Introduction To The Personal Computer
The technical term for a PC is micro data processor. That name is no longer in common use. However, it places the PC in the
bottom of the computer hierarchy:
Mainframes are the very largest computers - million dollar machines, which can occupy more than one room, An
example is IBM model 390.
Minicomputers are large powerful machines. They typically serve a network of simple terminals. IBM's AS/400 is an
example of a minicomputer.
Workstations are powerful user machines. They have the power to handle complex engineering applications. They use
the UNIX or sometimes the NT operating system. Workstations can be equipped with powerful RISC processors like
Digital Alpha or MIPS.
PC's are the Benjamin's in this order: Small inexpensive, mass produced computers. They work on DOS, Windows, or
similar operating systems. They are used for standard applications.
The point of this history is, that Benjamin has grown. He has actually been promoted to captain! Today's PC's are just as
powerful as minicomputers and mainframes were not too many years ago. A powerful PC can easily keep up with the
expensive workstations. How have we advanced this far?
The PC's success
The PC came out in 1981. In less than 20 years, it has totally changed our means of communicating. When the PC was
introduced by IBM, it was just one of many different micro data processors. However, the PC caught on. In 5-7 years, it
conquered the market. From being an IBM compatible PC, it became the standard.
If we look at early PC's, they are characterized by a number of features. Those were instrumental in creating the PC success. The PC was from the start standardized and had an open architecture.
● It was well documented and had greatpossibilities for expansion.
● It was inexpensive, simple and robust(definitely not advanced).
● The PC started as IBM's baby. It was their design, built over an Intel processor (8088) and fitted to Microsoft's simple operating system MS-DOS. Since the design was well documented, other companies entered the market. They could freely copy the central system software (BIOS) and the ISA bus, since they were not patented. Slowly, a myriad of companies developed, manufacturing IBM compatible PC's and components for them. The Clone was born. A clone is a copy-machine. A machine, which can do precisely the same as the original (read Big Blue -IBM).
Some of the components (for example the hard disk) may be identical to the original. However, the Clone has another name (Compaq, Olivetti, etc.), or it has no name at all. This is the case with "the real clones."
Today, we differentiate between: Brand names, PC's from IBM, Compaq, AST, etc. Companies which are so big, so they develop their own hardware components.
● Clones, which are built from standard components. Anyone can make a clone.
● Since the basic technology is shared by all PC's, I will start with a review of that.
The PC construction
The PC consists of a central unit (referred to as the computer) and various peripherals. The computer is a box, which contains most of the working electronics. It is connected with cables to the peripherals. On these pages, I will show you the computer and its components. Here is a picture of the computer: Here is a list of the PC components. Read it and ask yourself what the words mean.. Do you recognize all these components? They will be covered in the following pages.
The following diagram summarizes what a system component is, and what a peripheral device is.
A peripheral device is any component of the PC that you can see whereas a system component usually fits inside of the metal tower and is generally not visible to the human eye.
So, how are the components connected. What are their functions, and how are they tied together to form a PC? That is the
subject of Click and Learn. So, please continue reading...
History of the PC
Computers have their roots 300 years back in history. Mathematicians and philosophers like Pascal, Leibnitz, Babbage and
Boole made the foundation with their theoretical works. Only in the second half of this century was electronic science
sufficiently developed, to make practical use of their theories.
The modern PC has roots back to USA in the 1940's. Among the many scientists, I like to remember John von Neumann (1903-57). He was a mathematician, born in Hungary. We can still use his computer design today. He broke computer
hardware down in five primary parts:
● Working memory
● Permanent memory
Actually, von Neumann was the first to design a computer with a working memory (what we today call RAM). If we apply his
model to current PC's, it will look like this:
Data exchange - the mainboard
It is a printed circuit board, on which multiple chips, ports (plug ins), and other electronic components are mounted. In the PC,
Data are exchanged continuously between these components. Therefore it is important to understand each component, its
connections and characteristics. All data exchange is done on the system board, which thus is the most important component
in the PC. So, now we will start with a more technical evaluation of the system board.
The Mainboard Components
The PC is built around the main, system or motherboard (all meaning the same). This board is so essential for the PC,
because it holds the CPU and all its connections. The motherboard is further broken down into the following parts::
- ROM-chips with BIOS and other programs
- CMOS, storing system setup data
- The CPU
- Chip sets with I/O controllers
- RAM (Random Access Memory) mounted in SIMM or DIMM chips
- Cards to connect with keyboard and mouse
- Serial and parallel ports
- Connectors to disk drives and EIDE drive (hard disk, CD-ROM etc.)
- Slots for expansion cards
- Jumpers to adjust voltage, system bus speed, clock, etc.
- Contacts to reset HD activity, speaker, etc.
The PC start-up process
When you turn power on, several things happen in the PC:
- 1. You hear the fan motor starting. There are one or more cooling fans in the PC. They produce a whirring sound.
- After a few seconds, text starts to scroll on the screen.
- Now the PC tests and counts the RAM.
- You see a number on the screen. It increases in size when checking the amount of available memory installed in the system.
To understand the working of the PC, it is useful to study the PC start-up process. Those are events, which take place from power-on until the PC is ready to work. Remember, the PC can do nothing without receiving instructions. These instructions are commands, which are sent to the CPU.
During start-up, the PC reads the commands in this sequence:
- First it receives commands from the ROM chips. Those chips are inherent in any computer. They contain the POST and BIOS instructions, which we will look at shortly. ●
- Next, the operating system is read from the hard disk (or from floppy drive A). This is called the boot process.
- The ROM chips are on the system board. They contain.system software. System software are instructions, which enable the PC to coordinate the functions of various computer components. The ROM chips contain instructions, which are specific for that particular system board. Those instructions will remain in the PC throughout its life. They will usually not be altered. Primarily, they are start-up instructions. There are different parts in the start-up instructions. For most users, they are all woven together.
You can differentiate between:
● POST (Power On Self Test) - The Set-up instructions, which connect with the CMOS instructions
● BIOS instructions, which connect with the various hardware peripherals
● The Bootinstructions, which calls the operating system (DOS, OS/2, or Windows)
● All these instructions are in ROM chips, and they are activated on by one during start-up.
The Power On Self Test (POST) Routine:
Let us look at each part of POST Power On Self Test.
the first instruction executed during start-up. It checks the PC components and that everything works. You can recognize it during the RAM test, which occurs as soon as you turn power on.
As users, we have only limited ability to manipulate the POST instructions. But certain system boards enable the user to order a quick system check. Some enable the user to disable the RAM test, thereby shortening the duration of the POST routine.
The duration of the POST can vary considerably in different PC's. On the IBM PC 300 computer, it is very slow. But you can disrupt it by pressing [Esc]. If POST detects errors in the system, it will write error messages on the screen. If the monitor is not ready, or if the error is in the video card, it will also sound a pattern of beeps (for example 3 short and one long) to identify the error to the user. If you want to know more of the beeps, you can find explanations on the Award, AMI and Phoenix web sites.
POST also reads those user instructions, which are found in CMOS: (Complimentary Metal Oxide Semiconductor) is a small amount of memory in a special RAM chip. Its memory is maintained with electric power from a small battery. Certain system data are stored in this chip. They must be read to make the PC operable. There may be 100 to 200 bytes of data regarding date, time, floppy and hard disk drives, and much more. CMOS data can be divided in two groups: Data, which POST can not find during the system test.
● Data, which contain user options.
● For example, POST cannot by itself find sufficient information about the floppy drive(s). Floppy drives are so "dumb," that POST cannot read whether they are floppy drives or not, nor what type. About the same goes for IDE hard disks, while EIDE hard disks are a little more "intelligent," However, POST still needs assistance to identify them 100% correctly. The same goes for RAM: POST can count how much RAM is in the PC. However, POST cannot detect whether it is FPM, EDO or SD RAM. Since the CPU and BIOS reads data from RAM chips differently, depending on the RAM type, that type must be identified.
The PC must be configured, be supplied with this information. That is done in the factory or store, where it is assembled. This information is stored in CMOS, where they stay. CMOS data only need to be updated, when different or additional hardware components are installed. This could be a different type hard disk or floppy disks or an new RAM type, Often he user can do this.
Other data in CMOS contain various user options. Those are data, which you can write to CMOS. For example, you can adjust date and time, which the PC then adjusts every second. You can also choose between different system parameters. Maybe you want a short system check instead of a long one. Or if you want the PC to try to boot from hard disk C before trying floppy disk A, or vice versa.
These options can be written to CMOS. Many of the options are of no interest to the ordinary user. These are options, which regard controller chips on the system board, which can be configured in different ways. Ordinarily, there is no need to make such changes. The system board manufacturer has already selected the optimal configurations. They recommend in their manuals, that you do not change these default settings. We can conclude, that CMOS data are essential system data, which are vital for operation of the PC. Their special feature is, that they are user adjustable. Adjustments to CMOS are made during start-up.
Suppliers of System Software
All PC's have instructions in ROM chips on the system board. The ROM chips are supplied by specialty software
manufacturers, who make BIOS chips. The primary suppliers are:
● AMI (American Megatrends)
You can read the name of your BIOS chip during start-up. You can also see the chip on the system board.
Here is a picture
(slightly blurred) of an Award ROM chip:
Here is an AMI chip with BIOS and start-up instructions:
The BIOS Setup Program
You communicate with the BIOS programs and the CMOS memory through the so-called Setup program.
Typically you reach the Setup program by pressing [Delete] immediately after you power up the PC. That brings you to a
choice of setup menus.
You leave Setup by pressing [Esc], and choose "Y" to restart the PC with the new settings. Generally,
you should not change these settings, unless you know precisely what you are doing.
The Setup program can do many things for you. You have to enter Setup, if you install a different type or additional disk drive
in your PC. Certain BIOS's will also need adjustment of its settings, if a CD ROM drive is installed on one of the EIDE
Modifying the boot sequence
You can change theboot sequence from A:, C: to C:, A:. That means, that the PC will not try to boot from any diskette in the
A drive. That will protect you from certain virus attacks from the boot sector. Also, the boot process will not be blocked by any
diskette in the A drive. If you need to boot from A-drive (for example, if you want to install Windows 97 ), you have to enter
Set-up again, and change the boot sequence to A:, C:. That is no problem.
You also use the Setup program to regulate Power Management, which is the power saving features in the system board. For example, you can make the CPU shut down after one minute of no activity. There are plenty of settings available in this area.
You protect the Setup program with a password. This is used widely in schools, where they do not want the little nerds to
make changes in the setup. Please remember the password (write it down in the mainboard manual). If you forget it you have
to remove the battery from the mainboard. Then all user-input to the CMOS is erased - including the password Here is a scanned image from a Setup program. It belongs to my favorite board (from ASUS). Here you see the "BIOS
Feature Setup," where you can select start-up choices:
Here we are are in the special "Chip set Feature Setup." These choices relate to the chip sets and, most likely, need no
The BIOS program
During start-up. the BIOS programs are read from a ROM chip. BIOS is abbreviation ofBasic Input Output System and those
are programs, which are linked to specific hardware systems. For example, there is a BIOS routine, which identifies how the
PC reads input from the keyboard. BIOS is a typical link in the IBM compatible PC design. The BIOS programs control hardware, the user (programmer) controls
hardware via a call to BIOS.
BIOS typically occupy 1 MB, and the programs are saved ROM chips on the system board.
During start-up, BIOS is read from ROM chips. That information is supplemented with the system data saved in CMOS.
Furthermore, there is BIOS code on the expansion cards. The expansion cards are external hardware, as interpreted by the
system board, and the BIOS code, which is linked to the expansion card, must be included in the configuration. Therefore,
this expansion card ROM is read during start-up, and the program code is woven together with other BIOS data. It is all
written into RAM, where it is ready for the operating system, as you can see here:
Otherwise, the BIOS routines are not always in use. They can be regarded as basic program layers in the PC. Many
programs routinely bypass BIOS. In that case, they "write direct to hardware", as we say. Windows contains program files,
which can be written directly to all kinds of hardware - bypassing BIOS routines. One example is the COM ports. If you use
the BIOS routines connected with them, you can transmit only at max. 9600 baud on the modem. That is insufficient.
Therefore, Windows will assume control over the COM port.
BIOS programs can be updated. The modern system board has the BIOS instructions in flash-ROM, which can be updated.
You can get new BIOS-software from your supplier or on the Internet, which can be read onto the system board. The loading
is a special process, where you might need to change a jumper switchon the system board. Usually, you do not need to do
this, but it is a nice available option.
ATX Form Factor
The latest PC electronic standard is called ATX. It consists of a new type system board with a specific physical design smaller
than the traditional board (30.5 cm X 19 cm). The I/O connectors COM1, COM2 and LPT, keyboard, mouse and USB are
mounted directly on the system board. The ATX board requires specifically designed chassis's with an I/O access opening measuring 1¾ by 6¼ inch. ATX is designed by Intel, but has gained general acceptance.
The ATX system board is more ”intelligent” than the ordinary type. In a few years, it will be wide spread. It includes advanced
control facilities, where the BIOS program continually checks the CPU temperature and voltages, the cooling fans RPM, etc. If
over heating occurs, the PC will shut down automatically. The PC can also be turned on by for example modem signals, since
the power supply is controlled by the system board. The on/off button will turn the PC "down" without turning it completely off
If you want a PC designed for the future, the ATX layout is what you should go for.