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[ The PC Guide | Systems and Components Reference Guide | The Processor | Processor Physical Characteristics | Physical Chip Characteristics ]

Processor Versions and Steppings

Many people think of a processor as being a single version, such as "The" Pentium 200. However, much like software, hardware often has bugs in it due to its tremendous complexity, and so it is revised and new versions are put out. These changes are not publicized, and often people don't realize that there are many different versions of popular processors on the market, with newer ones often fixing problems with older ones. (The obvious exception of course to this is when a high-profile bug hits such as the infamous Pentium II Dan-0411 bug). New features are generally not introduced through these types of revisions--only problems are corrected.

Some companies (Cyrix for example) use an explicit version number with their chips. Intel instead uses a term called a stepping. Essentially, a stepping number is the same as a revision number. The word itself comes from the name of the machine that is used to make the chip, which is called a "stepper".

In addition, there are often different generations or families of processors. These are more significant changes to the processor in terms of process technology, speed, circuit size, or all of the above. For example, the original Pentium processors were 60 and 66 MHz, used 5V power and a 0.8 micron circuit size. Newer (classic, non-MMX) Pentiums run at up to 200 MHz, use 3.3V power and a 0.6 or 0.35 micron circuit size. These are different generations of a functionally equivalent CPU. (The Pentium with MMX Technology is a different CPU, not a newer generation, because its design and functionality are different.)

It can be difficult to determine the stepping number of a processor, since this isn't something most retailers even understand, but getting the wrong version of a processor can lead to system problems later on. Some early versions of certain processors can have extreme problems, and it can be very hard to tell what version you are getting since different versions can exist for the same chip running at the same speed.

Next: Chip Characteristics for Specific Processors

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