Part of the Computing fundamentals glossary:

An instruction set is a group of commands for a CPU in machine language. The term can refer to all possible instructions for a CPU or a subset of instructions to enhance its performance in certain situations.

All CPUs have instruction sets that enable commands to the processor directing the CPU to switch the relevant transistors. Some instructions are simple read, write and move commands that direct data to different hardware.

In CISC (Complex Instruction Set Computer) processors there is also a microcode layer, which involves programmable instructions stored in fast memory that may be updated. The RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computer) architecture, on the other hand, has hard-wired control; it does not require microcode but has a greater base instruction set.

Enhancement instruction sets are more familiar to users as they have often been used in marketing a given CPU. Examples of this go back to the Pentium 166Mhz with MMX technologies marketed for enhancing Intel CPU multimedia performance.

MMX stands for MultiMedia eXtenstions, and refers to the extended instruction set. Other examples include MMX+, 3DNow!, 3DNow!+, SSE, SSE2, SSSE3, SSE4.1, SSE4A, AVX, AVX2 and XOP.

This was last updated in February 2014
Contributor(s): Matthew Haughn
Posted by: Margaret Rouse

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