Whether it’s a laptop, tablet or desktop computer, the processor is one of the most important pieces of hardware that determines how well the computer will perform.
The processor – also called the central processing unit or CPU – is the brain of the computer. It does the bulk of the processing and co-ordinates all of the other pieces of hardware so your computer works as it should do. The processor fetches, interprets, processes and sends information.
The processor itself is a chip that slots into the computer motherboard, and has an integrated circuit made from silicon. Without a processor, a computer simply could not work as there would be nothing to carry out all the processing a computer needs.
There are two companies that dominate the processor market, and that is Intel and AMD. If you buy any computer, the chances are high that one of those two companies has manufactured your computer processor. (Apple Macs and Macbooks now have Intel processors, if you were wondering.)
Intel processors at the moment mostly begin with the letter i, for example i3, i5 or i7. AMD processors begin with the letter A, for example A10. This is usually followed by the generation number of the processor (generally speaking, the higher the generation number, the better the processor.) Of course both companies are always developing new processors, so these letters and numbers will change as time goes on.
A Processor Specifications
If you’ve ever bought a new laptop or computer, you’ll notice that the technical specification is full of numbers, letters and symbols, many of which denote the processor, and these can look confusing!
Clock speed is measured in Hertz (Hz), which means how many instructions a processor can process in 1 second. A processor that can handle one single instruction every second would have a clock speed of 1Hz.
Of course a processor with a clock speed of 1Hz is no good. Computers need to process billions of instructions every second to work in today’s environment. There is 1 billion Hertz in a Gigahertz (GHz), so processors these days are now measured in Gigahertz. So a processor with a clock speed of 3.2GHz can perform 3.2 billion instructions per second. Now that’s more like it!
Thus, with everything else equal, the larger the clock speed, the faster the processor can process! But of course, it’s not that simple… because there are other things that play a crucial part as well…
You can think of cores like individual processing units on a single processing chip. Our earlier example of a 1Hz processer processing 1 instruction each second would be a single core processor. If it was a dual-core processor it could potentially do two instructions a second, with each core processing simultaneously.
Likewise a triple core processor has 3 cores that can process at the same time, a quad-core as four and you can even get eight-core processors that can have 8 cores processing instructions all at the same time.
As you can see, the more cores a processor has, the more it can do at the same time. It is physically still only one processor, but it acts like multiple processors depending on the number of cores. This is great for multi-tasking!
Computers used to come with single core processors, but not any more. Dual core and quad core processors are the norm these days, with some even going up to 8 cores!
There are more things to know about processors but things can get very complex when you dig a little deeper and for most people, the basics of a processor should suffice. With that said, next time you see that a laptop has an Intel i5 2.6Ghz dual-core processor, you are now a little closer to understanding what that all means!
Of course processors are not everything. A computer with a poor amount of memory will still be slow, because a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Additionally if you want a computer to perform extremely intensive and complex tasks – like video editing or video gaming – you’ll need more than just a good processor, since you’ll more than likely need a dedicated graphics chip (GPU) and a decent amount of RAM memory.
But that’s a different topic for a different time…