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Microprocessor Types and Specifications

The brain or engine of the PC is the processor (sometimes called microprocessor), or central processing unit (CPU). The CPU performs the system's calculating and processing. This chapter introduces you to the history of the CPU, and gives a detailed explanation of how your computer's tiny brain actually works.

Pre-PC Microprocessor History

The brain or engine of the PC is the processor (sometimes called microprocessor), or central processing unit (CPU). The CPU performs the system's calculating and processing. The processor is often the most expensive single component in the system (although graphics card pricing now surpasses it in some cases); in higher-end systems it can cost up to four or more times more than the motherboard it plugs into. Intel is generally credited with creating the first microprocessor in 1971 with the introduction of a chip called the 4004. Today Intel still has control over the processor market, at least for PC systems, although over the years AMD has garnered a respectable market share. This means that all PC-compatible systems use either Intel processors or Intel-compatible processors from a handful of competitors (such as AMD or VIA/Cyrix).

Intel's dominance in the processor market hadn't always been assured. Although Intel is generally credited with inventing the processor and introducing the first one on the market, by the late 1970s the two most popular processors for personal computers were not from Intel (although one was a clone of an Intel processor). Personal computers of that time primarily used the Z-80 by Zilog and the 6502 by MOS Technologies. The Z-80 was noted for being an improved and less expensive clone of the Intel 8080 processor, similar to the way companies such as AMD, VIA/Cyrix, IDT, and Rise Technologies have cloned Intel's Pentium processors. In the Z-80 case, though, the clone had become far more popular than the original. Some might argue that AMD has achieved that type of status over the past year or so, but even though they have made significant gains, Intel still controls the PC processor market.

Back then I had a system containing both of those processors, consisting of a 1MHz (yes, that's 1, as in one megahertz!) 6502-based Apple II system with a Microsoft Softcard (Z-80 card) plugged into one of the slots. The Softcard contained a 2MHz Z-80 processor. This enabled me to run software for both processors on the one system. The Z-80 was used in systems of the late 1970s and early 1980s that ran the CP/M operating system, whereas the 6502 was best known for its use in the early Apple I and II computers (before the Mac).

The fate of both Intel and Microsoft was dramatically changed in 1981 when IBM introduced the IBM PC, which was based on a 4.77MHz Intel 8088 processor running the Microsoft Disk Operating System (MS-DOS) 1.0. Since that fateful decision was made to use an Intel processor in the first PC, subsequent PC-compatible systems have used a series of Intel or Intel-compatible processors, with each new one capable of running the software of the processor before it—from the 8088 to the current Pentium D/4/Celeron and Athlon XP/Athlon 64. The following sections cover the various types of processor chips that have been used in personal computers since the first PC was introduced almost two decades ago. These sections provide a great deal of technical detail about these chips and explain why one type of CPU chip can do more work than another in a given period of time.

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