Many consider computer processors as the brain of a computing device, but in reality, these tiny little chips are glorified calculators which manipulate the data flow from the software.
The better these chips are at handling the instructions from the software, better will be the performance of a computing device, both in terms of speed and additional functionalities.
The switch from vacuum tubes to transistors and then to integrated circuits which contained millions and billions of tiny transistors changed the computing landscape for better, giving rise to affordable, high-performance processors which we currently use in high-performance gaming laptops and desktop computers.
In this article, we are taking a look back at where did it all started, right from the beginning.
We are sure you’ll find the story interesting and will make you wonder how far did we came forward from those large warehouse sized mainframe systems to today’s powerful palm-sized pocket computers.
Enough with the intro, let’s cut the chase and start with the subject right away!
A computer processor, generally known as a microprocessor is an electronic circuit which receives the input data from the software and outputs the processed information to various units of a computing system.
The Central Processing Unit (CPU), as we might have studied in our computer textbooks back in school as the brain of a computer, isn’t the only processor on board a computing system.
There can be multiple processors on a computer system, additional to the main processor such a graphics processor (GPU) which assists the processor in graphics related tasks for better performance in functions such as gaming and video rendering.
These processors and other components which drives the system are termed collectively as a SoC (System on a Chip).
Modern computer processors feature multiple cores, which are independent units within the processor handling the input and processing the instructions.
Also, read: Major Components of CPU
Basic Segments of a Modern Processor
There are two basic elements comprising a modern processor namely – Arithmetic Logic Unit (ALU) and a Control Unit (CU).
The Arithmetic Logic Unit (ALU) performs the basic mathematical and logical operations while the control unit (CU) fetches the instructions from the memory and executes them.
There are additional sections such as the registers and cache memories in the processor architecture. The registers stores the results of the operations done by the arithmetic logic unit.
The cache memory is a tiny amount of memory reserved for the processor to save frequent operations, thereby minimizing the time taken by the processor to fetch the data all the way from the system RAM.
Evolution Timeline of Microprocessors
Now that we have discussed what a computer processor is and the basic structure of the same, it’s time for us to get down the memory lane to know about the predecessors of these performance beasts.
The first ever commercially available microprocessor was the Intel 4004 developed by Intel and the Japanese calculator manufacturer Busicom, back in 1971.
Intel 4004 was primarily designed for use in low-performance devices such as calculators, automated teller machines etc.
It consisted of 2300 transistors and was capable of carrying out 92600 operations per second.
The Intel 8008 released in 1972 was the world’s first 8-bit microprocessor.
This processor came with 3500 transistors and found its use in computers, automated factory machines, and robots.
The Intel 8080 was released as a successor to the Intel 8008 in 1974 was one of the most popular microprocessors back in the glory days of computing history.
This 8-bit microprocessor came with 6000 transistors and was widely used in many microcomputers released during that time.
The next major leap in computing performance came with the 16-bit Intel 8086 processor and the slightly improved Intel 8088 which was released in 1979.
The Intel 8088 came with 29,000 transistors on board for faster-operating speeds. This processor was selected for use in IBM PCs, partly due to the economic and logistics reasons.
The Motorola 68000 was one of the high-performance microprocessors debuted in 1979.
This 16/32 bit processor was jokingly referred to as a mainframe on a chip by some, owing to its complexity and performance.
As the name suggests, the Motorola 68000 had 68000 transistors inside.
This processor was used in Apple Macintosh computers and certain Amiga models.
In 1987, Sun Microsystems introduced the first SPARC (Scalable Processor Architecture) based microprocessors.
These were used in high-performance computing environments such as mainframes.
Intel released the first Intel Pentium series processors in 1993. These processors had a whopping 3.1 million transistors on board and ran at a clock speed of 60Hz.
The first completely home-brewed AMD K5 microprocessor was introduced in 1996.
Foreseeing the future of mobile computing, Intel released the Celeron series microprocessors in 2000, primarily for use in laptop computers.
IBM was the first company to introduce multi-core processors, but it was Intel and AMD with their Pentium D and Athlon 64 x2 respectively released in 2005 made it popular with the personal computers.
In 2008 Intel released the first Atom series single-core microprocessors to be used in low-cost notebook PCs.
These Atom series processors came with an integrated GPU to assist the processor in graphics-intensive tasks.
AMD released their first mobile-centric processors in 2011 and came with the term Accelerated Processing Units (APU).
The first Ryzen series processors were unveiled by AMD back in 2017. These processors competed for neck and neck with similarly priced Intel processors.
Ryzen series processors perform better in laptops priced under Rs.40,000 than competing Intel chips and is priced considerably cheaper.
In 2017, Intel also developed a 12-core desktop CPU for high-performance mobile computing purposes. Later Intel also released an 18-core processor.
The first Core i9 processor for laptops was released in 2018. These processors have unlocked versions, giving the users an option to overclock them for more aggressive performance.
Graphical Processing Units
When we say the term processors, we generally refer to the main computing unit inside the CPU.
But there are a lot of custom purpose processors for specific use cases used within a computing system, which results in enhanced performance.
In this section, let’s briefly discuss the graphical processing units.
Earlier, there were no separate graphical processing units for manipulating image data on computers.
This was primarily because of two reasons – most of the computers ran text-based operating systems, or the available GUI was in 2D and sufficient enough to be manipulated by the existing processor.
As time passed by, the use of graphical user interface (GUI) became standard for operating systems and the number of graphical elements used across the UI increased significantly.
Also, the newer video codecs and games needed much more share of the computing resources which the processor was not able to allot, leading to bottlenecked performance.
This is where integrated GPUs and later dedicated graphics processors came to the scene.
These graphics processors take the load of manipulating pixels away from the mainstream processor and improves the performance of the machine significantly.
Processor statistics in numbers – A glimpse of Past and Present
|Year of Release||Processor||No. of Transistors||Clock Speed|
|1971||Intel 4004||2300||740 KHz|
|1972||Intel 8008||6000||800 KHz|
|1978||Intel 8086||29000||5 MHz|
|1993||Intel Pentium||3.1 million||50 MHz|
|2000||Intel Pentium 4||42 million||1.5 GHz|
|2017||AMD Ryzen||4.2 billion||4.4 GHz|
Graph 1 Year wise increment in Processor clock frequencies
Graph 2 Year wise increment in the number of transistors in the Processor
Size of Transistors in the Processors over the Years
|Year||Size of Transistors in µm|
Graph 3 Year wise decrease in transistor sizes inside the Processor
Microprocessors have come along way from its recent past, both in terms of design and performance perspectives.
The Apollo Guidance Computer ran off a 2.048 MHz processor which took the first man on to the surface of the Moon, back in 1969. Compare that with the power of your smartphone in which you’re probably reading this article.
The size of the transistors is yet to come down and the number of these tiny little things that are being crammed inside the chips are going to increase, resulting in much more faster and better performing computing machines.
We hope this article helped you to know at least a little about how far we have come across in terms of processor technology since the dawn of the computer revolution.
Thanks for your time on our website and we wish you a fantastic day ahead!