If you've never taken a look inside your PC, maybe now's the time to start. PC World's brand new series shows you how.
Here at Australian PC World, we've been bringing you the best in PC features and guides for over 20 years, so it's fair to say that we know what's what when it comes to computers. But we haven't forgotten that they're a pretty daunting prospect if you don't have much experience in owning or using them. That's why we've created a new series called Back To Basics, which is designed specifically for those who may be new to computers. If you've never opened up a PC before, or don't know your hard drive from your RAM, then Back To Basics is just what you need to get started. What's more, you'll find an accompanying video on our November cover disc (called B2BInsideYourPC.wmv) that will show you exactly what we're talking about.
Each article will cover a different topic, taking you through the main components that make up your PC. We'll show you what they look like, explain what it is they actually do, and demonstrate just how easy it is to replace or upgrade them. But first, it's time to get to know where everything is kept. So let's get that PC case off.
Removing the case
The first step here is to disconnect all the cables from the back of your PC, especially the power cable for safety's sake. Some, like the keyboard and mouse, can just be pulled straight out of their sockets, while others, like the monitor cable shown in this screen shot, may need to be unscrewed first.
When you've disconnected everything from your PC, you can move the case to a position where it's easier to see what you're doing. Designs can vary, but the most common arrangement uses screws at the rear to hold the panels in place. We only want to take off the access panel - which is typically on the left-hand side of the PC as you face the front - so check that you're only removing these screws, and avoid the ones around the fan cutout at the top, as these are for the power supply.
The case we're using has thumbscrews instead of regular screws, which can be removed by hand. If yours doesn't, you'll need a crosshead screwdriver for this job. Bear in mind that you'll need them again later, so put the screws somewhere safe for the time being.
When you've removed the screws, the side panel should just come away from your PC, but you may find that you need to slide it back a little first in order to release it from the rails inside the case. On a side note, just remember that some of these components are sensitive and can be damaged by static electricity. It's unlikely that you'll still be carrying a static charge after having handled the case, but it's still a good idea to touch the metal panel at the back before putting your hands inside your PC. Just to be on the safe side.
As you'll see for yourself, the inside of your computer is dominated by a large flat circuit board that sits beneath the rest of the components. This is usually called a "motherboard", though you'll find some manufacturers who call theirs a "mainboard". As well as giving them somewhere to live, the motherboard performs the valuable task of connecting all your PC's components together.
Towards the centre of the motherboard you'll find a large fan sitting on top of an object made of metal fins called a "heatsink" see this screen shot. This is used to keep things cool, and you'll find smaller versions attached to various things inside your PC. In this case, however, it's sitting on top of your system's processor - the chip that does most of the hard work. Although the size and shape of yours may be different to the one shown here and is largely dependent on the type of processor you have, they all do the same job, just at different speeds.
Below this you'll find your PC's expansion slots. These are used to attach components like graphics cards to your system, but can also be used to add a variety of functions like networking, audio or connectivity options. What you have in these slots will depend entirely on your system configuration, but our example shows a graphics card at the top with a sound card sitting beneath it. It's worth noting here that the graphics card has its own dedicated expansion slot, called an AGP slot or, on more recent motherboards, a PCI Express slot this screen shot.
Another essential element of your computer is memory, or RAM. This is made up of a series of chips that sit on a slim circuit board often described as a stick, and can be found in slots on the motherboard near the processor, as shown in this screen shot. Don't panic if you find that half your slots (or possibly more) are empty - this is actually a good thing, as it means you can easily add more RAM later on.
Inside the cages
The metal panels you'll find at the front of your system are called cages, and these act as mounting points for your disk drives. The mounting points within these cages are called drive bays, and are given a measurement to indicate what kind of components they can carry - either 3.5in or 5.25in. The cage at the bottom of our PC contains the 3.5in bays, and has been used to mount our hard disks and floppy drive. You can easily see the hard disks - they're the black and silver boxes with the orange cables running from them that are shown in this screen shot - but the floppy disk is smaller and hidden from view. Our PC is unusual because it has three hard disks installed. Don't be surprised if you find there's only one in yours.
Above this, you'll find a larger cage that contains your PC's 5.25in drive bays. These are generally reserved for devices such as optical drives - usually CD and DVD drives.
Finally, the large box at the top of the system is the power supply. As well as being the source of about half the cabling mess inside your PC, this fills the obvious role of providing power to all the components that make up your system.
Now that you know your way around a little better, you can put the access panel back on your PC and plug the cables back in. Next time, we'll be taking a closer look at RAM.