Unglamourous Hardware (A Treasury Of Computer Knowledge And Links)

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Here I focus on some of the important but all-too-often underexamined hardware elements of the modern computer, hopefully allowing you to avoid critical mistakes from over-casual choices of those elements.

The Main Divisions On This Page:
o Unglamourous Is Not Unimportant
o The ATX Specification
o A Little Detail
---cases
---power supplies
---cooling
---SCSI cabling




Unglamourous Is Not Unimportant

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Talk to anyone about their computer--present or desired--and you hear about CPU speeds, chipsets, video accelerators, hard-drive rotation speeds, SDRAM latencies, and a host of other technobabble mental toys. But the unsexy hardware--cases, power supplies, cables, fans, that sort of stuff--can nowadays have a major impact on performance. How major? If you've made bad choices here, your system could just flat-out drop dead on you. Is that major enough?

What has changed, and changed drastically at that, from the good old days when the unsexy hardware could be any old grot you picked up at a swap meet is speed. The modern CPU chip is running at several hundred MegaHertz; that is, the system clock is ticking at, for a 400 MHz CPU, at 400,000,000 ticks a second. That, people, is way up there in the UHF electromagnetic spectrum. And the byproduct of all that hardware running at these new ever-higher speeds is heat. Some modern hard drives get so hot in merely normal operation that you could literally fry eggs on their cases (if that's your idea of a fun time).

All of a sudden, the formerly unsexy hardware has to become part of a carefully engineered system for dealing with large amounts of heat energy and signals propagating around inside the case at UHF radio frequencies. If that heat is not adequately and properly dissipated, components literally fry. The system becomes erratic and, often, just stops or crashes.

As you look over the material below, you will find again and again and again the phrases "heat" and "cooler." Do not let familiarity breed contempt. The faster and faster a computer goes, the more and more heat it generates. Among those who try to foresee the broad general lines of the mid- to long-term future of computing, it has long been obvious that generated heat is the limiting factor in both speed increases and miniaturization. Things like liquid-nitrogen circulation are being seriously studied. So do not mistakenly think that the warnings and advisories here are the nattering of a little-old-maidish mind: they really and truly are vital to your system, in the literal sense of vital.



The ATX Specification

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"ATX" is shorthand for a system specification devised by the chip-making giant, Inetl; it is a specification that dictates both the mechanical and the electronic features of certain basic and important (but unglamourous!) computer components--the case, the power supply, the motherboard, and more. Here is Intel's ATX web site, where you can get news, examine the actual ATX specification (yawn), or look over past press clippings about it (probably the most useful links there).

The most distinctive feature of the ATX standard is a 90 degree directional turn of the motherboard's component layout (relative to the previous norms). The three main advantages of ATX mainboards are:

-- better clearance for longer expansion cards;
-- easier access to the motherboard (less cable clutter); and,
-- improved system cooling.

Note: the latest version (late September 1998) of the ATX specification is now 2.03. Do not accept any "ATX-compliant" components that are not level 2.03.

From the point of view of the end user--your point of view--what matters is just this: for any new system you must get an ATX-compliant motherboard installed in an ATX-compliant case with an ATX-compliant power supply.



A Little Detail

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Cases

ATX 2.01 compliance is what a mathemarician would call "a necessary but not a sufficient condition." That is, you must have it, but by itself it's not enough. A good case needs to be roomy enough to hold all the boards and drives a modern power system is likely to use and still have room, and a layout design, that promotes good air flow. It also needs to be solid, of good-gauge metal, and to fit together tightly enough to keep all that radio-frequency energy inside from escaping, and to be well-enough engineered and built to not have sharp edges on which to slice your hands when you work with it.

The key point is that you need to peruse--on the various hardware sites--reviews of cases with just as much attention as reviews of, say, hard drives. They are vital parts of your overall system, not just fungible metal cans.



Power Supplies

Once upon a time, a power supply was a power supply--know its wattage and you knew what there was to know about it, save perhaps maker reputation (and almost all were no-namers anyway). Today, with the ATX specification setting out important criteria affecting air flow and heat dissipation (among other things), and you absolutely, positively must be sure that your power supply is ATX-2.01-compliant.

OK, we're hitting the ATX spec with a hammer. Fine. Just don't overlook it.

Given that you are now sensitized to ATX compliance, what else is there? There is the maker's reputation; that you need to glean from surfing the many hardware-review sites. And there is the question, regarding wattage, of "How much is enough?"

In looking that matter over, I was surprised. Not long ago, 250 watts would have seemed a reasonable minimum, and nowadays we have ever more devices and ever higher operational speeds. It seems, however, that corresponding advances in technology, including the ATX specification, have lowered the average per-device demand enough that for anything less than a monster server, 235 watts is, apparently, adequate (a lexicological point: "adequate," despite its derogation in the demotic, is an absolute word meaning "enough, sufficient" and there is no moderating flavor of "just barely" lying over it--compare "mediocre"). Many are the folk reporting a 235-watt PS driving dual-CPU, multi-drive, multi-peripheral systems with no problem, and few or (so far as I have seen) none reporting otherwise.



Cooling

The need for proper cooling should be clear in the light of what I have already said here. The important factors are several.

First, overall case cooling: you must have a secondary fan. Such fans are quite cheap, but the critical point, for a modern ATX system, is that the fan must be an exhausting fan. That is, like the fan in the ATX-compliant power supply, it must be set up to pump air out of the case. Install it the wrong way and it is not only useless, it is counterproductive.

Second, you must have a CPU cooler, and the nominal ones often supplied with high-speed CPUs are feeble. Go out and get a good-quality, branded, third-party CPU cooler. Use the references on the hardware page of this site to find one you like, and get it. Keep in mind that CPUs, and most (but not all) computer components, do not run better or faster when cool than when hot; but all, when too hot, start working erratically, or even quit altogether (possibly with irreversible damage to a mighty expensive bit of works).

Third, hard-drive cooling needs to be considered. Any drive that runs at 10,000 RPM (that's the Seagate Cheetah, some IBM drives, and--soon--a Fujitsu) must have a special, dedicated drive cooler. There are numerous sources, and you will need, as usual, to do your homework; just don't neglect this critical item. For 7,200-RPM drives, some as do and some as don't regarding heat: look for clues (scan usenet in particular with the drive name) and, when you get the drive, apply the oldest test of all: feel it after it's run for a while. If it is so-so warm, don't worry, but if it is clearly hot then get a cooler.

Last but--as they always say--not least, consider getting a video-chip cooler. The critical chip on a modern video card is doing an awful lot of high-speed calculating and, being physically a lot smaller than a big CPU, is generating a lot of calories per square centimeter of chip surface. At least a few of the best modern boards are noted for the scalding heat their chips generate. There are nowadays coolers for just such chips, and for the few bucks involved it is a very wise investment. As always, scan the usual suspects among the hardware-review sites or do a web search with an engine.



Cabling

Setting up a SCSI system can be, at the best of times, a tricksy thing. With the new Ultra2 LVD ("low-voltage differential") SCSI hard drives, and a corresponding SCSI bus speed of 80 MHz (with 160 MHz on the horizon), the cables carrying those radio-frequency signals assume an even greater significance in the design of a sound system.

As a for-instance, look at this SCSI cable cross-section; granted, it's a piece of self-promotion from a particular company--but what's very plain is that this ain't just a bunch o'wires. It's engineered. If you need more persuading, do your own looking: do a search-engine scan using "SCSI" and "cables" as required terms.

Do not ever accept no-name SCSI cables, not even for older, slower external devices (for pity's sake, stay away from those plastic-bagged junkers that hang on the wall of every computer shop in the world!). Get a reputable name brand, and remind yourself that any premium you pay (and even the junkers are expensive anyway) is buying peace of mind.




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(Last updated: 17 October 2000.)

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