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Characteristics of a

Microprocessor

The microprocessor is the defining


trait of a computer, so it is
important to understand the
characteristics used to describe
microprocessors.
This module provides an
introduction to these
characteristics.

Clock speed
Also called clock rate, the clock speed
is the speed at which a
microprocessor executes instructions.
Every computer contains an internal
clock that regulates the rate at which
instructions are executed and
synchronizes all the various computer
components.

The faster the clock, the more


instructions the microprocessor can
execute per second. The
microprocessor requires a fixed number
of clock ticks (or clock cycles) to
execute each instruction.
Clock speed is stated in either MHz or
GHz. 1 MHz is equal to 1 million cycles
per second, while 1 GHz is equal to 1
billion cycles per second.

At the present time the most


common microprocessors run from
1.8 GHz (1.8 billion cycles per
second) to 3.2 GHz (3.2 billion
cycles per second.

Clock speed is a major factor in determining


the power of a computer.

Instruction Set
The possible operations a
microprocessor can performs is based
on its instruction set. Programs are
written for a microprocessor based on
its instruction set. For example, the
SIMP computer understands 10
instructions, and any program written
for it uses those ten instructions in
various ways to accomplish some
surprisingly complicated tasks.

Meanwhile, advanced processors can


have from 150 to over 200 instructions,
allowing for extremely complicated tasks.
Since software is written with the
instruction set in mind, sometimes a
larger instruction set will equal better
performance. For example, one
difference between Pentium 4 and
Pentium 5 is that Pentium 5 has a larger
instruction set.

When comparing a 2GHz Pentium 4


and 2GHz Pentium 5, if they both run
software designed with the new
instruction set in mind, the Pentium 5
will outperform the Pentium 4, despite
having the same clock speed.
However, if the two are compared
while running older software, which
does not use the new instructions,
their performance will be similar.

Cache
Most programs access the same
information repeatedly while running.
Cache memory is intended to take
advantage of this fact. Memory cache is a
high speed storage mechanism that holds
recently read data and instructions from
main memory, which eliminates the
processor from having to constantly access
main memory.

The program first checks the cache to


see if the desired information is already
present there. If it is, the cache sends the
information back to the microprocessor,
bypassing the main memory.
95% of the time the processor is working,
it is accessing information from cache.
There are two kinds of cache, L1 and L2.

L1 cache (also called primary cache)


is built directly into the
microprocessor, a location referred
to as "on-die". Since it is "on-die", it
is part of the microprocessor and, is
usually smaller in size than L2
cache, but since it is built in it runs
at the same speed as the processor.

L2 cache (also called secondary cache)


is not usually built into microprocessor,
but it is found within the processor's
external packaging. This location is
referred to as, "off-die." Since "off-die"
L2 cache is not included in the
processor's architecture, it can often be
of greater sizes. However, since it is
not included on-die, L2 cache is usually
slower than L1 cache.

Bus Speed
The processor communicates with other
devices via the data bus, sometimes
called the front side bus. Bus speed is
measured in MHz, the same unit used
to measure clock speed. While a
processor might be working at up to 3
GHz, quite often the performance of the
computer is hampered by a slower data
bus speed.

Recently much effort has been put


into making the data bus have
speeds more comparable to the
microprocessor.
At the present time data bus speeds
range from 200 MHz up to 1GHz.