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PCs are teeming with parts, jargon

Here's a guide to help you sort through all the techno terminology.


© St. Petersburg Times, published November 15, 1999

Technology terminology can be as intimidating as a foreign language, particularly for first-time computer buyers.

When you decide to buy, it helps to know some of the jargon and certainly what the individual parts of the computer do.

Here is a look inside today's PCs -- and my recommendations of what to look for when you shop:

Central processing unit (CPU): It's the main processing chip and plays a large part in how fast your PC will run. The speed is measured in megahertz (MHz). Now, more than ever, the types of CPU chips and speed options are numerous and potentially very confusing.

However, you don't need to understand techie terms such as "pipelining" or "branch prediction." You just want to know how fast it is -- and more important -- whether it will be sufficient for your computing needs.

Intel and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) are the two main companies that produce CPU chips for almost all IBM-compatible computers today.

Intel's entry level chip is the Celeron. It is Intel's price leader and likely will be part of any Intel-powered sub-$1,000 PC available today. It comes in speeds ranging from 366 to 533 MHz.

Don't let the fact that the Celeron doesn't carry the Pentium name fool you. Architecturally, the Celeron is very similar to the Pentium II that came out about two years ago, including the MMX instructions that permit jazzed-up multimedia. But the Celeron lacks some capabilities of Intel's newer Pentium III chip.

The Pentium III has replaced the Pentium II, except in some notebook PCs. The Pentium III comes in speeds up to 733 MHz. It contains more than 70 new instructions that enable a powerful technology known as Streaming SIMD (single instruction-multiple data) extensions.

These instructions help boost the performance of advanced games featuring 3-D graphics, image manipulation, voice input and other audio/video tasks that have been written to take advantage of these new instructions. If this is the kind of computing you do, then you will want to consider a Pentium III-based PC. But that power comes at a higher cost.

The Pentium III Xeon is Intel's top-of-the-line chip. Its capabilities are important for applications such as digital content creation, 3-D visualization and mechanical design automation, as well as network-based applications. So unless you run these types of applications (if you're not sure, then you probably don't), you'd be wasting the considerable extra money you'd pay for a Xeon-based PC.

AMD is the other major manufacturer of PC CPU chips. Its main offerings are the Athlon, AMD-K6-III and AMD-K6-2. They are about equivalent to Intel's high-end Pentium III, low-end Pentium III and the Celeron respectively. The 3DNow technology is AMD's version of Intel's SIMD instructions. Software applications need to be written to take advantage of either of these technologies. Machines with these chips will generally cost less than PCs with Intel chips, but their performance is comparable for most computer users.

L2 level cache: Cache memory is high-speed memory built into the CPU chip itself, designed to accelerate processing of data and instructions by the chip. (L2 is the second level of cache available on a chip. All of today's chips come with the first level called L1.) Without cache, the full speed of the CPU chip isn't utilized. It is also one of the most expensive areas of chip production, which is why less L2 cache equals lower prices. The good news is that all of the chips being sold have adequate L2 cache. When the Celeron chip was introduced last year, it had no L2 cache. That made it a poor performer and an unpopular choice for computer buyers.

The newer Celerons that are on the market today have 128 kilobytes (KB) of L2 cache. The Pentium II and Pentium III chips have 512KB of L2 cache.

You may think that more is better, but there's a catch:

The L2 cache on the Pentium II and Pentium III chips runs at only half the speed of the CPU, while the L2 cache of the Celeron runs at the full CPU speed. In the case of many common applications, such as Microsoft Office 2000 and Internet Explorer browsing, a Celeron-based 400MHz PC I tested came very close to performing as well as a Pentium III 450MHz PC running the same applications.

What separates the high-end Pentium Xeon chips from the rest is that the on-board L2 cache not only can be as large as 2 megabytes (MB) -- the equivalent of 2,096K -- yet also runs at the same speed as the chip itself.

Random access memory (RAM): As your computer runs programs and works with data, it uses RAM to store this information. Measured in megabytes (MB), RAM is often the most important factor of overall system speed. When Windows runs out of physical RAM, it starts using space on your hard drive to create what is referred to as virtual memory.

When this happens, even the fastest CPU will slow to a crawl. Some systems come with only 32 MB. Be clear about this: That's not nearly enough. Windows 98 and Internet Explorer alone will consume this amount, and the computer will immediately start slowing as Windows uses your hard drive as virtual memory.

The bare minimum for RAM these days is 64 MB, with 96 to 128MB highly recommended. Without a doubt, RAM is the area where you'll get the most performance bang for the buck. Even with the price of memory chips creeping up in recent months, upgrading a new computer from, say, 32 to 96 MG of RAM will cost an extra $100 or so. Don't skimp.

Hard disk: Here is where you store your programs and data. It's measured in gigabytes (GB) -- each equal to 1,024 megabytes -- and bigger is better. Sizes as large as 27GB are becoming common in newer systems, and 6GB should be the absolute minimum. If you work with graphics or do photo editing, you'll want the larger sizes. Most drives use UltraDMA/33, which means they can send 33MB per second from the drive to the system memory. The new UltraATA/66 doubles that data transfer rate, although you'll find it only on very fast, very large drives. Again, if you do a lot of graphics/photo-editing work the UltraATA/66 type drives will provide much better performance.

Video card: Most new systems come with an AGP (Accelerated Graphics Port) type of video card. AGP is slightly faster than PCI-based cards (Peripheral Component Interconnect). Video cards have their own RAM (measured in megabytes). The more RAM a card has, the faster it can process and display information, as well as produce higher resolutions. Here, 4MB is the minimum. If you don't do much with graphics or games, it will be sufficient. I recommend at least 8MB.

If you do a lot of photo editing, play 3-D games or plan on adding a TV-tuner card (which lets you watch TV on your monitor), look for one with at least 16MB of RAM and 3-D acceleration capabilities. If you plan to use the higher resolutions (1280 by 1024) then get a card with 32MB of RAM.

Sound card: If you're not into playing games or music CDs, almost any sound card will do. Otherwise, make sure your sound card uses Wavetable technology rather than FM Synthesis. Wavetable technology produces a clearer, more lifelike sound. Some of the better cards simulate 3-D surround sound. No matter how good your sound card is, the quality of the sound will be determined in large part by the quality of the speakers. Speakers that include a subwoofer will be able to greatly enhance the deep bass sounds. A little extra money usually goes a long way in getting better quality sound from PC speakers.

CD capabilities: Lower-end systems will come with a CD-ROM (compact disk, read-only memory). They are measured in spin rates with higher numbers being faster. They change almost daily, and most are in the 17X to 44X range.

DVD is the latest CD technology. It can hold much more information than a normal CD (up to 8.5 gigabytes versus 650MB). This will allow software titles that previously used multiple CDs to be contained on one disk.

Movies also are available in DVD, but unless you want to watch a feature-length movie sitting around your PC, get one with jacks that will connect to your TV. DVD is backward compatible with CD-ROM and audio CDs, so your existing CDs still will work.

For the higher end, you may want to consider creating your own CDs. CD-Recordable (CD-R) drives can be written to only once, while CD-Rewriteable (CD-RW) drives can written to over and over again. These recordable CD devices are good for making copies of existing software, or saving photos or other data that won't fit on a regular floppy disk. It's also a good alternative for backing up what's on your computer's hard drive. (DVD-RAMs for recording DVDs are also available.)

Backup: Although today's disk drives have become very dependable, you need to provide for some kind of backup media. A CD-RW drive or Iomega's 2GB Jaz drive are great alternatives for large amounts of data, and 250MB Zip drives could be sufficient for smaller systems.

Modem: To hook up your computer to the Internet, most new PCs include a modem that claim speeds up to 56 kilobits per second (what's known as a 56K V.90 modem). Actual transmission speeds don't reach that level, though, because of phone line limits. Some modems also can send and receive faxes at 14.4Kbps.

But these traditional modems soon will be considered about as useful as old 5.25-inch floppy disk drives. High-speed Internet access is becoming more popular and more widely available for home use -- either through your TV cable or through your phone lines as a digital subscriber line (DSL). The specialized modems for such connections are provided by the cable or phone companies offering the service.

Universal Serial Bus ports (USB): These are included on most new PCs. The list of equipment that uses the USB connections is growing fast, and USB hubs allow you to access a number of devices simultaneously. When evaluating sub-$1,000 PCs that have fewer expansion slots, keep in mind that many of the peripherals you would normally use expansion slots for (network cards, modems, TV-tuner cards) are available in USB format.

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