Understanding Computer Specs

Mar 30, 2000 (Updated Apr 27, 2000)

Understanding New Computer Advertisements

For those who do not regularly keep up to date with new computer technology, buying a new computer can be confusing. The purpose of this article is only to give you a straightforward abridged definition of what these terms and numbers mean. Going any further in depth would quickly result in an extremely long article. Also since we are going to refer to a sample advertisement we will assume the supporting device components are appropriate such as SCSI interfaces, chip sets, ecetera. Below is an example of what a computer ad might look like.

1) Intel PentiumŪ III processor at 733MHz w/256 KB full speed L2 cache integrated on processor

2) 133 MHz front side bus
3) 9.1 GB Ultra3 SCSI hard drive (10,000 rpm)
4) 128 MB ECC RDRAM expandable to 512 MB
5) Matrox Millennium G400 DualHead graphics controller supports 2 monitors
6) Toshiba CD-RW/DVD Drive 4x4x24x CD-RW 4.8x DVD
7) 56K Modem

1. Processor description: Computer ads generally describe the processor in four parts.
1.1 Maker or type, for example Intel Pentium. Intel's most popular processors are the Pentium and Celeron processors.
1.2 Next will follow a number stating what generation processor. When manufacturers make major changes in the processor design they create a new generation of chips. For example Intel Pentium III processors are third generation Pentium's.
1.3 Next should follow the processor speed measured in Mghz or gigahertz. Simply stated, this only states how fast the processor can make calculations. There are several other factors that make up the processors total performance.
1.4 Finally will be a description of the processor cache. This sample ad states this processor has a second level cache built on the chip which operates at the same speed of the processor holding up to 256KB. Processors with an L2 cache can store additional instructions directly on the chip resulting in increased performance. The larger the cache the faster it can process data. Older processors sometimes had a second level cache off the chip. An integrated cache results in increased performance. This sample ad also states the L2 cache data can be accessed at the processors full speed, not previous half speeds. Note: A L1 or level one cache is not the same as an L2. For example most Intel Celeron processors have only a level one cache resulting in slower performance with today's powerful applications.

2. FSB or front side bus speed: A year ago you were not likely to see the FSB speed included in an ad, meaning it was the standard 66Mghz. Here we see a 133Mghz FSB, a great improvement with much more to come. Expect to see fierce competition and changes in this technology this year. New FSB speeds will have a dramatic impact on system performance.

3. The hard drive: This ad describes the size, type, and hard drive RPM.
3.1 9.1/GB states the size.
3.2 Next you will see it is a Wide Ultra3 SCSI type drive. SCSI devices outperform UDMA/33, UDMA/66 (ATA/66), and any other standard type device. Some ATA/66 are comparable to some SCSI devices. Typically SCSI will cost substantially more but can deliver an outstanding performance.
3.3 Lastly you will notice this is a 10,000/RPM hard drive. Higher RPM results in a quicker response, which is greatly appreciated when booting. Hard drive speed will have a dramatic impact on the total performance of the system.

4. Random Access Memory or RAM: The amount and type of RAM a system has will have a dramatic effect on performance. If you do not have enough RAM the slower moving hard drive will handle the overflow, I recommend at least 128/MB of RAM. Below is a very short, brief timeline and description of some recent types of RAM.

RAM Type Description
4.1 SDRAM (66Mghz bus)
4.2 SDRAM PC100 (Requires a 100Mghz bus, substantial increase in overall system performance)
4.3 RDRAM (New and revolutionary technology, performs up to 3 times better than PC100 SDRAM)

5. The AGP video card: Today's video cards are like having a computer inside your computer. They have their own RAM, processor, and now may require their own cooling system. If you were to go to the store and look at a more detailed description of a new computer you would likely see a slew of specifications pertaining to the video card. Features such as the memory, DVD and TV capabilities, multiple monitor display, high resolution and color performance, and many more.

6. The CD drive: In addition to being a standard CD-ROM the drive may incorporate one or more of the following technologies.
6.1 DVD: These drives allow you to watch DVD movies on your computer.
6.2 CD-RW drives will allow you to create your own CD's. Supporting recordable and rewriteable media.
6.3 CD-R drives will allow you to create you own CD's as well. However, the media (recordable media) for these drives can only be written to once.
6.4 Multi-media CD drives incorporate 2 or more technologies in one drive.
6.5 4x4x24x CD-RW 4.8x DVD (4 speed CD-RW, 4 speed CD-R, 24 speed standard CD-ROM, 4.8 speed DVD)

7. Due to revolutionary changes in communication technology, bundled systems may no longer even come with a modem until DSL or Cable line connections are standard in many homes. The 56K modem is currently the fastest standard modem. However, there is absolutely nothing fast about it. A beautiful state of the art computer system can suddenly look like a "dud" when using a 56K modem to connect to the Internet. Transfer rates of 56/KB per second is a ridiculous number when compared to the power of today's PC's. If you have cable Internet service available in your area it is a must have. I recently tested my cable modem and received a downstream rate up to 700K per second, this of course will vary by location and accuracy of the test site.

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