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Computing Basics: The Processor, Your Computer's Brain

Updated on July 14, 2014

Hex Core CPU

Phenom(tm) II X6 1035T CPU
Phenom(tm) II X6 1035T CPU | Source

Computing Basics With Dan Mueller

An in depth look at the CPU component of a home computer. This article provides readers with enough info to make an informed purchasing decision regarding a CPU the next time they shop for a new desktop or portable computer. Defines and explains the concepts of GHz, L1 and L2 Cache and multi-core technology.

The CPU Defined

If your were to think of your home or office PC as a human body, the CPU (Central Processing Unit) fills the same role as your brain. The CPU, being the largest chip located on your system's motherboard, is the hub where all decisions are made, making it one of the most important component choices when designing and building your own machine.

The two dominant types of processors on the market as of 2012 are Intel and AMD based processors, with Intel holding the lion's share of the market. Intel is known for its cutting edge designs and top notch speed, while AMD has a reputation in geekdom as a strong brand when it comes to relative processing power per dollar spent. I myself use a hex-core AMD Phenom(tm) II X6 1035T, which has given me pretty impressive mileage since I bought it in 2011.

When judging a processor there are a few key metrics to look for before you buy:

Clock Speed

Clock speed, a statistic measured in GHz or Gigahertz, is a rough indication of the processor's number crunching power. When thinking of GHz in relative terms, think of it as you might think of horsepower when judging a car. It's a good place to start looking, but not the be all end all of judging a vehicle.

L1 and L2 Cache

L1 and L2 Cache are the processor's equivalent of short term memory. Built directly into the processor, these pools of data reduce the amount of effort the processor needs to expend to retrieve data from the system's RAM by storing frequently used data directly on the chip (on a fluid and temporary basis). The more cache a chip has the more time it spends doing useful work, and the less time it spends getting organized.

Number of Cores

Imagine for a moment that your computer is a beastly piece of construction machinery. Getting it rolling can be accomplished in one of several different ways. You could use one huge, heavy duty engine, but it would run hot and be tough to maintain (think of the Intel single core chips of the late 90's early 00's). Or you could split the job among two or more engines, to lighten the load on each individual engine or... processing core.

It's important to remember that when it comes to judging the power of multi-core processors linear progression isn't always going to hold true; it takes some of the processors' power to make multi-cores work in unison. Take this hypothetical duo-core processor for example:

2Ghz processor + 2Ghz processor =/= 1 4Ghz processor.

In actual fact:

2Ghz processor + 2Ghz processor = approximately 1 3.8Ghz processor. Note that the loss of power is due to the need for co-ordination between cores. The better the chip architecture, the less of a drop off per core.

I hope this look at processors, how they work and what to look for when shopping for one was helpful to you. Check back soon for part two in the series where we will explore and explain heat sinks.

Want to learn more about computers? Then check out more of my PC basics:

Heat Sinks


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