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Computer Hardware Buying Guide

by Staff Writer

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Desktop computer with custom computer hardware

Over time, your old computer slows down and becomes outdated. New applications demand more memory, speed and capabilities. You can bring your computer up-to-date by upgrading computer parts on your current computer or build your own system from the ground up. Whether you're starting from scratch or just making an upgrade, this computer hardware buying guide will help you know which computer hardware components will work together to make your computer fast and powerful.

Buying Computer Hardware:

  1. Motherboard: Your computer's motherboard is the circuit board that all of your computer hardware connects to. Every motherboard will have a socket for a computer processor chip, slots for PC memory and expansion slots for other computer hardware, like video cards and sound cards. Your motherboard will also have connection interfaces for optical drives, hard drives and a power supply. You should consider several things when looking at motherboards:

  2. Form factors: Motherboards come in different sizes to fit different computer cases; motherboard types are usually described with acronyms, such as ATX or micro ATX. You'll need to match your motherboard to a case big enough to hold it.

  3. Expansion slots: Look for motherboards with compatible expansion slots for your other computer components, like video cards. The most common computer hardware uses PCI-express slots, though you will find cards that use regular PCI and AGP slots as well.

  4. Hard drive ports: Check for IDE or SATA ports on the motherboard. Each slot will allow you to attach an additional hard drive.

  5. Processors: The processor, also called the central processing unit (CPU), is the piece of computer hardware that handles calculations for your computer. The processor works in tandem with other computer components to determine the performance of your computer. While you will likely see some performance improvements by upgrading to a faster processor, your processor works together with other computer hardware to make your machine fast and powerful.

  6. CPU sockets: Your computer processor must be compatible with the motherboard. Otherwise, the CPU chip won't even fit into the processor socket.

  7. Speed: Processor speed, like other computer hardware speeds, is measured in gigahertz (GHz).

  8. Multi-core CPUs: Most new computer hardware is moving toward processors with multiple cores. Each core is an individual processor that works at the stated speed, so a multi-core processor will actually have more computing power than a single-core processor of the same speed.

  9. Heat-sinks: CPUs generate heat as they work, which can damage the processor at high temperatures. Some processors include extra computer hardware, such as a heat sink and fan, to keep the CPU cool. If your processor doesn't have a heat sink and fan, you might consider adding this computer hardware to your system.

  10. Computer memory: PC memory is usually referred to as random access memory (RAM). Your computer uses this as temporary memory to run applications and make calculations. Your motherboard will probably accommodate computer hardware sticks for up to 8 GB or more. Typically, computer hardware memory has to match other memory already installed on your computer, so you can't pair different types of RAM. There are several common types of computer hardware memory used in personal computers, each requiring a differently shaped slot. All these types have varying shapes and other features, so it's best to buy all of your computer hardware memory together to ensure that it will work in your computer.

    RAM types:

    • DDR SDRAM stands for "double data rate synchronous dynamic random access memory." This memory comes in computer hardware sticks that fit into your motherboard. This type of computer hardware is being replaced by DDR2 and DDR3.

    • DDR2 runs at faster rates than DDR memory sticks and can't be used in the same computer as DDR at the same time.

    • DDR3 is even faster than DDR2, and the two aren't compatible.

  11. Video cards: A video card handles processing graphics for movies, video games, photo-editing software and other graphics heavy processing. PCI-Express (or PCI-E) is the current standard for video cards, but you can still use AGP or regular PCI video cards in some computers.

  12. Expansion card slots: A simple PCI-E video card requires that your motherboard has a PCI-E interface slot. Similarly, a PCI-E x16 card requires that your motherboard have a faster PCI-E x16 interface. A faster interface will still accept slower computer hardware, like PCI-Ex8, for instance.

  13. Multiple video cards: Different computer hardware manufacturers make video cards that can be used together. If you plan to use multiple video cards, make sure your motherboard and other computer hardware support dual-video card functionality.

  14. Hard drives: Your computer's hard drive stores all the software and other files for your computer. Hard drives use IDE or SATA cables to connect to your motherboard, so be sure that your hard motherboard has the appropriate IDE or SATA ports.

  15. Storage space: The size of the right hard drive for your computer depends on the amount of storage you need. A 500 GB drive is almost standard in new computer hardware, but you can get as much as a terabyte (TB) of memory or more.

  16. Hard drive speed: Hard disks spin at different RPMs. The faster your hard drive, the faster your computer can access information. Typically, hard drives spin at 7,200 RPM, and 10,000 RPM is considered high performance for this computer hardware.

  17. Multiple hard drives: If your motherboard supports RAID configurations, you can use multiple hard drives together on the same computer.

  18. Optical drives: CD, DVD and Blu-ray drives are known as optical drives and are common computer hardware for desktops and laptops. Drive speed is displayed in X ratings. Computer hardware which is listed as "22x/8x/16x" will record and re-record discs at 22x or 8x speed, depending on the type of disc, and will read discs at 16x speed. Read and write speeds differ between DVDs and CDs. Computer hardware such as DVD and CD drives use IDE or SATA cables to connect to your motherboard.

  19. Power supply: Your computer's power supply provides power to all computer hardware and other devices connected to your computer. Choose a power supply with the interfaces that each of your drives and expansion cards will need. Calculate the wattage used by all of your computer hardware combined. If your power supply can't provide enough power to your computer hardware, your computer will shut down unexpectedly. Make sure the RMS wattage (average watts) of your power supply is large enough to handle the RMS wattage requirements of all of your components.

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