your computer), PCI graphics cards
(requires a PCI slot in your computer), and onboard video (this is a
video card that is merged with the motherboard.)
The more powerful the graphics card the
quicker and smoother images will appear on your monitor.
So when buying what do you look for? If
the budget is tight and you are buying a computer, you will find the
cheaper range will have onboard video. Make sure that you ask if an AGP
slot is available inside, for future expansion.
AGP cards are the choice for graphics, but
can only be used in an AGP slot. Without this expansion slot you will
find yourself replacing the motherboard as well, incurring a larger
below is a free brown AGP slot
When buying a new graphics card, always
look for what was top of the range 6 months previous. This will allow
you to buy a card that was maybe £200 plus for less than £100. This
will save you a lot of money.
PCI cards are best avoided as they usually
only provide minor performance enhancements.
Laptops come with onboard video, remember
this cannot be upgraded so look for the best thatís available at time
9 Hardware and Buyers
Guide Ė Sound Cards and Speakers
Sound cards are a very important part of
computing in the modern age. Without them you will have no music, no
effects and no voices when using your computer. Making the experience
very bland and business like.
Fortunately in the modern day 99% of
computers are supplied with sound cards, usually part of the
motherboard, but only able to supply a basic 2 speaker set up with
audio, but this can be changed. Enhance your computer experience by
upgrading the sound card and your speaker system.
With speakers placed around the room you
will create a new gaming, and movie experience, with noises coming from
all directions of your room. Imagine a helicopter flying around you in a
game, well with the correct speaker set up this experience will be much
more real, by just closing your eyes you will feel like you are actually
there. Someone walking behind you in a game will have you looking behind
in real life. The experience can be unbelievable and unreal.
So what do you look for? Well its quite
simple, soundcards and speakers, come in several formats, all of which
will be written on the box. They are rated as 2.1, 4.1, 5.1, 6.1, and
7.1. For example 7.1 means
7 satellite speakers and 1 sub-woofer, 5.1 means 5 satellite speakers
and 1 sub-woofer. (I hope you get the idea) The more speakers the higher
quality the sound will be, and the more amazing the effects.
When it comes to sound always buy quality.
Creative Labs Sound card and speakers series is well recommended, and
always buy the speakers that match the sound card.
An important note, when buying is to check
your DVDís, Games or Music CDís to see what they support. Most say
5.1 audio, this will work fine on all cards and speakers 5.1 and below,
but you will only receive 5.1 audio on a 7.1 system. So if you have 7.1
set up, donít get annoyed if two of your speakers donít work.
10 Hardware and Buyers
Guide Ė Internet connections
So you have your computer, and you are
wishing to go on the Internet, or you are on the Internet and want to
upgrade. So what is available in todayís market?
note 1024k = 1 MB)
A modem is one such item. It uses standard
analogue phone lines to connect to the Internet. This is now the slowest
and oldest method to connect, but comes with a very low price tag. V92
is the latest and probably the last type of modem released in the market
and allows connections speeds of up to 56kb. It can be bought from as
low as £10. All Internet providers allow modem dialups.
ISDN is the next step, but is still an
older technology, which requires the use of two phone lines to connect
to the web. This service is becoming harder and harder to find as most
Internet providers do not wish to be burdened with it. ISDN allows
connection speeds of up to 128kb, and usually requires you to rent two
phone lines, and pay a monthly bill. Unless you are really desperate for
faster speeds then it is best avoided.
ADSL & Cable is the fastest growing
way to connect to the Internet. ADSL uses standard analogue lines with
advanced circuit boards to allow high-speed connections on the Internet.
In theory the ADSL can allow connection speeds of up to 9 MB a second,
but no provider gives these types of speeds. The ranges typically
available are from 256kb to 2mb per second. If available in your area, I
would recommend using this type of connection, which is typically 10
times the speed to a standard modem connection. Cable modems are much
the same, but use fibre optic cables to transmit the data, the same
cables that carry your TV signals.
broadband is a new product on the market, and not a lot of people know
of its existence. It allows users in areas not covered by an ADSL
upgraded exchanges to receive broadband. The biggest problem with this
service is the coverage presently only includes major cities, towns and
their surrounding villages, and only in certain parts of the world.
broadband is another technology, which is in development; the biggest
problem with it is most companies canít decide which technology to
use, either 1-way (Download from satellite only) or 2-way (Download and
upload from satellite). 2-way broadband seems the obvious answer but it
comes with complications, to use a 2-way satellite requires a license,
as you are using a transmitting device, where as 1-way does not, but
this still limits you to phone line upload speeds.
So the question is what do you buy? Well
the good news, is that most, if not all computers are sold with modems,
and almost all companies provide ISDN/cable/ADSL modems when you signup.
(Check with the Companies that you have decided to go with before
buying.) Remember though, if all you use the internet for is to collect
and send emails, then a modem dialup on a pay as you go contract, is
basically all you require.
Alternatively though you can opt for an
internal ADSL cards or an external modem. ADSL and Cable also come with
the option of being used on multiple computers in a home using wireless,
or wired routers with built in ADSL/Cable modems, but that is another
story which we will cover at a later date.
One great advantage of using Satellite,
wireless, ADSL and Cable is that the phone is not engaged while in use,
meaning you can talk and browse the internet at the same time.
broadband is actually quite an affordable option (This is mainly
available in the UK). UK prices start at £1 per day, plus an
installation charge of £99. This is only slightly more expensive to run
than standard ADSL. Speed
starts at 512kb download/upload and the higher range service is 1024kb
download/upload, this service does offer higher upload speeds than ADSL,
which is commonly half the download speed, if not less. You need to
search the internet for availability in your area.
broadband in the other hand is very expensive; searching the UK was
quite difficult to find providers, and the cheapest monthly charge I
could find was £75. (This was a 512kb download/upload rate). This
service seems aimed at businesses, not the home user, it can be affected
by adverse weather, and may require a license to be used.
in other hand seems to be a lot more competitive, and satellite
broadband is definitely an option for the home user.
at these two services I would advise users in the UK to wait it out as
ADSL is expanding next year with the introduction of new technology to
the BT exchanges. This will increase coverage to over 90% of the UK
population (Presently at 60%). Remember though if you donít have
broadband in your area register your interest on BTís website, the
more people that do it, the quicker ADSL will arrive.
11 Hardware and Buyers Guide - Other Essentials
Firewire - Firewire connections are important for Digital
video cameras. These allow you to download your movies onto your
computer so that you can edit the film then send back to the camera or
burn onto DVD.
If you don't have Firewire, don't worry as an expansion card can be
bought (Fits in PCI slot) which can be added to your computer at a later
PCI Slots - These are essential for future additions to your
computer, like TV cards, editing cards, USB, Firewire, etc etc. Make
sure when buying you have at least 2 free.
USB - A computer without USB ports can be an extreme
disadvantage, most external hardware, including printers and scanners,
nearly all require USB ports, but to add a new twist to the tale, USB
2.0 has appeared on the market. Backward compatible, these ports are the
ones you are looking for, allowing USB 2.0 devices to run 10 times
faster, while at the same time allowing older, slower USB devices to
If you don't have USB 2.0, don't worry as an expansion card can be
bought (Fits in PCI slot) which can be added to your computer at a later
Well that's it for this month, I hope you all enjoyed
this issue, and we look forward to seeing you next month,