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processor (CPU)

Contributor(s): Matthew Haughn

A processor is the logic circuitry that responds to and processes the basic instructions that drive a computer. The four primary functions of a processor are fetch, decode, execute and writeback.

The basic elements of a processor:

The arithmetic logic unit (ALU), which carries out arithmetic and logic operations on the operands in instructions

The floating point unit (FPU), also known as a math coprocessor or numeric coprocessor, a specialized coprocessor that manipulates numbers more quickly than the basic microprocessor circuitry can.

Registers, which hold instructions and other data. Registers supply operands to the ALU and store the results of operations.

L1 and L2 cache memory. Their inclusion in the CPU saves time compared to having to get data from random access memory (RAM).

Most processors today are multi-core, which means that the IC contains two or more processors for enhanced performance, reduced power consumption and more efficient simultaneous processing of multiple tasks (see: parallel processing). Multi-core set-ups are similar to having multiple, separate processors installed in the same computer, but because the processors are actually plugged into the same socket, the connection between them is faster. 

The term processor is used interchangeably with the term central processing unit (CPU), although strictly speaking, the CPU is not the only processor in a computer. The GPU (graphics processing unit) is the most notable example but the hard drive and other devices within a computer also perform some processing independently. Nevertheless, the term processor is generally understood to mean the CPU.

The processor in a personal computer or embedded in small devices is often called a microprocessor. That term simply means that the processor's elements are contained on a single integrated circuitry (IC) chip.

The two main competitors in the processor market are Intel and AMD.

The KMedia channel provides an introduction to CPUs:

This was last updated in September 2016

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