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PC Parts – The Basics

This article is intended for n00bs, the classic and affectionately used term for someone who uses computers, but doesn’t really understand how they work. If you read through this article, it should help you follow FAQs and discussions in the forums, since you will then have a basic understanding of common PC terms and parts.

 

Motherboard or mainboard

The motherboard is a board (known as a PCB) with tiny circuits running through it that connect various silicon chips and basically facilitate the communication between most components of a PC. Every other piece of a PC plugs into a motherboard.


A couple of piles of motherboards for testing by the driver team at VIA.


This diagram labels the major slots, ports and chips on a motherboard.

Chipset – the North Bridge and South Bridge

A chipset is a set of two chips comprising of the North Bridge and South Bridge (also often written and northbridge and southbridge). The North Bridge and South Bridge are silicon chips. VIA manufactures chipsets.

This is a picture of a "chipset" as the chips look when they're not on a motherboard, but in a marketing presentation! The South Bridge is always the smaller of the two. The North Bridge especially is actually often covered by a heatsink when it's on a motherboard.

The North Bridge

The North Bridge determines what type of CPU and RAM the PC can have. Since the AMD K8 (64 bit) platform was released, the memory controller is no longer in the North Bridge, it is instead part of the CPU. Some North Bridge chips feature an integrated video controller. Such North Bridges are often called integrated or IGP chips.

The South Bridge

The South Bridge determines what type of devices a PC can have since it can provide things like USB support, IDE and/or SATA hard drive support, LAN or networking support, modem and audio. South Bridges are also responsible for the connection of other I/O (input/output) devices like keyboard, mouse and printer ports. The South Bridge also features the PCI bus (explained later). Finally the South Bridge features some type of interconnect with the North Bridge. VIA’s interconnect on more recent chipsets is known as V-Map, for example.

Some VIA South Bridge chips have a few versions, such as the VT8237 pictured above and the VT8237R pictured below.

Both of the images pictured above are taken with the motherboard in the same position as they are in a system. If you look at the image below you can see the South Bridge in exactly the same position as on the motherboards above, just underneath the video card.

Single chips solutions

Many manufacturers, VIA included, are combining the functions of the North Bridge and the South Bridge into single chips. The VX855, for example, is know as a Media System Processor and is just the one chip, providing all the functionality that was once shared across a North Bridge and South Bridge.

CPU or processor

The Central Processing Unit (CPU) is the brain of a PC. The CPU is responsible for processing data and simply put, the speed of a CPU determines how quickly information can be processed. The CPU plugs into the motherboard and will have a heatsink and fan on top of it to keep it cool.


The CPU drawer at the VIA Arena labs

RAM or memory

Random access memory (RAM) temporarily stores information as it passes to and from other parts of the PC, such as - a 3D texture in a game from the CPU that is interacting with the game ... to the video card ... to the monitor - can potentially all pass through the RAM. System RAM are known as dims, sticks or modules and are measured in size by megabytes, MB or gigabytes, GB (1GB=1000MB). RAM is also a feature of most video cards, so that data can pass through the RAM on the video card instead of the system RAM. Think of RAM like a folder of information being passed between members of a team.


From EDO RAM (top) to today's DDR RAM with an outer casing.

Video card or graphics card

A video card features another crucial piece of silicon technology called a GPU or Graphics Processing Unit, by most manufacturers, and sometimes VPU (Video processing unit) by ATI. Old video cards were also often called AGP cards (Advanced Graphics port) since they plugged into the AGP port on a motherboard. The latest technology which replaced AGP is PCI Express.

I guess you can think of a video card like another brain. Some video cards are in fact just as powerful as the rest of the PC they are plugged into! A video card is responsible for showing you (on your monitor) what a program is telling the PC it wants to display visually.

Hard drives

Hard drives, or HDDs as they are most often referred to as, are like filing cabinets. They are storage. They don’t only store your documents, however, the operating system and software are installed on HDDs.


A box of hard drives.

Operating System

A software package that interacts with the PC hardware and other software applications. For example, you are probably reading this, looking at an Internet browser. The Internet browser was probably included as part of the operating system, but never the less, it is because the operating system is interacting with the video card that you can see the text on your screen and you can move your mouse and the cursor on the screen moves along with it ... etc.

Drivers

Drivers are the layer between the operating system and the hardware. They tell the operating system what hardware there is for it to use. For example, if you buy a new video card, it’s not enough to simply plug it into the correct spot on the motherboard, you also have to install the drivers for that video card to tell the operating system what type of video card you have plugged in and what it is capable of doing. It should be noted that many operating systems have a lot of drivers built in.

PCI bus

Think of the PCI bus as a highway or a tube. The PCI bus, as mentioned above, is a feature of the South Bridge. It allows for the connection of PCI cards (oddly enough!) that includes things like sound cards and cards that allow for extra connectivity like network cards, USB 2.0 cards, 1394 cards, etc.

BIOS

The Basic Input/Output System is a program used to start computers. It is stored on a ROM chip or flash chip, and either way, they are most often simply called a BIOS. BIOS stored on flash chips (which include almost all modern BIOS) can be "flashed" or updated. The BIOS manages data flow between the operating system and attached devices such as the HDD, video card, keyboard, mouse, etc. As such, drivers, operating systems and BIOS all share information and device ID codes so that the hardware all works well together. Hence, the sound advice to "update your BIOS" if you're having a technical issue with a new piece of hardware!

Author Name:Fiona Gatt
Published Date:20 January 2011
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