PC Hardware in a Nutshell: A Desktop Quick Reference

PC Hardware in a Nutshell: A Desktop Quick Reference

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PC Hardware in a Nutshell is the practical guide to buying, building, upgrading, and repairing Intel-based PCs. A longtime favorite among PC users, the third edition of the book now contains useful information for people running either Windows or Linux operating systems. Written for novices and seasoned professionals alike, the book is packed with useful and unbiased information, including how-to advice for specific components, ample reference material, and a comprehensive case study on building a PC.In addition to coverage of the fundamentals and general tips about working on PCs, the book includes chapters focusing on motherboards, processors, memory, floppies, hard drives, optical drives, tape devices, video devices, input devices, audio components, communications, power supplies, and maintenance. Special emphasis is given to upgrading and troubleshooting existing equipment so you can get the most from your existing investments.This new edition is expanded to include:

  • Detailed information about the latest motherboards and chipsets from AMD, Intel, SiS, and VIA
  • Extensive coverage of the Pentium 4 and the latest AMD processors, including the Athlon XP/MP
  • Full details about new hard drive standards, including the latest SCSI standards, ATA/133, Serial ATA, and the new 48-bit "Big Drive" ATA interface
  • Extended coverage of DVD drives, including DVD-RAM, DVD-R/RW, and DVD+R/RW
  • Details about Flat Panel Displays, including how to choose one (and why you might not want to)
  • New chapters on serial communications, parallel communications, and USB communications (including USB 2.0)
  • Enhanced troubleshooting coverage
PC Hardware in a Nutshell, 3rd Edition provides independent, useful and practical information in a no-nonsense manner with specific recommendations on components. Based on real-world testing over time, it will help you make intelligent, informed decisions about buying, building, upgrading, and repairing PCs in a cost effective manner that will help you maximize new or existing computer hardware systems. It's loaded with real-world advice presented in a concise style that clearly delivers just the information you want, without your having to hunt for it.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780596552343
Publisher: O'Reilly Media, Incorporated
Publication date: 07/24/2003
Series: In a Nutshell (O'Reilly)
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 878
File size: 13 MB
Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.

About the Author

Robert Bruce Thompson is a coauthor of Building the Perfect PC, Astronomy Hacks, and the Illustrated Guide to Astronomical Wonders. Thompson built his first computer in 1976 from discrete chips. It had 256 bytes of memory, used toggle switches and LEDs for I/O, ran at less than 1MHz, and had no operating system. Since then, he has bought, built, upgraded, and repaired hundreds of PCs for himself, employers, customers, friends, and clients. Thompson reads mysteries and nonfiction for relaxation, but only on cloudy nights. He spends most clear, moonless nights outdoors with his 10-inch Dobsonian reflector telescope, hunting down faint fuzzies, and is currently designing a larger truss-tube Dobsonian (computerized, of course) that he plans to build.

Barbara Fritchman Thompson is a coauthor of Building the Perfect PC, PC Hardware Buyer's Guide, Astronomy Hacks, and PC Hardware in a Nutshell. Barbara worked for 20 years as a librarian before starting her own home-based consulting practice, Research Solutions, and is also a researcher for the law firm Womble, Carlyle, Sandridge, & Rice, PLLC. During her leisure hours, Barbara reads, works out, plays golf, and, like Robert, is an avid amateur astronomer.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 25: Designing a PC

This chapter lets you look over our shoulders while we design PCs for various needs and budgets, and then buy the components to build them. Each section describes a project system we actually built in late 1999. By the time you read this, many of the prices may be laughable and many of the components we chose will be discontinued. Whatever replaces them will no doubt be better, faster, and cheaper. That's not the point. What is important is the process of selecting components and making trade-offs to meet a target budget. When you design a system, the most you can hope for is to choose good components at a good price at that moment in time. The following sections detail choosing components for four representative systems: Low-End, Mainstream, High-Performance, and Personal Workstation.

Low-End System

Low-end systems are typically sold by resellers like Best Buy and Circuit City for $500 to $1,000. At the mid- to upper-end of that range, they may include a small, entry-level monitor and perhaps an inexpensive inkjet printer. Most low-end systems include things you either don't want or will end up replacing, but have to pay for anyway: Winmodems, entertainment or edutainment titles of questionable value, no-name small business suites, mushy keyboards, bar-o'-soap mice, and really, really bad sound cards. These systems use slow, small, inexpensive IDE/ATAPI drives, have barely adequate RAM (typically, 16 to 32 MB), and offer limited expandability. The least expensive systems use an AMD K6-2 processor. Better models use an Intel Celeron or AMD K6-III processor.

At first glance it may seem there's not much hope of matchingthe price of an off-the-shelf low-end system with one you build yourself. In fact, low-end systems have a fair amount of margin built into their prices. Not only does the manufacturer need to make a profit, but so does the store. As it turns out, you can do a lot better by building a low-end system yourself. For the same price, you'll get a system with much better quality components.

We designed this first system for a friend on a tight budget. She actually called us on her cell phone while standing in front of the computers at Best Buy. We convinced her to let us see what we could do for her before she decided to buy a packaged low-end system. She already had an HP DeskJet printer and an external U.S. Robotics 56 K modem. She also had an old 486 with licensed copies of Windows 95 and Office 97 that we could transfer to the new system. The original monitor was failing, so she needed a decent new monitor. Her budget was $1,000 with monitor. Here's what we came up with:

Case and power supply
We wanted to use a PC Power & Cooling case and power supply, but budget ruled that out. You can buy cheap cases for $50 or so, but those are shoddily constructed and have very poor power supplies. Instead we opted for an Antec KS-288 Mid-Tower case (http://www.antec-inc.com), which costs $15 more, but is built like a tank, has no sharp edges or other signs of cost-cutting, and comes with a decent 250W power supply.

The most CPU we could afford was a K6-2/III or PPGA Celeron. Celerons provide better performance for the price and use Socket 370, which is more stable than Socket 7. As a baseline, the Celeron/400 ($60) costs only $10 more than a K6-2/400, and is faster and more stable. The K6-III/400 ($110) has similar speed, and is Socket 7. The Celeron/433 ($75) and 466 ($95) run only 8.25% and 16.5% faster, respectively, not worth the cost. The Celeron/500 ($160) runs a barely noticeable 25% faster, and is certainly not worth $100 more. We chose the Celeron/400, which is more than fast enough. (http://developer.intel.com/design/celeron/)

Staying within budget forced us to use an integrated Socket 370 motherboard rather than buying separate video and sound cards. The best such motherboard is the Intel CA810E, which has embedded Intel 752 graphics (excellent 2D and adequate 3D performance) and Creative Labs SoundBlaster Audio PCI 64V sound. Neither is cutting edge, but both are good enough. The CA810E is also very flexible about the CPUs it can use. It supports the FC PGA Pentium III Coppermine processors, the forthcoming 100 MHz FSB Celeron processors, and 133 MHz FSB. All of this will allow an easy, cheap upgrade in a year or two, when 600+ MHz Celerons with SSE will likely cost $50 and 800+ MHz Socket 370 Pentium IIIs $175. (http://developer.intel.com/design/motherbd/ca2/ca2_ds.htm)

This system will run Windows 9X, for which 32 MB is usable and 64 MB ideal. The CA810E has only two DIMM sockets, and requires at least PC100 memory (even for a 66 MHz FSB Celeron). We had room in the budget, so we elected to install 64 MB, which will improve both speed and stability. Using commodity memory is never a good idea, so we chose a Crucial Technologies 64 MB module, leaving one free socket for later expansion. At the time we configured the system, a 64 MB PC100 DIMM cost $94.50, but the same module in PC133 form cost only $4.50 more. We elected to go with the PC133 module, which will allow upgrading to a 133 MHz FSB processor later. (http://www.crucial.com)

Hard disk
This system will be used mostly for creating documents and browsing the Web, so drive size was not a major issue. We've had good experience with recent Seagate IDE drives, so we chose a 4.3 GB DMA/66 drive from their value-line U series. The 5,400 RPM spin rate of this drive means it's not as snappy as a 7,200 RPM drive, but the price is right. (http://www.seagate.com/disc/disctop.shtml)

CD-ROM drive
We definitely needed a CD-ROM drive, and we wanted a tape drive for backup. But even inexpensive tape drives cost $300+ with tapes, a budget buster. We decided to kill two birds with one stone by installing a CD-RW drive. Although not the perfect backup device, a CD-RW drive can back up 500 MB or so to $3 CD-RW discs, which suffices for this system. We like Hewlett-Packard ATAPI CD burners, but they're a bit pricey for this system. Fortunately, we can recommend the Smart & Friendly CD*SpeedWriter Plus, an inexpensive ATAPI CD burner that does 4X writes, 2X rewrites, and 24X reads. That drive comes with Adaptec Easy CD Creator and DirectCD, which are the packages we would have chosen anyway. With only one CD drive, we'll have to dupe CDs by first creating a disk image, but the Seagate drive has plenty of space for that. We'll install this drive as Secondary Master to avoid coasters and to prevent the data corruption that occurs if the CD burner and hard disk are on the same channel. Once we've installed the OS and applications, we'll also use it to create a master restore CD-R disc. (http://www.smartandfriendly.com/cdr_cdspeedwriter_plus.html)


When we originally designed this system, the Smart & Friendly SAF798 was the best CD burner for the money, and Plextor made only SCSI CD writers. By mid-2000, Smart & Friendly had ceased operations, we had become disenchanted with HP CD burners and with Adaptec Easy CD mastering software, Plextor had begun shipping excellent IDE CD writers, and we'd discoverd Nero Burning ROM mastering software. Accordingly, if we were designing this system today, we'd choose the $250 Plextor 12/10/32A or the $185 Plextor 8/4/32A CD burner with Nero software.

Here's another place where it's a mistake to compromise on quality. Budget puts a 17" monitor out of reach, and the person we're designing this system for says she's happy running 800 × 600 on a 15" monitor. We tell people they won't go far wrong choosing a monitor from Hitachi, Mitsubishi, NEC, or Sony, so we'll take our own advice here. The best of that group is the Sony CPD110GS for about $175. It supports 1024 × 768 resolution at 85 Hz refresh, which is more than adequate, and provides Sony's typical very high display quality. It'd be hard to find a better 15" monitor. (http://www.ita.sel.sony.com/products/displays/corp/cpd110gs.html)

Some consider a \UPS a luxury, but we won't run a system without one. We have power outages frequently around here, particularly during spring thunderstorms and winter ice storms. We've used scores of American Power Conversion (APC) UPSes over the years, and have never had a problem with them, something we can't say for some of APC's competitors. This is a lightly loaded system, so one of the small units will serve. We chose the $75 Back-UPS Office 280VA, a charcoal-grey device not much bigger than a surge protector that provides three battery backup outlets and three surge suppression only outlets, plus telephone protection. (http://www.apcc.com/products/back-ups_office/index.cfm)

Miscellaneous components
As usual, we don't sweat the small stuff. We used a Teac 1.44 MB floppy disk drive (FDD), although any name brand drive would have done as well. The choice of keyboard and mouse is really a matter of personal preference. Microsoft makes both keyboards and mice in great variety, and we seldom use anything else. At $35 or so, the Labtec LCS-2414 speakers are a good step up from the cheap speakers bundled with most low-cost systems. We even find them acceptable for casual listening to classical music. Table 25-1 shows the component list for a low-end system.

Table 25-1: Component List for a Low-End System





Antec KS-288 mid-tower


Power supply

Antec PP-253X 250W ATX (included)



Intel PPGA Celeron/400



Intel CA810E



Crucial CT8M64S4D75, 64 MB PC133 SDRAM DIMM


Hard disk

Seagate ST34311A 4.3 GB 5,400 RPM DMA/66


CD-ROM drive

Smart & Friendly SAF798 SpeedWriter Plus 2 × 4 × 24 CD-R(W)


Floppy drive

Teac 235HF 1.44 MB



Microsoft Natural Keyboard



Microsoft Wheel Mouse



Sony CPD110GS 15" SVGA



Labtec LCS-2414



APC Back-UPS Office 280VA



Shipping and miscellaneous



Grand Total


Our home-built system compares quite favorably with the $1,000 system from Best Buy. The case, power supply, processor, motherboard, hard disk, floppy drive, keyboard, mouse, and speakers we used are as good or better, and we used brand-name retail components rather than the generic components used in the commercial system. But there are differences.

On the plus side for the commercial system, it includes a generic 56 K Winmodem, a dubious advantage at the best of times, and no advantage for us at all. Winmodems are a bad idea, and we already have a superior USR external 56 K modem. It also includes a low-end HP inkjet printer, which is less significant than it seems. We've seen that same printer advertised for $75 with a $50 mail-in rebate, yielding a net cost of $25. HP, like all other inkjet printer makers, gives away the razor to sell the blades. The commercial system also comes with Windows 98—which would cost us about $90 if we needed it, which we don't—and an off-brand office suite. We'll use our existing copies of Windows 95 and Office 97. Even if we didn't already have Office 97, we'd be more inclined to install the freeware StarOffice Suite from Sun than use the off-brand suite.

On the plus side for the home-built system, it has twice as much memory, and that memory is Crucial PC133 memory rather than the unspecified (but probably OEM or commodity PC66) memory used in the commercial system. We've used a motherboard that can be upgraded inexpensively to a much faster processor in a year or two, which is unlikely to be true with the motherboard used in the commercial system. Rather than a standard IDE CD-ROM drive, our system has a CD-RW drive, which we can use for backup. The Sony monitor is greatly superior in both performance and quality to the generic monitor supplied with the commercial system

Here, approximately in ranked priority order, are upgrades we suggested if the budget could be increased slightly:

  • Get a larger monitor. The 15" Sony is a superior monitor, but it's still only 15". The price of 17" monitors has dropped dramatically over the last couple of years, and a decent entry-level 17" monitor doesn't cost all that much more than a 15" monitor with similar resolution and refresh rate. If we had another $75 or so available, we'd go with the 17" Hitachi SuperScan Elite 640.
  • Get a larger, faster hard disk. The 5,400 RPM 4.3 GB Seagate drive is adequate for present needs, but one can never have too much hard disk space. Spending another $50 or so would buy a 7,200 RPM ATA/66 drive in the 10+ GB range.
  • Upgrade the case and power supply. A PC Power & Cooling case and power supply costs about $50 more than the Antec unit. We recommend this upgrade because a system with a mid-range power supply is less stable and more prone to fail than one that uses a top-quality power supply, particularly as the system ages.

As it turned out, our friend decided upgrading the monitor and hard disk made sense, so she ended up spending about $1,100 rather than the $1,000 she'd originally budgeted. That extra $100 bought her a lot more computer, one that will probably last her a year or more longer before it needs to be upgraded or replaced. We still think she should have spent the extra $50 on the PC Power & Cooling case and power supply, but the Antec is a very good case, and if the mid-range Antec power supply fails in a year or two, it's easy enough to replace it with a PPC unit....

Table of Contents

PCs Defined1
PC Components and Technologies3
System Resources14
Building or Buying a PC30
Upgrading a PC33
Smart Buying Practices37
Things to Do with Old PCs42
2.Working on PCs46
Rules to Upgrade By46
General Procedures62
Motherboard Characteristics80
Choosing a Motherboard121
Installing a Motherboard128
Upgrading the System BIOS133
Our Picks136
Processor Design137
Intel Processors139
Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) Processors160
Choosing a Processor171
Installing a Processor176
Our Picks189
Understanding Memory191
Memory Access Methods193
Memory Packaging198
How Much Memory Is Enough?204
Memory Selection Guidelines206
Installing Memory212
Troubleshooting Memory Installation and Operation217
Our Picks219
6.Floppy Disk Drives221
Diskette Types and Formats222
Drive Types224
FDD Interface and Cabling225
Installing a Floppy Disk Drive227
Working with FDDs231
Working with Obsolete Diskette Formats232
Salvaging Diskette Data233
Our Picks234
7.High-Capacity Floppy Disk Drives235
High-Capacity FDD Types236
Choosing a High-Capacity Floppy Disk Drive242
Using an ATAPI Zip or SuperDisk Drive as the Boot Device246
Drive Letter Assignment Problems246
Our Picks247
8.Removable Hard Disk Drives248
Uses for Removable Hard Disk Drives249
Cartridge-Based Removable Hard Disk Drives251
Frame/Carrier-Based Removable Hard Disk Drives257
Our Picks258
9.Tape Drives260
Choosing a Tape Drive263
Installing and Configuring a Tape Drive265
Care and Feeding of a Tape Drive272
Troubleshooting Tape Drive Problems273
The Dirty Little Secret of Long Filenames274
Developing a Backup Strategy276
Our Picks281
10.CD-ROM Drives285
Compact Disc Fundamentals286
CD-ROM Drive Performance288
Choosing a CD-ROM Drive292
Installing and Configuring a CD-ROM Drive295
Cleaning a CD-ROM Drive305
Our Picks306
11.CD-R and CD-RW Drives308
CD Writers and Media308
Writable CD Formats316
CD Recording Methods324
BURN-Proof Technology328
Choosing a CD Writer329
CD Writer Software330
Installing and Configuring a CD Writer332
Updating CD Writer Firmware333
Media Issues339
Burning CDs346
Special Problems and Applications352
Writable CD Troubleshooting356
Additional CD-R(W) Source Material363
Our Picks363
12.DVD Drives366
DVD Writable and Rewritable369
Installing and Configuring a DVD Drive374
Our Picks375
13.Hard Disk Interfaces378
ATA Versus SCSI414
Our Picks417
14.Hard Disk Drives419
How Hard Disks Work419
Choosing a Hard Disk421
Installing an ATA Hard Disk427
Installing a SCSI Hard Disk438
Preparing a Hard Disk for Use440
Our Picks453
15.Video Adapters454
Video Adapter Characteristics454
Choosing a Video Adapter467
Installing a Video Adapter469
Configuring Video Under Windows 98/Me/2000/XP470
Configuring Video Under Windows NT 4476
Troubleshooting Video Adapter Problems478
Our Picks481
CRT Monitors483
Flat-Panel Displays494
Installing and Configuring a Display505
Troubleshooting Display Problems506
Our Picks513
17.Sound Adapters515
PC Audio Types516
MIDI Synthesis Methods520
Downloadable Sounds521
Sound Card Components522
Sound Card Characteristics525
Choosing a Sound Card529
Installing a Sound Card532
Troubleshooting Sound Card Problems535
Our Picks543
18.Speakers and Headphones545
Speaker and Headphone Characteristics545
Choosing Speakers and Headphones547
Our Picks548
Keyboard Switch Types550
Keyboard Styles551
Keyboard Interfaces552
Choosing a Keyboard554
Configuring a Keyboard556
Cleaning a Keyboard557
Troubleshooting and Repairing Keyboards560
Our Picks560
20.Mice and Trackballs562
Mice Versus Trackballs562
Mouse Characteristics563
Choosing a Mouse565
Configuring a Mouse or Trackball567
Cleaning a Mouse568
Troubleshooting a Mouse569
Our Picks569
21.Game Controllers572
Game Controller Characteristics572
Gameport Interface575
Choosing a Game Controller577
Installing a Game Controller577
Troubleshooting Game Controllers578
Our Picks582
22.Serial Communications583
Serial Communications Overview583
Serial Ports588
Serial Cables599
Installing and Configuring Serial Port Hardware605
Troubleshooting Serial Port Problems616
Our Picks616
23.Parallel Communications618
Mapping Parallel Ports to LPTs619
Parallel Port Types619
Configuring Parallel Port Hardware623
Parallel Connectors and Cables626
Our Picks631
24.USB Communications632
USB Characteristics634
USB Host Controller Interfaces643
Configuring USB649
Troubleshooting USB659
Our Picks667
Case Characteristics669
Choosing a Case674
Our Picks676
26.Power Supplies677
Power Supply Characteristics678
Volts, Amps, Watts, and Regulation684
Power Connectors687
Choosing a Power Supply698
Installing a Power Supply700
Troubleshooting Power Supplies702
Our Picks705
27.Backup Power Supplies706
What BPSes Protect Against706
BPS Types708
BPS Characteristics710
Choosing a BPS714
Our Picks716
28.Building a PC717
Step 1Prepare the Case718
Step 2Configure the Motherboard726
Step 3Install the Processor726
Step 4Install the Memory731
Step 5Prepare Drives for Installation733
Step 6Install the Floppy Disk Drive738
Step 7Install Other Drives739
Step 8Install the Motherboard742
Step 9Connect Cables to the Motherboard746
Step 10Install Expansion Cards749
Step 11Perform the "Smoke Test"753
Step 12Install Software754
Step 13Finishing Touches755

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PC Hardware in a Nutshell 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is simply excellent and I recommend it for anyone who wants to build a new PC from scratch or simply upgrade an old one (if feasible). Heck, if you just want to know more about PC's this book will do it too. Strongest point: after each chapter the authors recommend their picks. They're very opinionated and that's what I need. I don't want to read ONLY how AMD and Intel motherboards work; I want to know which one I should buy, which one is best for the system I have in mind. The same for hard drives, video cards, sound cards, you name it. They tell you how it is. Moreover, they have their own website so their picks are always current. After reading the book I went to their website many times. I thought it was great too when they tell you if you should upgrade or simply buy a new system. They do an outstanding job in answering real world questions. Some people recommend buying another book in addition to this one. Unless you fix computers for a living, I disagree. This book is more than enough for anyone wanting to buy or upgrade their PC's. The reading is pleasant too, since I read it cover to cover. Weakest points: It's not for a complete computer novice. Right in the first chapters they start talking about "interrupts" (IRQ's) and even though they explain interrupts to a certain detail, if you know nothing about computers in my opinion you should first read another book. Also, the authors a few times "talk too much". I thought they went overboard wasting more than 3 pages just to describe how you should install a PCI card in your computer: 3 pages. What about a couple of paragraphs? These are the only negative things I can come up with, and in my opinion it's nothing. I mention them here so you know I'm trying to be critical too. It's an awesome book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Information is accurate. It's just four years out of date.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Best PC computer book I have bought! This book cover says it ¿ ¿ is a comprehensive guide to buying, building, ugrading, and reparing Intel-based PCs ¿¿ I wanted to build my own PC. I used this book as my guide. I now have the computer I wanted. I could not have done it without this book. It¿s a keeper!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book explains all the sub-systems of the PC in a very systematic and easy-to-read way. A must for anybody planning to buy a computer and unable to decide.