Modern day computers themselves are not a simple component yet a symphony of thousands of components all working together in perfect harmony. At least that’s the idea! The basic idea of a computer is the same as it always has been, and that’s to carry out calculations. There’s no magic involved, just a lot of logic and intelligent ways of inputting and outputting the calculations. By definition, a computer doesn’t have to be an electronic machine that we commonly think of today, in fact, an abacus quite comfortably fits the criteria for being a computer.
Of course, things have moved in dramatically since the time of the Abacus and the demands we put upon computers are somewhat more complicated. These days computers are used in virtually every electronic device on the market and we have become incredibly reliant on them to make our lives both more simple and complicated.
At the heart of every computer lies a motherboard, so named as every peripheral component of a computer connects to it. To look at most motherboards look like incredible tiny cities of resistors, capacitors, microchips and a wealth of connections. At the heart of the motherboard sits the central processing unit, or CPU as it’s commonly known. The CPU carries out most of the computing calculations and it can be hardwired into the motherboard or sit in a socket that allows the user to choose which CPU is most appropriate for the computer overall. The advantage of a motherboard with a CPU socket is primarily the choice and the ability to upgrade as required. A lot of the original CPU’s were simply a chip that would slot into the motherboard with a dozen or so connectors, akin to the old computer console game ROMS. Now, CPU’s have become incredibly complex with over a thousand connectors on some models and generating huge amounts of heat, requiring a large heatsink to prevent the chip destroying itself.
The motherboard’s role is to get all the components to talk to each other as efficiently as possible, and that’s some task given the amount of calculations required by the latest software! The evolution of the motherboard has remained quite static over the years, being the core part of any computer, although changes to form factors (size) and energy usage have occurred. Motherboards present themselves in almost every computerised device from smoke alarms, watches, mobile phones, tablets, computers, cars and the list goes on. The main drawback of a motherboard is the difficulty in repairing one, should a fault develop. Fortunately, due to mass market production techniques they have become relatively cheap for all but the most specialist and high-performance applications.
Motherboards inside personal computers and games consoles are designed to produce a visual output on a television or computer monitor and as software has advanced significantly, dedicated components to output graphics have become normal. Older motherboards typically contained a microchip that would handle the graphics output but these are being the rarity these days, typically only found on basic office workstations. Graphics cards have become very specialised in the last decade and often now have similar, if not more computing power than many CPU’s themselves.
As the hunger for ever more complex and realistic graphics has grown so rapidly, the interface used by graphics cards to connect to the motherboard has had to adapt as well. The original large form factor ISA slots, designed for low bandwidth peripherals such as modems were used by many early dedicated graphics cards but quickly became a bottleneck. New interfaces such as AGP (Advanced Graphics Port) came about to reduce the bottleneck to allow the newer graphics cards to utilise their full power but this was relatively short lived also. PCI became the industry standard interface for most, if not allow graphics cards and provided a very direct path from the graphics card to the CPU. Actual graphics cards now have vast amounts of RAM dedicated to processing video and very often their CPU called a graphics processing unit or GPU.
The ports used by graphics cards have also changed, reflecting not only the increased amount of data being transferred but also the standardisation of the entire digital marketplace. The old VGA plug that was commonplace on every graphics card has slowly being replaced by digital outputs such as DVI and now HDMI ports. These allow uncompressed digital data to be fed directly to home entertainment output screens and devices, most commonly televisions and projectors. The future for graphics cards looks strong as computer games continue to be big business, competing with the motion picture industry and in many cases surpassing it. The demand for ever more realistic graphics, particularly higher resolution graphics has put the graphics card at the centre stage for most computers and games consoles.
Of course, the motherboard and graphics card are essential for any modern day computer system, but their effectiveness at operating smoothly is dependent on the amount of memory that is available. This system memory or RAM (Random Access Memory) has grown enormously as software packages, operating systems and games have become huge in size. The first personal computers and gaming consoles had little more than a few thousand bytes of memory, and upgrading was seen as simply not necessary. Now, it’s commonplace to have a minimum memory of many orders of magnitude more than the first personal computers! The thirst for memory may have hit its peak for personal computers with the ever increasing use of cloud computing, we may end up going full circle!