Sunday, 11 October 2009

Graphic Cards Explained?

Welcome to Building Computers for Beginners

It is always difficult to find the best graphic card for your requirements no matter your level of computer experience.

A graphics card is a device that processes data and displays it on your screen or monitor.
The question that every computer builder asks themselves is what graphic card? (Perhaps it should be which graphic card?). No matter whether grammatically correct, it is a complicated question to answer and is dependent on several variables. The type of computer being built and the intended purpose of the system are important factors. The most important factor is the cost as this has to be met within the budget (unless of course, price is no object - a rare occurrence in my experience).

Onboard Graphics Adapters and Chipsets
It may seem like the perfect solution. A motherboard with on an integrated graphic adapter means that you do not have to be concerned with finding a suitable graphic card for your build. The bad news is that this is probably the biggest mistake you can make as a computer builder.

Onboard Graphic adapters (or accelerators) have a reputation for being underpowered resulting in the computer system slowing down, a syndrome that is known in the trade as a bottleneck. Like most areas of technology onboard graphic adapters have improved in recent years with Intel and SiS making some of the leading integrated chipsets. Despite recent advancements onboard graphics are not comparable to independent graphic card technology. It has to be stated that unless there is no alternative available avoid integrated graphics at all costs. Some motherboards allow for the onboard graphics to be switched off so that you can install a PCIe graphics cards instead but this is also far from ideal. I would highly recommend evading integrated graphics in all computers inclusive of laptops, many of which (even in the mid price range) are available with mobility (or discrete) graphic cards. If the fact that almost all (if not all) onboard graphics are completely rubbish is not enough, it can also be a living nightmare to update the drivers for integrated chipsets. If you are ever offered a desktop or laptop computer with onboard graphics run for the hills!

Some very cheap computers systems sometimes have abysmal motherboard and integrated graphic adapter combinations. If you buy a computer always investigate thoroughly the contents of the computer case and make sure all the internal components match their description exactly. Some of the prefixes and suffices (letters in the name such as XT) make a lot of difference to the cost and performance of the components. This is something to be aware of when looking for bargains on internet auction sites. My top tip for buying graphic cards on auction sites is to make sure you don't get carried away. I've seen graphic cards being sold for more than their retail prices due to over competitive bargain hunters getting into a frenzied bidding war!

Nvidia Geforce and ATI Radeon Graphics Cards
The two main competitive manufacturers of computer graphics cards are Nvidia and ATI (A subsidiary of AMD). Nvidia are known for their brand of Geforce graphic cards. AMD has retained the ATI Radeon brand name and use it (although not exclusively) for their current range of desktop graphic cards. Debates on internet forums rage for days, months and years about which manufacturer make the better GPU. It is an argument that is ongoing and unlikely to ever be resolved. ATI had gained a reputation for making top end cards that are slightly less expensive than their main competitor. Meanwhile Nvidia's GPU are extremely popular with hardcore gamers and have gained a reputation for having good driver support. The fact is that both manufacturers make a range of good graphic cards that will make it possible to run graphically intensive applications and games. It has to be stated that both manufacturers make a full range of different specification of graphics cards to cater for most people and their requirements.

What is NVIDIA SLI Technology?
NVIDIA® SLI™ technology is a revolutionary platform innovation that allows you to intelligently scale graphics performance by combining multiple NVIDIA graphics solutions in an SLI-Certified motherboard.
Well, that is what it says on Nvidia's website, what it actually means is that you run more than one graphics card (usually two) in the same motherboard. The graphic cards have to the same type for example both GTX 285 but they do not have to be the same make or manufacturer.

ATI CrossFire™— Multiply and Conquer
ATI’s CrossFire™ is the ultimate multi-GPU gaming platform and propels your PC to a new pinnacle of performance. Developed from the same technology used with ATI-based commercial flight simulators, ATI CrossFire soars into a new dimension of graphics capability with multiple graphics processing units (GPUs) working together in your PC.
This is what is says on ATI's website about their own version of multiple graphic card technology. Luckily, most gaming motherboards support both chipsets leaving the option to select either technology or to swap from one to another) perhaps during a future upgrade. As stated above it is difficult to predict which brand of graphic card will be all the rage in a few years down the line. If you have plans to build a computer system with more than one graphic card make sure that you research the physical attributes of your build. In same configurations the graphic card/s can block other expansion slots or ports that you may need to complete your build. It is possible to find versions of slim graphic cards that can help to utilise the space inside the computer case. Remember that high end graphic cards require their own power from the main power supply unit (PSU) so make sure that you have a suitable unit.

Installing a Graphics Card
There is nothing difficult about installing a PCIe graphics card (or any type). Remove the metal plate or panel in the case to allow for the graphic cards I/O panel. Then it is simply a matter of pressing the interface into the PCI expansion slot on the motherboard. When the card is aligned correctly and is fully pressed down the holding clip on the motherboard will (or at least it should) automatically snap shut to hold it in place. Connect the power supply (if required) from the Power Supply Unit (PSU). If you are setting up SLI or CrossFire configuration you have to connect the cards with a bridge connector that should be supplied with your graphic card/s. It is important to follow anti-static precautions when handling the graphic card/s to prevent Electro-static Discharge (ESD).

Monday, 21 September 2009

How to find the best Motherboards

Welcome to Building Computers for Beginners.
A motherboard is simply the name given to a printed circuit board (PCB) that in most cases is capable of accepting additional printed circuit boards (daughter boards) via expansion slots.

There is little doubt that finding the best motherboard for your computer build is a daunting task for most beginners. In my last post I wrote about the importance of finding the right computer case because this is obviously vital as it houses the motherboard. The first consideration has to be compatibility with all other hardware components in your computer build. In addition make sure that the case, motherboard and hardware components are physically compatible. Some parts may appear on paper to be compatible because they have the correct interface or attributes but in reality are physically the wrong shape. It may be that your graphic card is slightly too long or too wide and blocks access to another slot or interferes with an internal hard drive bay. It is surprising how often these problems can arise even with the standard form factors like ATX. It may be like reading another language at first but read the specification of the motherboard. A good manufacturer will supply all the relevant information about their product. This is important because you need to know in exact detail which features and technology the motherboard supports.

Processor Sockets

Motherboards are manufactured to support a specific central processor unit (PCU). The processor is fitted (or connected) to the motherboard by an interface most often called the socket. When the motherboard is manufactured it is designed to work exclusively with a particular processor and is not interchangeable with different manufacturers socket technologies. However, the motherboard socket will generally support a range of processors that run at different speeds measured in megahertz (MHZ).

To reiterate, the type of socket on the motherboard defines which processor can be used with it. When you choose the motherboard to build your computer around you are also deciding which type of central processing unit (CPU) at the same time. There are several manufacturers of CPU's and this will be covered under processors.

Universal Serial Bus

USB superseded less practical serial and parallel ports. The current specification is USB 2.0 but this will soon be replaced by a more advanced and quicker USB 3.0 specification at some point in 2010.

Motherboard Brands

Asus (AsusTec) claim to be the number one manufacturer of motherboards in the world, commanding almost 40% market share of motherboard business. To back up their bold claim Asus say on their website that one in every three computers has an ASUS Motherboard inside. Asus also proudly point out that they have been voted The Best Motherboard Brand for six consecutive years by readers of acclaimed tech website Tom's Hardware Guide (THG).

 Asus
 Intel
 HP
 Soyo
 Asrock
 Foxconn
 Acer
 Gigabyte
 Abit
 Soltek
 Albatron

There is definitely growing admiration for Asus products within the computer building community. Several builders state that they will only Asus motherboards not only because they provide the best product but also better support. This is largely based on Asus' policy of updating their drivers and bios firmware as required. Motherboard Manuals are a point of contention for many computer builders, often playing a vital role in getting a system set up correctly. The importance of the motherboard manual cannot be under estimated. Every setting and possible configuration for your computer's motherboard can be found in the manual. It should be clearly written in a legible language whilst also being suitably comprehensive.

Motherboard Chipsets

The chipset really is an intrinsic element of the computer system because it controls the rate of data transfer. It is the chipset that determines the operating speed of all hardware components and peripheral devices attached to the motherboard. It is therefore important to check beforehand which chipset is incorporated into the motherboard and that it supports all of your hardware components and peripheral devices.

Standoffs, Risers and Spacers

The motherboard is usually fitted to the computer case (or chassis) on standoffs also known as risers or spacers. The standoffs allow the motherboard to be fitted so that it does not touch the metal parts of the case and cause a short circuit. There are different types of standoffs but the most commonly used are hex head barrels. The configuration of standoffs can be altered easily by moving or adding the risers to pre-tapped holes in the computer chassis. It is very important to make sure that all screw holes on the motherboard are aligned with a standoff on the chassis. It is also essential to ensure that any unused standoff does not come into contact with the motherboard as this is likely to cause a short circuit and can lead to serious damage to the motherboard. Spare spacers are usually supplied with the motherboard and are also available separately from computer component retailers.

PC Motherboards

It can be difficult finding the best motherboard for your computer build. Read as many motherboard reviews from tech websites and magazines as possible and avoid the really cheap motherboards as they tend to be of poor quality. Do I need to write an article on how to fit a motherboard because it really is an incredibly easy task to complete? Most computer motherboards are supplied with full installation instructions and a manual. A good motherboard is supplied with everything required to fit it to the case and often all the cables, screws, standoffs, cable ties and adapters.

Computer Building Tips - Motherboard

1. Take anti-static (ESD) precautions when handling the motherboard.
2. Align the motherboard carefully with the standoffs on the back-plate of the computer chassis.
3. Put in all motherboard screws loosely at first, Line up the motherboard with the I/O panel and then tighten the screws firmly (but take care not to over-tighten them).
4. Use tools designed for electrical circuits because they are properly insulated.

Monday, 31 August 2009

How to find the Best Custom Computer Cases

Welcome to building computers for beginners. The first step when considering building your own computer is to find the best computer case for your requirements.

The computer case is a much more important hardware component than most beginners to computer building would imagine. They are now available in numerous computer form factors, colours, styles, shapes, materials and custom designs. Computer cases are also referred to by several names and descriptions often defined by their specifications and intended use. Computer cases are also called known by the following terms:- PC case, chassis, box, enclosure, housing, cabinet and base unit.

An entire technological language of pre-fixes has emerged to describe and differentiate between types and sizes of desktop computer cases, towers and chassis. Firstly, the computer form factor defines the physical dimensions of the computer system's components. Standard form factors ensure that hardware components are interchangeable amongst competing manufacturers. There are hundreds of different computer standard form factors but the most widely used for desktop computers is ATX which stands for Advanced Technology Extended. If you are intending building your own gaming computer an ATX (large) computer case would provide the best cooling options. As stated these are big computer cases and have a lot of room inside making the build slightly easier. Home or business computers are suited to smaller Micro ATX computer cases (but you can also use a large ATX computer case).

Standard Form Factors

• ATX - Advanced Technology Extended
• Micro ATX and EmbATX
• Mini ITX
• Nano ITX
• Pico ITX
• Micro BTX or uBTX
• WTX (Workstations)

The internal workings of a desktop computer may be interesting to some people but for most of us it is just a lot of cables and circuit boards with a few LED's. A popular trend in computer cases has been the introduction of transparent cases. Although considered an unusual case they do offer some practical benefits because it is possible to see whether cooling fans are working properly. Computer cases are often differentiated by a descriptive prefix (or suffix) to indicate the type of design, material and colour of the box. The days of dull grey and beige computer towers with bland appearances have long gone. The most popular colours of computer case are Black, White, Silver, Pink, Red, Blue and transparent (or with clear panels). Another popular trend amongst custom computer builders is the introduction of personalised case badges, stickers and decals. There is also a growing market in modified (aka modded) PC cases.

There are plenty of computer case manufactures making the choice of selecting one much more difficult. Some of the names are well known for certain types of case such as gaming or budget cases for home and business machines. I've compiled a list of some of the most popular brands of computer chassis.

• Xcase
• Xblade
• Asus
• Gigabyte
• Arianet
• Lian Li
• Nexus
• Thermaltake
• Coolermaster
• Zalman
• Antec
• 3ADL
• Silverstone

It is important to find the right computer case for the computer system that you are building. If you are building a desktop computer for a girl they might like it in pastel colour (maybe pink - but probably best to ask them first).

What is the Best Computer Case?

It is dependent on whether aesthetics (the way it looks) is an important factor. When computers are built to be sold by retailers they need to look good even though this does not affect their performance or reliability. Most people make a purchase based on the physical appearance of the system. This stands to reason because given a situation where two identical computer systems are for sale side by side. One of them is dented, scratched and has a poor build quality the perspective buyer is likely to select the other one. However having a clean appearance does not guarantee good performance or reliability. A computer that has a good appearance on the outside suggests that it has been assembled correctly by a competent computer builder. In other words if you want to build computers to sell they have to be of a very high standard of build quality.

Not all computer enthusiasts are looking for a silent or quiet computer case but most people put noise suppression high on their list. It is more important to try and find a case that has good cooling performance without the addition of expensive water pumps and coolants. When building a computer slide-out hard disk bays make the process much easier and quicker. This style of case is also better suited to builds that use large graphic cards because often the centre bay can be removed making more space inside the case.

Look for the position of the I/O user connection interface for USB and SATA II, firewire, mic jack, and headphone jack etc on the computer case. Sometimes these are positioned on the top, rear or on the front.

The defining factor will always be the price because no matter what type of computer you are building the case will have to fit in with your budget.

Rackmount Computer Cases

As a beginner to computer building you may come across the term Rackmount Case on your travels. These cases are a specially designed form factor for computer servers that are fitted into a rack (hence the name Rackmount).

I/O Panel for Motherboard

On the back of most desktop computers there is a panel of interfaces where you can connect all of your devices. Motherboards that comply with the same form factors do not have the same arrangement of ports and connections. To ensure compatibility cases have a pop-out I/O panel on the back. Simply press out the generic panel and replace it with the I/O panel supplied with the motherboard (making sure it is the right way up and facing outwards).

I hope this has been a useful post for anyone finding it difficult to find the right computer case for their first custom build. Now that you have found the ideal computer case for your self build project read my next post about finding the best motherboard

Its time to start putting this thing together!

Marvin Africa

Monday, 24 August 2009

A Step by Step Guide to Building Computer Systems

Welcome to Building Computers for Beginners.

If you have ever thought or are currently thinking about building computers you've come to the right place. I've decided to write a simple step by step guide for beginners to computer building. There are a couple of points that I want to make first of all, building a computer is not as difficult or complicated as many people appear to think. I'm not in favour of the building computers for dummies approach that several websites or books take. This implies that because you do not know how to build a computer you are stupid. In most cases it is simply a case of learning how to build a computer and gaining confidence in your new skills. There is obviously a level of technical ability and aptitude required to build a computer.

Personal computers are generally sold as home, business and gaming computers. It does not matter which type of desktop computer that you want to build. The principle is the same but you would use different specification of hardware components. This may already sound complicated but in simple terms a home computer is used for less demanding tasks such as email, word processing and surfing the internet. Business computers require more storage and processing power because they need to run specific applications often inclusive of large databases. Gaming computers require highest specification of components because computer games use a lot of system resources. It is possible to build computer system tailored to your exact requirements and install hardware components of a higher quality than those sold by many high street and internet retailers.

A custom built computer is often a good idea because it is built to run the applications or games that you are likely to use. It is often a worthwhile consideration to future proof the system (to some degree) by adding the most up to date technology.

There are several well documented pros and cons associated with building your own personal computer. In most articles disadvantages tend to outweigh advantages but only due to their being more of them whereas the pros are actually less in numbers but more significant in my opinion.

Advantages (Pros)
  1. Value for Money
  2. Clean hard drive free of unwanted pre-installed software
  3. Customized system to suit your requirements
  4. Less time waiting for the computer to be built or delivered.
  5. Unrestricted access to the computer tower or case. No warranty seals.
  6. Fun - some people actually enjoy the experience of building a computer
  7. Experience of build will make future upgrades, repairs and troubleshooting easier
  8. Good knowledge of hardware components in the PC
  9. High quality components throughout (essential for a stable PC).
  10. Sense of accomplishment - building a computer is a worthwhile learning experience.
Disadvantages (Cons)
  1. No 24 hour technical helpline or direct online support
  2. No collective warranty (although each component should have a Manufacturer's Warranty)
  3. You will need to buy an operating system or install a free Linux operating system (for example Ubuntu)
  4. Electrostatic Discharge (ESD) can cause damage to hardware components.
  5. No free software bundles/incentives. Some retailers are able to provide highly discounted or free software suites with their computers.
  6. Incompatibility of hardware components or peripherals (including printers and scanners)
  7. Extra postage or carriage costs when ordering components or peripherals from several different retailers.
  8. Motherboard's BIOS drivers are likely to be out of date and require updating.
  9. If you encounter faulty components diagnostics can be difficult and/or expensive.
  10. The BIOS settings have to be correct for maximum performance.
Admittedly, many of these points can be argued either way. Another example being that you get to choose whether to apply the "powered by stickers" that come with most components. There is little doubt that a properly built PC system is not comparable to a cheap discount PC from the high street stores.

Barebones Computers

It is understandable that many people want to build their own computer but have reservations about starting from scratch. There is a way to build a computer without the hassle of researching the compatibility of all hardware components. It is now possible to buy a computer building kit known in the trade as a barebones computer. These computer building kits contain pre-selected compatible hardware already installed in the computer case. Barebones computers are usually supplied with the motherboard already fitted and the central processing unit (CPU) seated. Depending on the retailer or the package various other hardware components may already be in place. Essentially a barebones computer is a partially built computer system that the buyer has to complete after purchase to get a fully working PC. This can be a real advantage to the beginner and also to the buyer who wants to recycle or re-use the components from their existing computer/s.

Fear of BIOS

Basic Input/Output System (BIOS) is an integral part of any computer system. This is the boot firmware for your personal computer. It is basically a set of instructions and settings stored on a CMOS chip on the motherboard. The CMOS chip is usually powered by a small lithium onboard battery. There has always been an irrational fear of the BIOS by new computer builders because the settings are essential for the PC to work. It is also possible to cause damage or instability to a computer by entering the wrong settings. Modern motherboards are more BIOS friendly than they used to be and can run on default/auto settings. There is no need to fear the BIOS but consider carefully any changes to the settings as they can prevent the computer booting up. It is always worth keeping a written copy and a backup disc of all the settings in case the CMOS battery loses the settings. The BIOS settings must be correct to get the best performance from the computer's hardware.

BuildingComputers for Beginners

It has never been easier to build your own computer. I think that the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. I built my first computer because a large computer manufacturer and online retailer let me down in all departments. They sent a computer with a very poor build quality and several inherent faults. They refused to accept responsibility or refund my money which triggered a lengthy legal dispute. This was an extremely stressful situation. Eventually, with legal advice and photographic evidence I did secure a full refund. However, this is not something that I am prepared to go through again. Since this happened I began building my own computers and have never looked back. The point that I'm making here is that there is risk involved even when dealing with the well known computer manufacturers.

Follow my step by step guide on how to build your own computer. Please read my next post about Custom Computer Cases

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