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CPU Operating Voltages

One trend that is clear to anybody who has been following processor design is that the operating voltages have gotten lower and lower. The benefits of lower voltage are threefold. The most obvious is that with lower voltage comes lower overall power consumption. By consuming less power, the system is less expensive to run, but more importantly for portable or mobile systems, it runs much longer on existing battery technology. The emphasis on battery operation has driven many of the advances in lowering processor voltage because this has a great effect on battery life.

The second major benefit is that with less voltage and therefore less power consumption, less heat is produced. Processors that run cooler can be packed into systems more tightly and last longer.

The third major benefit is that a processor running cooler on less power can be made to run faster. Lowering the voltage has been one of the key factors in enabling the clock rates of processors to go higher and higher. This is because the lower the voltage, the shorter the time needed to change a signal from low to high.

Until the release of the mobile Pentium and both desktop and mobile Pentium MMX, most processors used a single voltage level to power both the core as well as run the input/output circuits. Originally, most processors ran both the core and I/O circuits at 5V, which was later reduced to 3.5V or 3.3V to lower power consumption. When a single voltage is used for both the internal processor core power as well as the external processor bus and I/O signals, the processor is said to have a single or unified power plane design.

When originally designing a version of the Pentium processor for mobile or portable computers, Intel came up with a scheme to dramatically reduce the power consumption while still remaining compatible with the existing 3.3V chipsets, bus logic, memory, and other components. The result was a dual-plane or split-plane power design in which the processor core ran off a lower voltage while the I/O circuits remained at 3.3V. This originally was called voltage reduction technology (VRT) and first debuted in the Mobile Pentium processors released in 1996. Later, this dual-plane power design also appeared in desktop processors such as the Pentium MMX, which used 2.8V to power the core and 3.3V for the I/O circuits. Now most recent processors, whether for mobile or desktop use, feature a dual-plane power design. Some of the more recent Mobile Pentium II processors run on as little as 1.6V for the core while still maintaining compatibility with 3.3V components for I/O.

Knowing the processor voltage requirements is not a big issue with Socket 8, Socket 370, Socket 478, Socket A, Socket 604, Socket 754, Socket 940, Pentium Pro (Socket 8), or Pentium II (Slot 1 or Slot 2) processors because these sockets and slots have special VID pins the processor uses to signal to the motherboard the exact voltage requirements. This enables the voltage regulators built into the motherboard to be automatically set to the correct voltage levels by merely installing the processor.

Unfortunately, this automatic voltage setting feature was not available on Super7, Socket 7, and earlier motherboard and processor designs. Therefore, you usually must set jumpers or otherwise configure the motherboard according to the voltage requirements of the processor you are installing. Pentium (Socket 4, 5, or 7) processors have run on a number of voltages, but the most recent MMX versions all use 2.8V—except for mobile Pentium processors, which are as low as 1.8V. Table 3.19 lists the voltage settings used by Intel Pentium (non-MMX) Socket 7 processors that use a single power plane and a dual power plane. A single power plane means that both the CPU core and the I/O pins run at the same voltage, whereas a dual power plane means that the core and I/O voltage values are different.

Table 3.19. Socket 7 Single- and Dual-Plane Processor Voltages

View Table

Generally, the acceptable range is plus or minus 5% from the nominal intended setting.

Most Socket 7 and later Pentium motherboards supply several voltages (such as 2.5V, 2.7V, 2.8V, and 2.9V) for compatibility with future devices. A voltage regulator built into the motherboard converts the power supply voltage into the various levels the processor core requires. Check the documentation for your motherboard and processor to find the appropriate settings.

The Pentium Pro and Pentium II processors were the first to automatically determine their voltage settings by controlling the motherboard-based voltage regulator through built-in VID pins. Those are explained in more detail later in this chapter.

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See "Pentium Pro Processors," p. 134.

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See "Pentium II Processors," p. 138.

Note that on the STD or VRE settings, the core and I/O voltages are the same; these are single-plane voltage settings. Any time a voltage other than STD or VRE is set, the motherboard defaults to a dual-plane voltage setting where the core voltage can be specifically set, while the I/O voltage remains constant at 3.3V no matter what.

Socket 5 was designed to supply only STD or VRE settings, so any processor that can work at those settings can work in Socket 5 as well as Socket 7. Older Socket 4 designs can supply only 5V, and they have a completely different pinout (fewer pins overall), so using a processor designed for Socket 7 or Socket 5 in Socket 4 is not possible.

Most Socket 7 and later Pentium motherboards supply several voltages (such as 2.2V, 2.4V, 2.5V, 2.7V, 2.8V, and 2.9V as well as the older STD or VRE settings) for compatibility with many processors. A voltage regulator built into the motherboard converts the power supply voltage into the various levels required by the processor core. Check the documentation for your motherboard and processor to find the appropriate settings.

Starting with the Pentium Pro, all newer processors automatically determine their voltage settings by controlling the motherboard-based voltage regulator. That's done through built-in VID pins.

For hotrodding purposes, many newer motherboards for these processors have override settings that allow for manual voltage adjustment if desired. Many people have found that when attempting to overclock a processor, increasing the voltage by a tenth of a volt or so often helps. Of course, this increases the heat output of the processor and must be accounted for with adequate heatsinking and case cooling.

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