Each chapter of this book is devoted to one topic, and is self-supporting. The first two chapters provide an overview of PC hardware and standards, as well as detailed advice about buying, building, upgrading, and repairing PCs. They describe the tools and software you’ll need, explain basic procedures like installing expansion cards, and detail the tips and tricks we’ve learned during 20 years of working on PCs. These chapters include:
The second group of chapters covers the core components of any PC—motherboards, processors, and memory. These chapters take the form used throughout the rest of the book, beginning with brief background information about the component, followed by an explanation of the important characteristics, guidelines on choosing among competing products, instructions for installing and configuring the component, troubleshooting information, if applicable, and a final “Our Picks” section, which tells you which products we recommend. This group includes the following chapters:
The third group of chapters covers removable magnetic storage, including the pedestrian floppy disk drive, one of the few PC components that survives largely unchanged from the earliest days of PCs; “super-floppies” like the Iomega Zip and the Imation LS-120; removable hard disk drives like the Iomega Jaz and the Castlewood ORB; and tape drives, which despite the arrival of new technologies remain the best choice for backing up data. This group includes the following chapters:
The fourth group of chapters covers optical storage, an increasingly important component in modern PCs. We detail what you need to know to choose, install, configure, and use CD-ROM, CD-R, CD-RW, DVD-ROM, and writable DVD drives. This group includes the following chapters:
The fifth group of chapters covers ATAPI (“IDE”) hard disk drives, which are ubiquitous in modern PCs, as well as SCSI models, which provide better performance at correspondingly higher prices. We explain the important characteristics of hard drives, provide guidelines for purchasing a hard drive, and explain how to install, prepare, configure, and troubleshoot hard drives. This group includes the following chapters:
The sixth group of chapters covers sight and sound. We describe the important characteristics of video adapters, monitors and LCD displays, sound cards, and speakers, and explain how to choose, install, configure, and troubleshoot them. We also include a brief introduction to MP3 and an explanation of how to use it. This group includes the following chapters:
The seventh group of chapters covers input devices—keyboards, mice, and game controllers. We explain how they work, how to choose the best ones for your needs, and (as usual) how to install, configure, and troubleshoot them. This group includes the following chapters:
The eighth group of chapters covers serial, parallel, and USB communications—the technologies that PCs use to connect with external peripherals and the outside world. We explain how each works, how to choose the best technology for your needs, and how to configure and troubleshoot communications. This group includes the following chapters:
The ninth group of chapters covers three components—cases, PC power supplies, and backup power supplies—that receive little attention, but are important to system reliability and usability. We detail the important characteristics of each, and provide guidelines for choosing the best case and power supplies for your system. This group includes the following chapters:
Finally, Chapter 28 puts it all together, illustrating how to turn a pile of components into a working PC.
Most chapters end with an Our Picks section. In the first edition of this book, we made specific recommendations in these sections. The problem with recommending specific makes and models in print, of course, is that PC hardware changes in Internet time. Products that were the hottest things on the market (or even preproduction engineering samples) when we started working with them had become mainstream when we went to press, and may even have been discontinued by the time the book reached the stores. So instead of focusing on ephemera in print, we instead concentrate here on important characteristics and guidelines, which don’t change nearly as fast.
We recognize, though, that many people want specific advice by make and model—“Which motherboard/drive/monitor should I buy?” is one of the most common questions we get—so we’ve gone to some trouble to create and update pages on our web site that provide detailed recommendations. We still provide general recommendations in the Our Picks sections, but you’ll now find our specific recommendations—by brand name and model—on our web site, at:
We base these recommendations on our own experience, not after using the product for a day or a week, but after extensive day-in-day-out use under realistic conditions. If we say we found a particular CD burner to be durable, that means that we used that CD burner extensively and burned a bunch of CDs with it. If we say a particular motherboard is stable, that means we used it in one or more of our own systems over a period of weeks or months and found that it didn’t crash even when performing stressful tasks like running a full benchmark suite or compiling a Linux kernel. If we say a particular monitor is the best we’ve used, it’s because we sat in front of it for many long hours while writing this book. And so on.