Pound for pound, few systems are as powerful as a desktop PC. These machines can support the latest graphics cards and processors, allowing them to play demanding games.
A few key tips to keep in mind when selecting a motherboard and CPU are important to consider. Check out our list of top pc hardware review sites for help.
The motherboard is the central hub connecting your computer’s functional components. It includes a socket for the CPU, which operates as the computer’s mechanical “brain,” and expansion slots that work with different kinds of hardware like sound and video cards.
The motherboard also handles power connections, ensuring the electric current is distributed optimally to the various system components. This makes your computer a more energy-efficient machine.
Most motherboards have a number of color-coded and labeled 3.5mm analog audio ports that work with most standard home stereo speakers and other devices. They may also feature S/PDIF connectors that work with digital audio systems. They can also have an RCA jack that works with most standard televisions.
The CPU is the heart of your computer. It guides your computer as it processes data, much like a brain guides a body. It does this by interpreting and executing instructions in your computer software.
A CPU fetches the instructions it needs from memory. It then decodes those instructions, which are written in machine language (binary) – 1 and 0, into signals it can understand.
The CPU then executes those instructions and sends them out to specialized hardware devices as needed, such as telling the graphics card to show an explosion or telling the solid-state drive to store an Office document in RAM for quicker access. The CPU is also responsible for the overall performance of your system, which is measured in gigahertz (GHz).
RAM (or memory) is where temporary information that the computer processor needs to run your apps and open files gets stored. It offers lightning-fast data access, compared to the much slower access time of hard disk or solid state storage (SSD).
RAM microchips are grouped together into modules that plug into slots on a motherboard and are connected to the processor via a bus. The microchips store data as a sequence of rows and columns, with each box holding either a 0 or 1. Data is read by counting across the rows and down the columns. SRAM relies on transistors that preserve memory as long as they receive a trickle of power, while DRAM uses capacitors that need to be “refreshed” with comparatively larger bursts of energy every few milliseconds.
The graphics card takes the information that your computer processes and makes it appear on a screen. This can be numbers in a spreadsheet, words in a document, video frames on a TV show or movie or images on a web page.
It works with the CPU to get instructions on what should be displayed and then rapidly updates its onboard memory (known as VRAM) so that the right pixels light up at the right time. This information then whizzes to the monitor via a cable (usually DVI or HDMI) where it appears on the screen.
A discrete GPU slips into an expansion slot on the motherboard and can be replaced as technology advances. Today’s cards are also programmable to do things like accelerate 3-D rendering.
The sound card is the computer component that processes audio files to play them through your speakers. Most cards offer a line-in port for listening to music or other media and a microphone input for recording daily personal logs, podcasts or notes. More advanced devices feature additional ports for front bay use such as a second line-in, MIDI interfaces or instrument ports to record your own music.
Integrated motherboard sound chips are cheap to manufacture, so most modern computers come with them. However, if you own older hardware with bad component noise or low-quality audio output, then a dedicated sound card can significantly improve your experience.
Network interface cards (NICs) allow a computer to connect to a data network, either via an Ethernet cable or wirelessly. NIC technology has come a long way in recent years, with models offering high connection and throughput speeds.
NICs convert the data sent by the computer into a form that the network cable can use and control the flow of data between the cable and the computer. They also have unique MAC addresses that distinguish them from other computers on the same network.
Modern PCs usually include internal NICs, which are built into the motherboard, but older self-assembly or specialist hardware may need a dedicated external card fitted. Generally speaking, a NIC will fit into standard motherboard slot formats like Peripheral Component Interconnect or PCI Express.