Introduction to the Personal Computer

Intro to the PC
Test your comprehension with this quiz.
1. Today, a Slot A motherboard supports which type of processor?
 A. Pentium II
 B. Pentium III
 C. Athlon
 E. MediaGX

2. What is the largest type of case?
 A. Desktop
 B. Full Tower
 C. Baby AT
 D. Mid Tower
 E. None of the above

3. What are the three typical drives found in a normal PC?
 A. Floppy drive, hard drive, CD-ROM drive
 B. Zip drive, hard drive, DVD-ROM drive
 C. Jaz drive, floppy drive, CD-R drive
 D. Hard drive, CD-R drive, DVD-RAM drive
 E. None of the above

4. What are the two main parts of a "video system?"
 A. BIOS and monitor cable
 B. AGP slot and drivers
 C. Video adapter and monitor
 D. SCSI port and DirectX
 E. None of the above

5. What factor limits the CPU types that you can use on a given motherboard?
 C. Chipset
 D. CPU socket/slot
 E. The Operating System

6. What is the most popular industry-standard form factor today?
 A. Baby AT
 B. Full AT

7. When it would be appropriate for you to upgrade a motherboard's BIOS?
 A. To fix bugs found in the BIOS
 B. To fix device incompatibilities with the BIOS
 C. To improve the system's performance
 D. To support new features as technology improves
 E. All of the above

Lesson 2: The Motherboard

Time Estimate
30 minutes

The motherboard, also called the "main board," is the core of your PC system. Bolts secure it tightly inside the case, and it contains all of the key processing parts, such as the CPU, memory, cache, expansion busses, chipset, etc. The motherboard's characteristics almost entirely define your system's performance, and you'll find that a motherboard is the most important PC part (and the least expensive).

Because the motherboard contains most of the processing parts, replacing it yields the greatest performance improvement for your money. Also, motherboards quickly drop in price, so unless you need the latest model, you can buy a recent model for relatively short money. This makes motherboard upgrades economical, although labor-intensive.

Upgrades usually separate into two levels:
  • Add-ons
  • Replacement
Add-ons involve changing the parts attached to the motherboard, such as the CPU, memory single in-line memory modules (SIMMs) or dual in-line memory modules (DIMMs), or cache. These parts can improve system operation even without replacing the motherboard.

Replacement involves replacing the physical circuit board.

Motherboards rarely offer all of the features your computer needs. Fortunately, you can add devices to the motherboard by plugging them into expansion slots, or busses. There are four different expansion busses that you should be familiar with: ISA, PCI, AGP, and AMR.

The classic Industry Standard Architecture (ISA) 16-bit expansion bus. Although this bus is older than other busses, you can find plenty of 16-bit cards, such as modems, Small Computer System Interface (SCSI) adapters, and sound cards. Current PC specifications call for the complete elimination of ISA slots. The latest motherboards often contain one ISA slot, to give users a little more time before replacing their ISA add-on cards with PCI cards. The motherboard you select should have one or two ISA slots, unless you do not have any ISA cards. In this case, select a motherboard with no ISA slots.

Note: Avoid buying ISA add-on cards. The PCI bus offers better performance, Plug-and-Play support, and versatility.

The Peripheral Component Interconnect (PCI) bus originally evolved as a high-speed answer to the now obsolete Video Local Bus (VLB), which was geared toward video systems. The PCI bus supports general devices, such as video boards and drive controllers, the most common PCI devices. Now, there are modems, sound cards, and many other peripherals that use the PCI bus. PCI performs excellently with superior data throughput; its fixed 30/33MHz clock speed makes it far more stable than VLB. It is best to find a motherboard with four to six PCI bus slots.

The Accelerated Graphics Port (AGP) recently appeared with Pentium II and "Super 7" motherboards. Essentially a 66MHz PCI bus, AGP uses the higher bus speed and several hardware tactics to dramatically accelerate data throughput. The AGP also accesses main system RAM for storing graphics textures, making video RAM less critical. You should purchase an AGP, or any video card, with as much on board memory as your budget will allow. Since most PCs only use AGP for video adapters, it is not necessary on your motherboard; a PCI video adapter works fine in its place. For top video performance under Windows 98/SE, consider selecting a motherboard with one AGP slot.

The new Audio Modem Riser (AMR) specification is a hardware scaleable motherboard riser board and interface, which supports low-cost audio and modem devices. Unless low cost is your highest priority, you can use a PCI-based modem or sound card for best performance, and ignore the AMR.

Central Processing Unit (CPU)
The CPU is the main processing component on your system; it processes all program instructions and data. The faster and more powerful a CPU is, the more performance your computer will offer. Keep in mind, a CPU operates in conjunction with other motherboard elements. So a new CPU installed in an older motherboard may not offer the same performance as one installed in a state-of-the-art motherboard. When selecting a CPU, make sure that your motherboard can support it.

You can select from many different types of CPUs depending on the age and capabilities of your motherboard. Read the below for some leading candidates:

Pentium Pro
Pentium MMX
Pentium II
Pentium II "Celeron"
Pentium III
Pentium II and III "Xeon"
Pentium IV
K5 series
K6 series
K6-2 with 3DNow
AMD Athlon
6x86 series
6x86MX (MII)

The CPU connection type often classifies motherboards. There are now four typical CPU connections: socket 7, slot 1 and slot 2, socket 370, and slot A.

Socket 7
Socket 7 motherboards support most classic Pentium-type processors (i.e., Intel Pentium, Intel Pentium MMX, AMD K5, AMD K6, AMD K6-2, Cyrix MII, IBM 6x86, and IBM 6x86MX). By setting the proper clock speed and multiplier, a Socket 7 motherboard supports a variety of Pentium-type CPUs without making any other hardware changes. This versatility makes sockets important and extends the working life of current PCs by providing an upgrade path for CPUs.

Slot 1 and slot 2
In contrast, Intel has switched its processor packaging to a "cartridge-type" arrangement. Slot 1 motherboards support ordinary Pentium II, Pentium III and Intel Celeron processors. Slot 2 motherboards, intended mainly for high-end server systems, support Pentium II Xeon processors. Slot 1-type processors are described as Slot 1 or Single Edge Processor Package (SEPP). Intel is developing an adapter that allows Slot 1 motherboards to use a Socket 370 Celeron, referred to as a "Slotket".

Socket 370
Intel recognized a need for a "Socket" Celeron to meet various manufacturing and consumer demands and introduced the "Socket 370" package style, the Plastic Pin Grid Array (1PPGA). Many Celerons are available through both the cartridge and the Socket 370 packages.

Slot A
Advanced Macro Devices' (AMD) designed their most recent offering, the Athlon, in the cartridge style dubbed "Slot A." This slot is similar to the Intel Slot 1, with the exception of the placement key, which is 180 degrees from Slot 1's key. This means the Athlon will not fit on a Slot 1 motherboard.

Heat Sink/CPU Fan
CPU's heat up quickly. So you don't ruin your CPU investment, you need to keep the CPU cool. Use a heat sink/CPU fan that mounts directly to the CPU. The heat sink is a metal radiator that carries heat away from the CPU. The fan, built into the heat sink, forces air through the heat sink for efficient cooling. You can buy a heat sink/fan when you buy the CPU.

CPU Manufacturers

Random Access Memory (RAM)
Computers use RAM to hold program data and instructions while the CPU executes them, requiring RAM on the motherboard. Older computers often incorporated one or two megabytes (MB) of RAM on the motherboard, then allowed you to add more memory in the form of SIMMs. Today, all motherboards use SIMMs or DIMMs exclusively, making it much easier to replace defective memory without replacing the entire motherboard. You choose the starting amount of RAM when you select the motherboard.

Synchronous Dynamic Random Access Memory (SDRAM) is enhanced memory that allows data to transfer at any point in the system's clock cycle, rather than at set intervals, creating faster memory performance. SDRAM also move (burst) large amounts of data to and from memory. Recent motherboard chipset versions support SDRAM. PC100 RAM is a variation of SDRAM. With newer motherboards using a bus speed of 100MHz, RAM timing becomes critical. PC100 RAM is SDRAM certified to run properly on 100MHz motherboards. If you do not select PC100 RAM, make sure that your SDRAM works at 100MHz. PC133 RAM is available for motherboards using a bus speed of 133MHz. Review some of the current memory technologies below:

Now on hold, In 1997 Intel hoped Rambus DRAM (RDRAM), or "Rambus" would set the standard for memory technology supported by their 800 series chipsets. Rambus is an extremely high-speed type of memory capable of bursts as fast as two nanoseconds per byte. Rambus can transfer in excess of 533MHz, and can handle multiple Rambus Channels, which can achieve transfer rates of up to 533MB a second each. If you run four channels (the maximum supported for one controller), you can receive transfer rates over two gigabytes per second.

Double Data Rate DRAM (DDR RAM), also known as DDR-SDRAM, DDR RAM nearly equals Rambus performance. Like many of its memory predecessors, DDR RAM was first developed for use on video cards. Double Data Rate transfers allow data to move on both the rising and the falling edges of a clock cycle. This means that PC133 DDR memory will effectively provide 266MHz performance on today's 133MHz system buses. DRAM technology drives the DDR, effectively lowing costs.

Memory Manufacturers

Basic Input/Output System (BIOS)
The BIOS chip is a form of permanent memory that holds instructions for the motherboard to communicate with the operating system. In short, BIOS "drives" motherboard hardware and supports features, such as plug-and-play and power conservation. Because BIOS comes with the motherboard, you don't need to select it separately, unless you choose an upgrade.

Generally, upgrade BIOS if it would improve your hardware, or if a clear problem prevents an important feature or function from working. For example, you decide to upgrade the motherboard's video system by adding a new video board and you need to disable the motherboard video system. If your motherboard has a poor design, a flaw in the BIOS prevents you from fully disabling the video, so a BIOS upgrade might fix this problem.

You can reprogram virtually all BIOS chips, with "flash" ROM chips, "on the fly" without replacing them. As long as you do not experience problems, and your current BIOS supports all of your components, there is usually no reason to flash update your BIOS. If you do experience problems, or if you plan to upgrade a component, check the motherboard or system manufacturer's Web site for a BIOS update. You will probably see the list of the update's added features along with the BIOS update file's version and release date.

BIOS Makers

Chipsets are a set of two or three highly integrated chips that work together to provide the highest possible performance for motherboards and CPUs. In fact, most chipsets are specific to certain CPU families. When shopping for a motherboard, you will may encounter the following current chipsets:

For Pentium motherboards:
  • Intel 430FX chipset (Triton)
  • Intel 430HX chipset (Triton 2)
  • Intel 430VX chipset
  • Intel 430TX chipset
  • Intel 430MX chipset
  • AMD 640
  • VIA Apollo VP-1 chipset
  • VIA Apollo VP-2 chipset
  • SIS 5571 chipset
  • Opti Viper-M chipset
For PentiumPro motherboards:
  • Intel 440FX chipset (Natoma)
  • Intel 450GX/KX chipset (Orion)
  • VIA 680 VP Apollo P6
For Pentium II/III and Celeron motherboards (Intel CPUs):
  • Intel 440LX chipset (classic Pentium II and basic Celeron support)
  • Intel 440BX chipset (current AGP/100MHz motherboard support for Pentium II and III)
  • Intel i810 chipset (for low-end Pentium II/III and Celeron-integrated 2D/3D AGP graphics)
  • Intel 440EX chipset (designed to optimize Celeron systems with AGP bus)
  • Intel 440ZX chipset (supports Celeron systems at 100MHz and AGP bus)
  • Intel 440ZX-66 chipset (supports low-end Celeron systems at 66MHz and AGP bus)
  • Intel 450NX chipset (provides PCI bus support for Xeon processors)
  • Intel 440GX chipset (provides AGP bus support for Xeon processors)
  • Intel 810E (Updated 810 with support for 66/133MHz system bus speeds)
  • Intel 820 (Pentium II/III, AGP 4X, ATA/66, supports both Rambus and PC133 SDRAM memory)
  • Intel 840 (Pentium III/Xeon, AGP 4X, ATA/66, supports both Rambus and PC133 SDRAM memory)
  • ALi Aladdin Pro II (AGP bus and Pentium II support at 66/100MHz)
  • ALi Aladdin Pro IV (AGP 4X and support for 66/100MHz Pentium II, III and Celeron)
  • ALi Aladdin TNT2 (Integrated AGP video, 66/100MHz bus with support for Pentium II, III and Celeron)
  • VIA Apollo Pro (Slot 1 Intel Pentium II and Socket 8 Intel Pentium Pro processors, AGP bus)
  • VIA Apollo Pro Plus (Pentium II/III and Celeron with AGP bus)
  • VIA Apollo Pro 133 (Pentium II/III and Celeron, AGP and PC133 bus)
  • VIA Apollo Pro 133A (Pentium II/III and Celeron, VIA Cyrix III, AGP 4X, ATA/66, PC133 bus)
  • VIA Apollo PM601 (Pentium II/III and Celeron, VIA Cyrix III, Integrated AGP 2X, ATA/66, PC133 bus)
For Super 7 motherboards (AMD/Cyrix CPUs):
  • ALi Aladdin V (AGP chipset with 66/100MHz bus support for M1, M2, K5, K6, and K6-2)
  • ALi Aladdin 7 (AGP chipset with 66/1xxMHz bus support for Socket 7 and Slot 1/Socket 370)
  • ALi Aladdin IV and IV Pro (PCI chipset with 50/83.3MHz bus support for 586 type CPUs)
  • VIA Apollo MVP3 (AGP chipset with 66/100MHz bus support for M1, M2, K5, K6, and K6-2)
  • VIA Apollo VP3 (AGP chipset with 66 MHz bus for Pentium/MMX, K5, K6, 6x86, and 6x86MX)
  • VIA Apollo MVP4 (VP3 with integrated AGP graphics controller)
For Slot A motherboards (AMD Athlon)
  • AMD 750
  • VIA KX133 VT8371 (AGP 4x, PC133, 200MHz FSB, ATA-66)
You will come across other chipsets, the following are the most popular:

Chipset Makers

Lesson 3: Field Trip: Choosing a Motherboard

Time Estimate
30 minutes

  • Learn the major factors involved in selecting a motherboard
  • Select a particular motherboard
  • Check the latest pricing

ZDNet's Computer Shopper Web site

  1. Read the CNET Web page and study the issues involved with selecting a processor, form factor, and chipset.
  2. Now, try to select a motherboard based on your price range. Go to ZDNet's Computer Shopper hardware Web site
  3. Click Motherboards,,38,00.html and select a price range.
  4. Select at least two products by putting check marks in the left hand boxes, then click the Compare... button at the top of the page to compare the prices and features. The search returns different results each time.
  5. Click Check Prices for any product that interests you. The search returns the latest prices offered by a variety of vendors.
  6. Click one of the merchant names to see a picture of the product, more detailed product information and support, and the option to buy. Many merchants also provide lists of related products.

Study Questions
  1. What types of motherboards did you locate on the Computer Shopper site?
  2. What were the prices of those motherboards?
  3. Did any of those motherboards not support at least one ISA slot?

By using Internet resources, such as the CNET help channel and ZDNet's Computer Shopper hardware site, you can quickly and efficiently learn about virtually any PC product, compare the features, find low prices, and find vendors selling the products. If you want to do more research, try learning about CD-RW drives using the Computer Shopper hardware site.


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