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What is a Central Processing Unit?

By Jacob Queen
Updated May 16, 2024
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A central processing unit is generally the most important component in a computer system. It is primarily responsible for the lion's share of the computation and data handling that go on inside a computer. The only common exceptions are certain graphics-related calculations, which are commonly handled by additional processing units installed on video cards. The central processing unit is the main component on a computer that determines how fast a system runs.

There are several ways to measure the speed of a central processing unit. One of the most common methods used is called clock speed. On a fundamental level, a computer processor basically receives charges of electricity and uses them to make computations. Every time it receives an electrical charge and processes it, that is called a clock cycle. If the processor does this very quickly, then it has a fast clock speed. In general, clock speed is measured in gigahertz, which means that they can usually do this billions of times per second.

Clock speed measurement doesn’t take into account the efficiency of a processor. Some processors have lower gigahertz ratings, but they use their cycles more efficiently and actually deliver more speed in real-life use. Other measurements, like examining instructions per second or mathematical calculation speeds, can often give a user a better picture of how the processor will perform when compared to others.

Some processors are made so that they have multiple execution cores. This means that the overall speed of the processor is divided up so that it can essentially multi-task. In some cases, a multi-core system is described as being similar to having two processors, and in terms of functionality, that is generally somewhat accurate. When using a system with multiple cores, a user will often find that the system can run more software simultaneously without difficulty. The technology for multi-core processors continues improving to allow for more cores on a single chip.

Central processing unit speed has been one of the main areas of computer technological improvements. With nearly every new generation, the central processing units become much faster, and they often add additional functionality. At times, the speed of technological improvements for processors has been so rapid that consumers have had difficulty keeping pace with manufacturers. Most people don’t necessarily need a system with the most hardcore cutting edge processor, so the earliest adopters may include people like gamers or those with jobs that require the use of especially demanding software.

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Discussion Comments
By LisaLou — On Sep 26, 2012

@golf07-- I like to keep up with computers that have a fast processing speed as well. I used to use the computers in the business section at a hotel, but have found these are usually extremely slow. I find myself getting very impatient waiting for pages to load.

They probably don't have very fast processing units in these public computers. My dad has a computer that is over 7 years old and he still uses it for sending emails and general web surfing.

He figures as long as it still works, it doesn't need to be replaced. If he spent much time on my computer, he would probably go out and buy a new one in a hurry.

I don't replace my computer every time they come out with one that has a faster central processing unit, but I also like to have something that has at least more than one processor working at one time.

By golf07 — On Sep 25, 2012

I generally buy a new computer every 2-3 years and have been amazed at the changes in the computer processing units through the years. The last computer I bought had a dual-core processor that was faster than anything else I had before.

Now some of the newer computer models have quad processors. With my next computer, I will probably get one that has an even faster processing speed than I have now. I do a lot of multi-tasking on my computer, so it is important that the computer keeps up with what I am trying to accomplish.

As I keep getting computers with faster processing units, it is really hard to use another computer somewhere else that doesn't have this speed. You can get really spoiled with the faster processing in a big hurry.

By anon151624 — On Feb 10, 2011

nice article. thanks.

By anon116968 — On Oct 08, 2010

Very helpful. This website gives the essential basic over view.

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