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[ The PC Guide | Systems and Components Reference Guide ]

The Processor

The processor (really a short form for microprocessor and also often called the CPU or central processing unit) is the central component of the PC. It is the brain that runs the show inside the PC. All work that you do on your computer is performed directly or indirectly by the processor. Obviously, it is one of the most important components of the PC, if not the most important. It is also, scientifically, not only one of the most amazing parts of the PC, but one of the most amazing devices in the world of technology.

The processor plays a significant role in the following important aspects of your computer system:

  • Performance: The processor is probably the most important single determinant of system performance in the PC. While other components also play a key role in determining performance, the processor's capabilities dictate the maximum performance of a system. The other devices only allow the processor to reach its full potential.
  • Software Support: Newer, faster processors enable the use of the latest software. In addition, new processors such as the Pentium with MMX Technology, enable the use of specialized software not usable on earlier machines.
  • Reliability and Stability: The quality of the processor is one factor that determines how reliably your system will run. While most processors are very dependable, some are not. This also depends to some extent on the age of the processor and how much energy it consumes.
  • Energy Consumption and Cooling: Originally processors consumed relatively little power compared to other system devices. Newer processors can consume a great deal of power. Power consumption has an impact on everything from cooling method selection to overall system reliability.
  • Motherboard Support: The processor you decide to use in your system will be a major determining factor in what sort of chipset you must use, and hence what motherboard you buy. The motherboard in turn dictates many facets of your system's capabilities and performance.

This section discusses many different aspects of this important component in full detail, and concludes with a look at the major processor families used on the PC platform, from the original IBM PC processors to the latest technology. Note that the explanations of how the processor works and what its characteristics are, is kept mostly separate from the information on particular processors. This is done to keep information organized and easier to find. However, I also include summary tables in each of the description sections showing how the various processors fare in that particular area. This shows the evolution of the technology and lets you more easily compare processors in various ways.

Next: Roots of the Processor: Digital Logic and the Semiconductor


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