Mad About Science: Personal Computers, part 1

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist

Like it or not, personal computers, or PCs, are a vital part of our daily lives. They perform all sorts of tasks, from allowing us to overshare stupid memes with family members two time zones away (I get it, Kermit is being a smarmy jerk) to living out alternate realities that let us carve through aliens like Aunt Linda carves through Thanksgiving turkey. Ever wonder about how that funny box full of circuits and electricity creates such things?

It’s a lot of complicated jargon and acronyms, but I’ll do my best to describe what’s going on in a fun and understandable way.

Note: Most of what I will be discussing will be about high-end gaming computers, but they work the same as your run-of-the-mill computer, just on steroids.

Motherboards: How do they work? Think of the motherboard as your computer’s spinal cord. It connects all of the vital components of your computer together and lets them communicate. In the early days of computers, the earliest form of motherboards were essentially multiple circuit boards connected together by copper wiring, socketed into a backplane. As technology improved, developers were able to condense these into a single printed circuit board that had slots for installing vital components. Like all components in a computer, the motherboard requires power, which is supplied from the power source, the big brick-looking thing generally at the top or bottom on the rear of the computer where you plug in the cord.

Depending on the function of your computer, the power source may require different wattage. Most standard computers only need a maximum of 500 watts of power, which they rarely use at the fullest. A pretty good gaming computer will be comfortable with 750 watts (though this requirement is going down), and a freaking beast that runs like a microwave can use over 1,000 watts.

All of that power creates a lot of heat, and if you don’t have a way to get rid of that heat, bad things happen to your components, and then your computer can’t run. It’s like if your foot catches on fire — you won’t be able to walk on that foot anymore, would you?

 The primary way heat is transferred from the inside of a computer to the outside is through fans. Depending on your computer’s needs, you may need several fans that pull hot air out of your computer and keep the internal temperature steady enough to not melt your circuits.

If your computer is struggling to keep the temperature down inside, you can upgrade to a liquid cooling system. This sounds counter-intuitive, I mean, you don’t want water around your delicate electronic components, but it’s actually a tried-and-true method. It’s an enclosed system that uses pipes filled with water or a cooling solution that run near vital heat-generating components. The heat transfers to the cooler surface (in this case, the enclosed water), which is then pumped to a radiator, just like the one at the front of your car. This radiator is adjacent to a major fan which pushes cool air over the radiator to cool the water, which is then cycled back to the hotter parts of the machine.

If you’re just using Facebook or writing a silly science article, water cooling isn’t practical, but if you’re doing film development or running cutting-edge games to their maximum potential, liquid cooling is great for improving the longevity of your high-end components.

One of these components most susceptible to heat is your graphics-processing unit, often called a video card. I could do a long, confusing article of acronyms and numbers revolving around video cards, but that would bore everyone outside of die-hard gamer junkies like myself. A GPU performs all of the calculations fed to it to create the shiny graphics you see in a game. The beefier the card’s specs, the better the graphics it will present.

That’s an oversimplification, because one person’s Van Gogh is another person’s crayon scribble when it comes to computer graphics.

A GPU does more than bring pixels onto your screen. Generally, it’s figuring out the physics of a three-dimensional world, like a knight falling from a battlement while six dozen arrows fly past him and horses are running wild in the courtyard. While it’s figuring all of that out and presenting it in real-time, it’s also calculating how to make explosion effects or one of the most tricky visual effects in gaming: light diffusion. Think about when you walk out from a shadow, and the sun is like, “Boom, I’m here and you’re blind.” A computer trying to replicate that effect takes a tremendous amount of resources. If you have a high-end monitor, this means the video card is figuring out how to present 497,664,000 pixels per second without missing a beat, generally for several hours uninterrupted.

Now that I’ve word-vomited a bunch of numbers that are completely trivial for you, you must be SUPER stoked for next week’s article, when we start talking about the real engine in your wheelless Corvette.

To those of you that haven’t turned the page in boredom or annoyance, I commend you, and grant you the Invisible Taco Award! Place it gently upon your mantle, and display it proudly for all the world to not-see.

See you next week!

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