Over the next few months, this blog will be dedicated to an educational series designed to give our readers an opportunity to learn more about how computers function without getting burdened with highly technical details. In today’s installment, we will be discussing the central processing unit, or CPU.

The CPU is one of the most essential components of any computer system, be it a laptop, tablet, phone, desktop, or any other similar system. It is the “headquarters,” if you will, of all data processing in a computer. Recall that a computer can be thought of as a highly complex calculator, translating everything you do inside your operating system (OS) into binary mathematics problems that can be solved very quickly by complex circuits. The CPU is the part of the computer where almost all of these calculations take place, so it is an essential player in the overall speed and power of your computer! So how does it work?

Obviously, the highly complex details of chip design are beyond the scope of this blog, but there certainly some topics we can explore through analogy. Imagine your computer is a team entered in a math competition. The goal of the competition is to solve as many math problems in the shortest period of time possible, so each member of the team gets some scratch paper to write on as a steady stream of problems is sent to them by the moderators. The number of members on your team represent the number of cores in your CPU, that is, the number of discrete data processors available. The more competitors on your team, the more problems can be solved at once. The speed at which each member of the team can solve a problem is a symbol for the CPU’s clock speed, which is how fast each core is processing data, usually measured in GHz. The paper on which each competitor writes is a rough equivalent to CPU cache, the relatively small but incredibly fast to access space where data is temporarily stored as a system of equations is solved by a core. As illustrated by this example, it is not necessarily objectively better to have faster cores if there are only a few of them, nor is it always better to have several slow cores; rather, a balance between the two is ideal for most consumer workloads. This becomes more complex when you consider that not all programs give all cores an even amount of work to do. Parallel processing has only begun to appear in videogames and similarly demanding tasks in recent years, though it has had a profoundly positive impact on the performance of those programs.

We will now set this analogy behind us as we explore a few other items that are essential to understanding modern CPUs. Hyper-threading, a proprietary technology of one of the two CPU manufacturing giants, Intel Corporation (their main competitor being Advanced Micro Devices, or AMD), allows one physical core to act as two “logical cores,” essentially doubling the number of threads, or lines of commands, that the CPU can process at once. This feature, at least on Intel’s mainstream processor lineup, is exclusive to their i7 processors. AMD is rumored to be including a similar technology in their upcoming Zen CPU architecture.

Another important factor in CPU technology is cooling solutions. If you opened your computer and looked inside, you would see that your CPU is covered by a quite substantial cooling unit, often a large copper or aluminum block with a fan pushing air through it. CPUs kick out a lot of waste heat, although they have become more power efficient in recent years. Even still, a dysfunctional or inadequate CPU cooler can lead to major system problems, including the computer not booting or showing an overheating error message.

To summarize, the CPU is the main “brain” of the computer, handling the vast majority of calculations your programs send out for processing. They are one of the most important factors in how fast your computer runs, with more cores and faster clock speeds making the computer substantially more powerful. They need efficient cooling solutions to keep everything running smoothly, and problems with the CPU generally lead to system failure.

If you are interested in upgrading your CPU, or if you suspect that it may be overheating or encountering other issues, feel free to bring your computer to one of Geek ABC’s drop off locations, give us a call, or email us at customercare@geekabc.net! Our technicians are more than happy to address whatever issues your computer might be facing. Thanks for reading, and be sure to check back for next month’s installment in “How Does My Computer Work?”.   

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