About Desktop Processors

In those days you were generally required to write your own programs in BASIC and your code or programs were stored to either a cassette tape, or, if the program was small enough, to a 5 ½ floppy. I spent many a day playing true gaming classics like Oregon Trail or a two-dimensional Star Trek game played with the up and down arrow keys on a keyboard. One thing is certain; PC performance has increased virtually exponentially since their inception.

As I write this guide, I am surrounded by a faint glow that comes from my well loved Macintosh Color Classic PC, which at the time of its manufacture, came with an
“An Oh So Powerful” 16 MHz processor and an 80MB Hard Drive. I was so impressed with my Mac when I purchased it; it had a small but bright color screen built in, a hard drive, and a 3 1/4 inch floppy drive. Thanks to Al Gore I could hook up a 1200 baud modem and access a world of ASCII websites via the
“Internet”. I truly viewed my Macintosh as a portable PC, it was relatively light and easy to tote around and I took it virtually everywhere I could. Today my Macintosh is still functional, however the only real purpose it serves is as something of a curiosity to any visitors I may have under the age of 25.

What a Difference a Decade Makes:

I am writing this guide on a Dell Latitude Laptop which I purchased a mere 13 years after the Macintosh. My Laptop is far from the latest and greatest in portable technology, yet it is hundreds if not thousands of times more powerful than my beloved Macintosh.

We all recognize that Personal Computers serve many functions in our lives, from reducing complexity, to entertainment, the list is virtually endless and their impact on out lives truly astonishing. Central to the seemingly unreal advancement in PC performance over the last 2 decades is the processor. Processors or CPUs as they are commonly called are present in virtually any electronic device that you touch today. Whether you are looking to upgrade your current PC or buy an entirely new system, you can quickly become confused by the sheer range of processors that are available and the terminology associated with said Processors.

The purpose of this guide is to give you a basic understanding of CPUs and to help you make a good decision when deciding on what CPU is right for you.
This guide is not meant to be a technical dissertation; its goal is to provide very general information and designed to give you, the reader, a general understanding of what a processor is and to help you make a good decision when it comes time to purchase. If you are more technically oriented, I would suggest the many tech-detailed guides available elsewhere online.

First Things First: What is a CPU?

CPU stands for Central Processing Unit, and even after many years of refinements in PC technology, the CPU is still the central part of your computer’s operations. A CPU manages the flow of data throughout your entire PC. The role of a CPU is to manipulate (process) data that passes through your PC, reading it from your PC’s devices, manipulating it as required, and then sending it out to storage or display devices.

Physically, a CPU is comprised of millions of microscopic transistors which are etched onto a layer of silicon via chemical and lithographic processes.
Transistors themselves are exceptionally simple devices that store binary
(on/off) values, and it’s from these on/off states that more complicated processes can be performed. Modern transistors are extremely complex; a CPU such as AMD’s Athlon 64 FX-55 is comprised of just fewer than 106 million transistors. A dual-core chip such as Intel’s Pentium Extreme Edition 840, that transistor count jumps to around 230 million.

Simply put, the CPU is the brain of your PC. All of your PC’s functions rely on the CPU and all functions interact with the CPU on a constant basis.

Deciding on a CPU that meets your needs isn’t simply a matter of price point. There are an extreme number of processors available for purchase today and they can range in price anywhere from $2.00 to $2,000. CPUs are the central component of a PC’s processing power; however they are a part of a whole. There are many components within any individual PC and they all must
“plug” into what is known as the PC’s motherboard. To put it simply, the motherboard is the component of the PC that integrates a PC’s individual components, the CPU being one of them.

When upgrading a PC or constructing one at home, it is important that the CPU you choose is compatible with the Motherboard. I will talk in more detail about determining the compatibility of a CPU with any given motherboard later on in this guide.

When purchasing a CPU you should consider the capabilities that you’re looking for in a processor, and the types of software you’re likely to run on your machine. It’s much better to make the right choice and get a PC that’s ideal for your chosen applications than end up with something that sounds good on paper, but can’t run the core tasks you need.

The Two Major Brands: AMD and Intel:

Intel and AMD offer us a wide range of CPUs and the two companies’ products are in direct competition. AMD and Intel CPUs are capable of running the same PC software and are not software specific or proprietary in nature. The primary differences between these processors are technical in detail that for the purpose of this guide will be considered inconsequential.

You will generally find that pricing in the CPU market is very competitive and, generally speaking, Intel chips are more expensive than comparable AMD processors. On the higher end, Intel offers the Pentium 4 in numerous configurations with names to match. Terms or names that you may see tied to the Pentium 4 include Hyperthreading, Extreme Edition, Dual Core and Intel Duo. Intel Processors come in both 32 and 64 bit versions. AMD was the first CPU manufacturer to offer a 64-bit CPU and come as both the Athlon 64 and Athlon 64 FX. The Athlon FX and the Intel Pentium 4 Extreme Edition are competing chips for power users.
You may have heard of 64-bit processing, it is available in both manufacturers CPU lines. The primarily advantage that 64-bit processing has over 32-bit is in the amount of data that the processor can address. 32-bit chips can handle around 4 gigabytes of data while a 64-bit chip can handle
16 BILLION gigabytes – quite a difference. 64-bit processors can run most 32-bit applications but require a 64-bit operating system to function properly. At this stage, 64-bit processing can be considered as something of overkill as a 32-bit processor, especially one that is dual core, can efficiently run the majority of today’s software applications.

Both Intel and AMD offer budget versions of their processor, Intel’s offering being the Celeron
– a striped down version of the Pentium. AMD’s budget offering is the Duron; both Budget chips again offer similar performance and pricing.

Hyper-threading VS Dual Core:

Most of Intel’s Pentium 4 processor support a technology called Hyperthreading. Hyperthreading allows the processor to be utilized virtually as two processors as one. This technology can give a boost to performance; however it should not be confused with Dual-Core processing. Hyper threading utilizes software to create two “virtual” processors out of one in an effort to allow for multiple applications to be processed simultaneously. A Dual-Core processor, such as Intel’s new Extreme Edition physically contains two separate processing units on one chip and offers far greater performance.

Naming Conventions:

Manufacturers methods for naming their processors can be very confusing for the average user. Until recently Intel simply used the clock speed of the processor, for example 3.2GHz Pentium 4, while AMD uses names based on the processor’s supposed capabilities. For example, an AMD XP3000+ may have a clock speed of 2.16GHz but in practice it performs more like a 3GHz processor. Intel which for years used clock speed to define its processors has moved to a new 3-digit naming convention. Intel processors will now start with a 3, 5 or 7 – each group representing the type of processor and the motherboard that it is compatible with.

Sockets and Pins:

Simply put, Sockets and Pins are terms used by manufacturers to define the compatibility of a processor and motherboard; a description of a processor should always contain what socket type it is. Motherboards designed to utilize an Intel Socket 478-pin processor for example, will not accept an Athlon Socket A processor, and vice versa.

Front-side Bus:

The front-side bus (FSB) is the interface between the CPU and the main system memory and determines the fastest type of memory your system can use.
The faster the FSB the quicker data can be passed between the CPU and the memory.

Cache memory:

Cache Memory is memory that is added directly to the processor.
Manufacturers add this memory as a way to eliminate potential data “bottlenecks” and to speed the CPUs handling of information. Cache does this by storing frequently used data directly on the CPU itself. Greater Cache generally means faster and better overall performance.

Upgrading:

Most users PC’s can be upgraded from their current configurations. Often times you can save yourself hundreds of dollars by performing a little research about your existing PC. Many times PCs can accept much faster processors than were included originally by the manufacturer. A little research on the subject can go a long way toward saving you money and extending the life of your PC.

If you are interested in upgrading your PC you can generally determine rather easily if your existing PC will accept a more powerful processor than it originally came with. A little research into the exact model number of your PC and the PCs motherboard will allow you determine what processors are compatible with your existing PC. Many tools are available online to help you determine what processors are compatible with your existing motherboard.
Often accessing your motherboards manufacturers’ website and researching your specific model will give you all the information you need to determine what processor is right for you.