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What the Heck is Inside My Computer? – Part 4 – CPU

CPU – there’s a term that gets mangled on a regular basis. Most people seem to think the “box” part of the computer is the “CPU”. Truth is, if that’s you, you’ve been living a lie. That “box” actually IS the computer. The CPU lives deep inside it.

Your CPU (Central Processing Unit – or “processor”) is located under the big fan on your motherboard and it can be described as your computer’s “brain”. Every action you take on your computer – from the smallest mouse movement to writing your memoirs to editing that photo of aunt Edna in a bikini – are controlled by the CPU. Nothing happens in your computer without your CPU getting involved. Check out our video to see what a CPU looks like out of a computer. (Psst – we’ll also show you how it connects to the motherboard, what the fan does, and more – a must-watch!)


For what it does, it’s amazingly small – In fact, the circuits are so small you need an electron microscope just to see them! Curious how CPU manufacture’s pull this off? Then check out this amazing video we discovered on YouTube from AMD. They show you in step by step detail how a CPU is created. It really worth the watch – it’s borderline science fiction!

Since the CPU is the brains of the outfit, it’s the primary item we compare and contrast when we’re discussing the digital horsepower of computers. Think about it – what’s the first thing that gets bragged about on the list of features for that new computer you’ve been eyeballin’? The processor, right? See the side note below for a little more information about speed comparisons.

The speed of the processor is actually as mind-blowing as its size. A 1Mhz processor (think 1980s) can run 1 million CPU cycles per second. Current processors rate in the Ghz range, and easily run billions of CPU cycles per second! When you consider they seem to get smaller and smaller each year, words like “impressive” and “incredible” do tend to bubble up, don’t they?

Of course, if one processor is good, two must be better right? And if 2 is good, then what about 4 or 6? BRUHAHAHAH! Most current processors have more than one core, and each core is a separate processor. The previous generation of Core2 Duo chips from Intel sported either 2 or 4 cores, and some current Intel i7 core and AMD Phenom chips boast a whoppin’ 6 cores! That’s like having 6 computers doing the work – but it comes with a catch.

If the applications – and in some cases the operating systems – using these chips aren’t programmed to utilize the extra cores, you may find you’re only running on a single core for some tasks (albeit a fast one). The good news is if you’re using a modern computer (Windows XP – Service Pack 2 or better, Vista & Win 7) the only potential bottleneck is your individual applications. Some will utilize multiple cores, others won’t.

Of course, we could write a book or two about CPUs – the amount of detail and engineering is tremendous – but the bottom line is this: Think of your CPU as your computer’s brain. Got it? Now you know!

Side Note – What Processor Is Faster???

Don’t you HATE trying to pick out a new PC? It’s sometimes impossible to tell what processor is faster.

Used to be, you just picked the one with the highest number – it was the fastest. Alas, no more…

Unfortunately over the years the waters have become so muddied when it comes to processor speed and the way it’s measured keeping up with it is a full time job. You have different architectures, different numbers of cores (each core in your CPU is a separate processor), different cache sizes (fast memory built into the CPU itself) and different speeds. Two processors may appear to have the same speed, but because of a difference in cores, cache, or the way the chip is built (agriculture), one chip runs significantly faster than the other.

Recently Intel tried to make things easier and I think they’ve succeeded. Currently in their line you have a choice between different speed i3, i5 and i7 core processors. Generally speaking, the higher the number, the faster the processor.

For most people the i5 cores are about ideal, especially if you get a 64 bit system (most are now) with 4GB of RAM.

From low to high for AMD – it’s the Sempron, then Athlon (and Athlon x2, then the Athlon II), then the Phenom, and top line Phenom II – at least as of this writing. See why it gets confusing?