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PC Motherboard Expansion Cards

Part 1: PCI

The expansion slots available on motherboards allow for a variety of upgrades in a computer system, but matching the appropriate card to an available slot needs to be addressed before making any purchasing decisions. The most common types of expansion cards for modern computer systems can be broken down into three formats: PCI, AGP, and PCI Express. Each of these formats will be addressed separately in this three part series of Tech Tips, starting with PCI.

The letters "PCI" stand for Peripheral Component Interconnect, and is the term used to describe a bus that connects components directly to the system's memory and to the system's processor through the "frontside bus." When discussing communications on a motherboard, the term "bus" has nothing to do with the big yellow thing that takes the kids to school. There may be several buses in a computer, and like the PCI bus, they are all responsible for managing the communication "traffic" from different devices to the processor.

Frontside bus
image source: Wikipedia.org

The frontside bus is a high speed connection that manages the processor's communication with items such as hard drives, memory, and PCI devices, while not burdening the processor with all of the management responsibilities.

First developed by Intel in the early 1990s, PCI was spawned from even earlier (and slower) bus architectures such as ISA (Industry Standard Architecture) and VL-Bus (VESA Local), which were common back in the 1980s and 1990s.

The original specifications for the PCI Bus had a speed of 33 MHz, with a 32-bit bus width, and a maximum bandwidth of 132 MB per second. There have been a few revisions to the PCI standard which have significantly increased these specifications, taking it to 66 MHz, 64-bit, and 512 MB per second, respectively.

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