Computing

What is a CPU? All You Need to Know

If you’re new to the world of computers and electronics, you might find the terminology used to describe different components confusing. One term that you may come across is “CPU,” which stands for “central processing unit.” CPUs are found in almost all the devices you own, whether it’s a smartwatch, computer, or thermostat. They are responsible for processing and executing instructions and act as the brains of your devices. In this article, we’ll explain how CPUs interact with other parts of your devices and why they are crucial to the computing process.

What Makes a CPU a CPU?

AMD Ryzen 7 7800X3D held between fingertips.
Image: Jacob Roach / DigitalTrends

The CPU is the core component that defines a computing device, but it can only function alongside other hardware. It’s a silicon chip that sits in a special socket on the main circuit board, also known as the motherboard. The CPU is distinct from the memory, where information is temporarily stored, and from the graphics card or graphics chip, which handles video and 3D graphics on your screen.

CPUs are manufactured by arranging billions of microscopic transistors on a single computer chip. These transistors enable the CPU to perform the computations required for executing programs stored in your system’s memory. They function as tiny switches, alternating between on and off states, to convey the binary ones and zeros that underlie all your actions on the device, whether it’s watching videos or composing an email.

One of the most significant advancements in CPU technology is the constant reduction in transistor size. This has led to improved CPU speeds over the years, often referred to as Moore’s Law.

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In modern devices, desktops and laptops have dedicated CPUs that handle various processing functions for the system. On the other hand, mobile devices and some tablets utilize a system on a chip (SoC), which packages the CPU alongside other components. Both Intel and AMD offer CPUs with graphics chips and memory stored on them, expanding their capabilities beyond just standard CPU functions.

What Does a CPU Actually Do?

A technician placing a CPU into a motherboard socket for a PC.
Image: Narumon Bowonkitwanchai/Getty Images

At its core, a CPU takes instructions from a program or application and performs calculations. This process involves three key stages: fetch, decode, and execute. The CPU fetches the instruction from RAM, decodes its meaning, and executes the instruction using relevant parts of the CPU.

The executed instruction, or calculation, can involve basic arithmetic, number comparison, function execution, or moving data around in memory. Since all actions in a computing device are represented by numbers, you can think of the CPU as a lightning-fast calculator. The workload it carries out could involve launching an operating system, displaying a YouTube video, or calculating compound interest.

In modern systems, the CPU acts as a ringmaster, supplying data to specialized hardware as needed. For example, the CPU instructs the graphics card to display an explosion in a game or tells the solid-state drive to transfer a document to the system’s RAM for faster access.

Cores, Clocks, and Costs

Intel Core i9-13900K held between fingertips.
Image: Jacob Roach / Digital Trends

Initially, CPUs had a single processing core. Today’s modern CPUs have multiple cores, allowing them to execute multiple instructions simultaneously, effectively cramming several CPUs into a single chip. Entry-level processors typically have two to four cores, while gaming devices and PCs commonly have six to eight cores. High-end models can even have up to 32 cores, and professional hardware can exceed that.

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Many processors also utilize a technology called simultaneous multithreading, which allows a single physical CPU core to handle two lines of execution (threads) at once. This makes it appear as though there are two “logical” cores on the operating system side. While these virtual cores are not as powerful as physical cores because they share resources, they can still enhance the CPU’s multitasking performance when running compatible software.

When looking at CPUs, clock speed is often a prominent feature. It’s measured in gigahertz (GHz) and indicates how many instructions a CPU can handle per second. However, clock speed alone doesn’t fully determine performance. Clock speed is more relevant when comparing CPUs within the same product family or generation. In general, a higher clock speed means a faster processor, but a newer CPU with a lower clock speed can outperform an older model due to more advanced underlying technology.

As for the cost of a CPU, it depends on your requirements. Unless you’re a hardcore gamer or someone involved in video editing, you usually don’t need to spend more than $200 to $300. You can save costs by opting for a slightly older generation of CPU instead of the latest hardware.

For Intel CPUs, focus on the 12th or 13th-generation chips. You can identify the generation by the product name. For example, the Core i7-10700K is a 10th-generation chip, whereas the Core i5-13600K is a newer 13th-generation chip.

AMD follows a similar approach with its Ryzen CPUs. The Ryzen 9 3950X is a 3rd-generation chip, while the Ryzen 7 5700X is based on the fourth-generation CPU with the company’s Zen 3 architecture. Although Ryzen 4000 was initially released as a laptop chip line and in limited desktop availability, AMD has recently unified its laptop, APU, and desktop platforms under the Ryzen 7000 series.

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How Important is the CPU?

These days, the CPU’s significance for overall system performance has diminished compared to the past. However, it still plays a crucial role in the responsiveness and speed of your computing device. Without a CPU, your device wouldn’t function at all. Gamers may benefit from higher clock speeds, while tasks like CAD and video editing can see improvements from a higher CPU core count.

Remember that the CPU is just one part of a larger system. You also need sufficient RAM and fast storage to provide data to the CPU efficiently. Balancing the performance and cost of your graphics card is another crucial factor in building a well-rounded PC.

Now that you understand the role of a CPU, you’re better prepared to make an informed decision about your computing hardware. Check out our guide to learn more about the best chips from AMD and Intel.

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