Processor Chips Explained

computer/processor chip.jpgDecided to buy a computer? Need to do some homework because you want to be a well-researched buyer? My advice is to learn more about computer chips. Probably the most important component of a computer to understand and match to your individual needs is the computer’s chip. A look at the development history of computer chips and an understanding of processor capabilities is a good start in deciding how to select the proper computer chip to suit your needs. 

Central Processing Unit

The computer’s main component is called the Central Processing Unit, or CPU for short. The CPU is a very small piece of silicon and is often referred to as the silicon chip or the processor chip. This tiny little piece is the brain of the computer, equivalent to the engine of a car. Because it interacts with all the other parts of the computer, the faster the CPU, the faster the whole computer.

History of the Microchip

Originally CPU chips had numerical names. You might hear older CPUs referred to as an 80286 or an 80386. After awhile, the “80” part was generally dropped, and CPUs were simply called 286, 386, or 486. Each of these terms refers to a family of CPUs. Understandably each of these CPUs improved upon its predecessor so the 486 is faster and better than the 386. When the 586 was put into production, Intel, the mother of all chip manufacturers, decided to give the processor chips more common names. The 586 was called the Pentium chip.

If you are interested in learning more about the fascinating process of how a microprocessor is created, read From Sand to ChipFrom Sand to Chip by Armin Gerritsen.

If you want more information on the inner workings of microprocessors, visit Intel’s

How Microprocessors WorkHow Microprocessors Work Web site. Another not to be missed Web site is the Intel MuseumIntel Museum , where you can learn about the history of the chip as well as how transistors are made and why clean rooms are necessary in chip production.

Chips in the Good Old Days

When the first IBM personal computer came out in 1986, it contained a processor chip called the 8088. As newer and faster chips were marketed, they were called, in succession, the 286, 386, and 486. Each of these chip families was called a generation. Each generation offered two basic types of chips, a slower SX chip and a faster DX chip. Then there were different clock speeds, such as 33 MHz and 66 MHz.  If you purchased any 486-equipped computer, you knew it was faster and better than any 386 computer. Also, when you purchased a computer, it was clearly labeled.  At the time of purchase, you knew whether you were getting the slower SX chip or the faster DX chip. In order to run the latest software, you had to purchase the latest chip. When each new chip was introduced, it was a hot commodity and replaced the older chip quite quickly. 

A few years ago deciding which computer to purchase was difficult, especially when you talked about which processor your computer should have. After all the focus on making computers easier to use, wouldn’t you expect that deciding on which processing chip to purchase by now would also be an easier task? Unfortunately, that is not the case.  In fact with Intel’s recent handling of Pentium processor chips, this task has become even more daunting.

With the introduction of a Pentium chip called the Celeron, Intel changed the whole scheme of things. The Celeron is a low-end Pentium chip that is still available and currently is being upgraded even though newer chips have been introduced. This means that right now PC users have an unbelievable myriad of chip choices including Pentium Celeron, Pentium II, Pentium III, and Pentium IV all with speeds ranging from 300 MHz to over 1 GHz. On top of all this, many different versions of these chips make your choice even more difficult.

Intel works very hard to try to convince the computer consumer its chips are superior to other brands. The truth is, based on independent testing, chips by most other manufacturers are comparable in quality and functionality. However, many different things can affect a computer’s performance, and there are many different functions performed by a CPU. Seldom is one manufacturer’s chip composed exactly like another company’s chip. Therefore, comparing another chip, like an AMD chip, to an Intel chip may be more like comparing apples to pears, rather than apples to apples.

While Intel produces most of the chips for IBM compatible personal computers, Motorola produces the lion’s share of the chips for Apple and Macintosh computers. Fortunately for Apple users, chip choices are not as confusing.  G3 and G4 chips are the two fastest on the market right now.  As with PC processors, chips for Apples and Macs also come in a variety of different speeds (MHz).

Processor Speeds

As earlier mentioned, an important second feature impacting processor chips is the speed of the processor’s internal clock. These clock speeds are measured in millions of cycles per second or megahertz (MHz). Megahertz usually range from 25 MHz to over 1 GHz, with faster chips being introduced everyday.

Clock speeds are very easy to understand. The higher the megahertz, the faster the computing speed. In computing, speed is not just an issue that equates to power; it also equates to time. A slow computer will make you wait while a screen redraws or while it computes data. This is usually only a matter of a few seconds of waiting time. However, if you use your computer for several hours each day, those few seconds of waiting time can become frustrating. One choice to speed up your computer is to upgrade the existing processor chip of your computer, but this is usually fairly complicated and expensive. A wiser option is to initially purchase the fastest CPU you can afford.

Bus Speeds

In simple terms, a bus is a channel or path that the computer uses to transfer data. It is the main avenue for all data to move in and out of the computer. Like a highway, the bigger the channel, the more quickly the traffic (or data) will flow. 

Cache

A cache (pronounced like the word “cash”) is a small amount of computer memory that holds most recently used data. Having a cache allows the computer to access recently used data more quickly, so it speeds up access time and, therefore, speeds up computing time. There are several different kinds of cache, but in general, the larger the cache, the faster the data processing time.

You may not understand all the ins and outs of processor chips, but having this brief overview will give you a basic understanding what a chip is and what it does. If you would like to decide which chip you want in your next computer, don’t miss the How To – How To Choose a CPU.