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The Evolution of Computer Hardware

Where does it take us?

On a cutting-edge PC in 1990, the processor, the heart of any computer, would run at a paltry 33 megahertz.

The first Pentium processor from Intel appeared in 1993, performing calculations at a then-quick clock speed of 66 MHz. The race to build faster, more capable processors continued unabated, with milestones such as 1 GHz and 3 GHz reached along the way. Today, the emphasis is on building multiple processing cores in a single chip, with Intel's second-generation Core i7 offering four cores running at 3.4 GHz.

For memory, that 1990 computer would probably have relied on a mere 4 megabytes of RAM to run Windows 3.0. With each new release of Windows, RAM requirements increased. Windows 98 required 16MB, while Windows XP demanded 64MB of RAM, and for best results, Microsoft recommended 128MB. Windows 7 needs at least 1 gigabyte of RAM for the 32-bit version, and 2GB for the 64-bit operating system.

By the standards of the early 1990s, a 200MB hard drive was considered ample. Today, a typical digital camera user can fill that much space in few minutes' worth of shooting. By 1996, 6GB drives were available, although it was common to hear people wonder how they would ever fill that much space. Cheap, tiny USB drives now offer more storage than hard drives of the mid-1990s.

The first 750GB hard drive appeared in 2006, and today consumers can buy 3-terabyte drives.

The 1990 PC's bulky, beige 14-inch CRT monitor offered a maximum resolution of 1,024-by-768 pixels, compared to today's typical 1,920-by-1,080 resolution, with greater color depth.

For years, most home users were limited to 19-inch or less CRT monitors due to the size and expense of the displays. In the past five years or so, LCDs have simply taken over the display market, dropping rapidly in price even as the displays grew larger. Today, many users employ thin, bright 22- or 23-inch LCD screens.

It wasn't until the mid-1990s that 3-D graphics entered the mainstream computer market, the first step toward the increasingly photo-realistic images of today's computer games. When 3-D graphics cards appeared, 16 MB of dedicated video memory was high-end. Today's video cards contain their own graphics processing units and draw upon up to 2GB of video memory. Instead of the single-display support of years past, most video cards can support at least two monitors. Many offer HDMI connections to monitors and HDTVs.

For portable storage access, the 1990 PC relied on its floppy drive, which accepted 1.44MB diskettes. By 1994, computer makers were touting the arrival of CD-ROM drives and "multimedia PCs."

Today, few computer users bother installing a floppy drive, instead tapping the vastly greater capacity and usefulness of portable storage such as SD cards, external hard drives, USB "thumb" drives, and of course, DVD-RW drives, which have been a PC staple since the late 1990s.

Computer cases, too, have evolved from the days of the plain beige box. Today, cases come in a variety of colors and eye-catching designs, many offering tool-less access that makes swapping out a hard drive or optical drive a quick and painless process. Case ventilation, a key factor in keeping a computer running smoothly, has also come a long way, with multiple fans of various sizes placed around the case to provide maximum air flow.

While the keyboard and mouse remain common input devices, they have become far more versatile. Wireless keyboards and mice are preferred by many users. Solar-powered keyboards are available, and the mouse ball has given way to optical and laser mice that are far more precise. Touch screens are also making their way into the PC market.

More Stories By Anne Lee

Anne Lee is a freelance technology journalist, a wife and a mother of two.