Bill Gates I ain't...
October 5, 2009 4:12 PM   Subscribe

The best way to go from knowing how to put a computer together out of the box but nothing else, to understanding how the 'innards' work?

Apologies if this question has already been asked and answered. I searched, but I couldn't find anything that addressed my angle.

So, I can connect up the bits out of the box, and some extra bits you add later. I'm the one my friends/family call when they update and don't know how to connect it all up, but my hardware skills stop there. I can troubleshoot minor stuff, but mostly software based, I think. I had a crash course in being hacked a few months ago and, with the help of AskMe, minimised the damage.

I have learned a tiny little bit about software, programs, and whatnot, but open the tower (?), and I have no clue what's in there, what it does, and how to work with it.

I bought myself a new desktop PC, and now the old dead one is sitting on the floor behind me, tormenting me with the memories of all the music, pictures and documents that I didn't think were worth backing up. (I know. Silly me.)

There's nothing on it that I can't live without, but I'm probably capable of getting it working again, or extracting the information it contains, if I set my mind to learning how. And the more I think about it, the more I want to do it. I don't have any learned friends/acquaintances I can call on for help, so books and the internet must be my teachers, I guess. I've surfed various DIY sites, but they seem to vary in detail and assumption of, um, base knowledge.

So what would you suggest as a good resource for an enthusiastic learner? Computer Hardware For Dummies or similar? Have you taught yourself, or have your kids self-educated about hardware? What worked for you/them? What didn't?

Possibly relevant: I'm a handy girl, I have toolboxes I use regularly. I can fix a noisy toilet, a leaking tap, change fuses, service cars, so using a screwdriver or stripping wires won't be part of my learning curve. And I have the old PC just sitting there waiting for me to pull it to bits, but I'm not confident to begin until I have a source of guidance I can trust.

(Is it cheating if I also ask where I can find a list of MeFi acronyms and explanations, because I can't sleep until I know for sure that YMMV doesn't stand for You May Morph Violently?)
posted by malibustacey9999 to Computers & Internet (16 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I bought an early edition - maybe a first edition - of Fix Your Own PC many years ago. Well written, clearly illustrated, simple, straightforward, to the point. Bonus points for it telling about the evolution of the PC design, which helps put everything in perspective.

Also bought Peter Norton's Inside the PC, early edition, at the same time. It goes into much more detailed history, and really gets into how the software and hardware work together.
posted by Xoebe at 4:30 PM on October 5, 2009

YMMV = Your Mileage May Vary.

Fellow nerdygirl here. Most of what I have learned about computers has been self-taught. I started by swapping out RAM and CD drives, then hard drives, then eventually built one entirely from scratch.

As long as you've got the old dead computer, I'd suggest taking it apart and putting it back together again, bit by bit. Here's a pretty good step by step guide. Best way to learn is to do!
posted by stennieville at 4:35 PM on October 5, 2009

ExtremeTech, Tom's Hardware, and AnandTech are my go-to web sites for DIY stuff, but yeah, they do require a bit of base knowledge.

HowStuffWorks has some decent basic tutorials. You should also be able to find some good books at your local library or chain bookstore.

BTW, computer hardware technology advances at a fairly rapid pace. Even though the basic components stay the same (e.g. CPU, video cards, hard disks, etc.) the names of specific technologies are really hard to keep up with, even for experts.

Don't feel overwhelmed, you'll figure it out after a while.

A really good way to learn, if you can afford it, is to try to build a basic PC from parts. You should be able to put together a decent PC for a few hundred bucks. There are lots of tutorials on how to build a PC.
posted by kenliu at 4:35 PM on October 5, 2009

Honestly the inner bits are fairly straightforward. You'll likely be surprised by how simple the innards are.

Mother board - connects the dots. Note these aren't all generic the type of motherboard will depend on your processor (and the form factor)
Processor - holds the fan down.
RAM - you know RAM - volatile memory (only holds stuff when the computer is on) looks like a couple of thin sticks that should be stuck into a slot.
Power Supply - supplies power - this is where the plug goes.
Hard Drive - holds stuff non-volatile (holds stuff even when off)
CD (or other optical drive)
Video Card - offboards processing of video to another processor.
Audio Card (optional) offboards audio processing, frequently these days this is built into the mobo.
You might have a separate network card (wired or wifi) but these are usually built into the mobo these days.

Take off the case and look inside and you'll be able to identify all the parts pretty easily. It's really not rocket science.

If it's fried (ie it doesn't even boot) its usually an issue with bad RAM or a bad Motherboard. If you have more then one stick of RAM you can try removing one at a time and seeing if it boots.

if it tries to boot but can't get to the boot drive its likely your hard drive.

No one generally "fixes" computers generally all the parts here are just replaced.
posted by bitdamaged at 4:35 PM on October 5, 2009

And if the harddrive is still good you can save all that stuff. the only tool you really need is a screwdriver
posted by patnok at 4:37 PM on October 5, 2009

Well, the first part is identification. Open up your old computer and see where the PCI slots are, where the hard drive is, RAM, CPU, etc. All these components look pretty much the same, so if you do a google image search for whatever component, you should be able to figure it out. Tracing wires to see where they go can be helpful in understanding as well.

In terms of your old machine, you should be able to put the hard drive from the old one into the new one (depending on availability of connectors and case space). There are tons of boring videos on YouTube about replacing hard drives that might be helpful to you.
posted by demiurge at 4:41 PM on October 5, 2009

Best answer: The best way to go from knowing how to put a computer together out of the box but nothing else, to understanding how the 'innards' work?

Fixing problems as they arise, and seeking out new kinds of problem to fix when you find yourself too easily able to fix the old ones.

I bought myself a new desktop PC, and now the old dead one is sitting on the floor behind me, tormenting me with the memories of all the music, pictures and documents that I didn't think were worth backing up.

The right tool for this job is a USB drive adapter. Remove the drive from the old PC, and examine the connectors. If they look like this, your adapter needs to suit an IDE drive; if they look like this, you will need a SATA one.

It's perfectly possible to add the old drive to the new PC without using an enclosure, provided the case has space for it and you have or can get the right cables, but if you're not yet completely comfortable with PC innards then using an enclosure will reduce the risk of stuffing up your new PC pretty much to zero.
posted by flabdablet at 4:44 PM on October 5, 2009

If you are a handy person, doing computer stuff should be easy. I like this DIY site, as it explains everything in plain English. Just follow the links in the Hardware Basics section, and you will learn most of what you need to get started.

I learned everything I know about computers - which is oodles more than anyone else I know - from the internet and trying things for myself. What's the worst that could happen to your old, dead box? Just open up the case, and learn to identify all the pieces. It's pretty straight-forward, actually, as you will see.

Take out the hard drive first. See if you can hook it up to your new PC, so you can get the information from it.
posted by gemmy at 4:47 PM on October 5, 2009

I'm self taught. You don't need a book unless you want to learn way more than you'll ever need to know.

The basics of PC hardware are really simpler than you'd think: inside there are a handful of self contained components that go together tab-A-in-slot-B-style. Google is your friend here: Most modern computer components are standardized, and there's a wealth of information out there. Since you've already got a computer to work on, I'd suggest just opening it up and going for it. You'll need a couple standard Phillips head screwdrivers and a bit of patience. Remember: if it won't go in or out easily, there's a screw you need to unscrew or a lever you need to lift.

Also: MeFi Acronyms. Though YMMV seems to be absent. (Your Mileage May Vary)
posted by wsp at 4:49 PM on October 5, 2009

And if you ever do want to understand how computers actually work, you can do far worse than reading Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software.
posted by signal at 6:03 PM on October 5, 2009

As has been said, you can probably plug your old hard drive into your new system and pull everything off of it.

As for understanding computers in general, the question you should ask yourself is, what level do you want to understand?

Trying to really understand what's under the hood of a reasonably current computer is quite the task, but you can know which pieces are what without too much difficulty.

I started at the other end - trying to learn some basic electronics. I've only dabbled, but I've gotten to the point where I understand things like TTL and CMOS Logic and can pick out structures on a circuit board in much the same way I'd see structures in computer code back in the day. The book I've gotten the most out of is Electronics for Inventors.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:38 PM on October 5, 2009

I have been on the site since 2001. Its a great place for begginers as well.
posted by majortom1981 at 6:10 AM on October 6, 2009

Response by poster: Great advice, guys. I've checked out some suggested links, googled some books, and am now quite keen to have a go. I could attain the level of competent hobbyist, I'm fairly sure.

I don't think I'm supposed to favourite everyone, but all answers were in some way just what I was seeking.

Grateful thanx to you all. And thanx for solving the YMMV question for me, too. (Mileage? Really? I would have never guessed.)
posted by malibustacey9999 at 3:10 PM on October 6, 2009

Response by poster: I did it!

The problem was that the power button wouldn't switch on. So, I followed the above links and suggestions, ripped it open, had a crash course in computer innards... but got scared about delving into the power box when it turned out to be the problem.

But I successfully extracted the hard drive and connected it to our new PC. And it works. I've got my photos and music back.

Askme rocks. Thanx, y'all.
posted by malibustacey9999 at 3:00 AM on August 4, 2010

Best answer: Being scared about delving into PC power supplies just shows that you have a fine instinct for self preservation. Those things almost never get fixed when components inside them die; instead they're generally just replaced as a module. Budget maybe $50 for a decent new one.
posted by flabdablet at 6:42 PM on August 4, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks, flabdablet. That's some advice that I hadn't come across, and I appreciate it.
posted by malibustacey9999 at 3:49 AM on August 12, 2010

« Older Not being able to find this book keeps me up at...   |   Is co-working best for us? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.