Understand Your Computer: Open it and Look Inside

Posted on January 20, 2010. Filed under: Understand Your Computer: Open it and Look Inside |

Go ahead and open up your computer- I am not talking about opening the box your computer came in and looking at your computers shell or at your keyboard or monitor.

I am talking about (unplugging it first!) unscrewing the shell and actually looking at the inner mechanics of your machine. (Hopefully you won’t have a snake living in there like the one in the photo.)

It is strange to me that there are so many people who have never even looked inside their computer. In order to truly understand it, you need to see it. So if your computer isn’t new (this might void a new warranty) open your computer up and look inside.

Note: Don’t open your laptop! This is for desktop computers only.

Try to determine what you have in there by understanding each component (hardware):

Motherboard (or system board): The motherboard is the large brown or green board  that lines the bottom or side of your computer and is covered with circuits and chips. The most important part on the motherboard is the CPU (example: I have an Intel Core 2 Dual Processor).  You will also see the expansion and memory slots (RAM) attached to the board.  These slots probably have memory and video graphic cards already inside the slots, some slots may be vacant. Sometimes the card strips are integrated (not-removable), but most of the time you can remove the cards (non-integrated).

You probably have an ATX, Micro ATX, NLX  or BTX motherboard. Most people have the ATX design. This is an improved design that runs cooler than pre-ATX designs, putting the processor and memory in line with the fan. The Micro ATX is similar, but smaller. It has few available slots and works with power supplies of lower wattages, but is compact for smaller computers. The NLX motherboard puts the explansion slots sideways on a special riser card to use the vertical space better. The BTX uses a heat sink ( a block of metal, with veins that sits on top of the CPU drawing out heat). This means less need for fans and a quieter computer. The BTX is a great motherboard (best!) design, but expensive! Can you tell what kind you have?

You will also see where your hard drive connects to the motherboard (sometimes there is space for 2 hard drives but you probably only have one installed right now) and you can see your CD/DVD drives and connections, notice where the fan connects, where the power supply connects, where the floppy drive connects (if you have one).   It might also be useful to locate the CMOS jumper button on your mother board (in case you need to clear the CMOS memory when an unknown password is keeping you out of the BIOS configuration utility). The BIOS is what is necessary to start your computer up, but I will talk more about that later.

The CPU (computer processor) is easy to identify. It has a fan or a heat sink or both on top of it and sits somewhere in the middle of the motherboard. If it weren’t for that fan the CPU would burn itself up in a few minutes.

Expansion slots are long plastic slots for cards of various functions. You will see the slots for your memory cards (RAM) and other adapter card (expansion card) slots (PCI, ISA). For your video graphics you may have PCI slots and AGP slots, or if your computer is newer you will have the PCIe (PCI Express) slots which have replaced the other two (if you still have the old ISA slots it might be time to get a new computer). Read more about expansion cards and slots here.

You might see a short plastic AMR slot for removable modem and analog audio cards if they aren’t already integrated into your board, but the slot has  probably been replaced by a CNR slot for audio/modem enhancement cards (example: for adding Dolby Digital Surround). If you don’t want the CNR enhancements the slot can be used as a PCI slot.

RAM slots (Memory slots) are the ones most people know about already. These slots are usually black or color-coded and close together. Pairs of slots must be filled together for best performance or to work. I will talk more about RAM later. While your computer is open- take note of the type of RAM you have installed in there in case you want to buy more (write it down).

Your computer’s ports are the holes (with or without pins) in the back of the computer where your keyboard, speakers, monitor, etc.  plug in. Take note of where and how your keyboard and mouse connect to your computer, your USB connector slots, your audio jacks, and your MIDI/game  port connector (if you have one). Look at the shape of the port slot and the shape of the connectors that fits there.

Thats all for now- you can put your computer back together and get ready to learn some more as we go along.  Remember to never open your computer while it is still plugged in!

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[…] begin, you might want to take a look inside your old computer to just get a feel for what it will look […]


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