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What Is a CPU Card?

A CPU card, also known as a processor card, is the electronic circuitry within a computer that executes instructions from programs, essentially the brain of the operation. It's where the magic of processing happens, turning code into actions. Intrigued by how this tiny card powers complex tasks? Discover the intricate dance of transistors that brings your digital world to life.
Alex Newth
Alex Newth

A central processing unit (CPU) card is a printed circuit board (PCB) that contains a CPU unit. Unlike a regular CPU, which connects via the computer’s motherboard, a CPU card connects to a backplane circuit board. This type of CPU is slightly harder to maintain but offers the advantage of being easily upgradeable or downgradeable, depending on the user’s needs and preferences. These cards are made more for computer enthusiasts than regular computer users and allow users to swap CPUs quicker than if a normal CPU were being used.

Normal CPUs are shaped as either a square chip or a small card. To install the CPU, the user opens up the computer and drops the CPU into the designated spot on the motherboard. The CPU is not made to move around much, if ever, and cannot be upgraded or downgraded easily. This type of CPU is found in most computers and requires little maintenance.

A dual core CPU mounted to a motherboard.
A dual core CPU mounted to a motherboard.

A CPU card performs all the same functions as the regular CPU, managing all processes, but the difference comes with the installation method and the continued used of the CPU. Unlike the normal CPU, a CPU card is installed via a backplane. A backplane is like a second motherboard, but it is meant for extra components rather than all the necessary components soldered onto the motherboard. Its installation on the backplane means a CPU card can be quickly removed and reinstalled.

A Central Processing Unit (CPU).
A Central Processing Unit (CPU).

Some CPU cards can be installed on the motherboard, but this is rare. One reason is that CPU cards are shaped differently and would not fit into most motherboards. The other reason is that, if the card is docked in the motherboard, it would be the same as having a regular CPU without the added benefit of easier upgrades.

The card itself contains the CPU unit and other piece of hardware. Skilled users can change the components on the card, but this is very difficult and requires that the card be changed entirely to use the new components. More often, an upgrade means the user removes the card and inserts a new one. CPU cards tend to be more susceptible to dust, because they are moved around more often, and have a slightly higher chance of burning out, but this is negligible.

The CPU card market is made up of two main audiences. The common computer user is not interested in changing his or her CPU or maximizing a computer’s efficiency to such a degree, so the CPU card market mostly deals with computer enthusiasts. A secondary customer for cards would be businesses looking to increase the power of its computers.

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Discussion Comments


@Melonlity -- Well, needing hardware for the sake of compatibility may have vanished, but CPU cards have not.

For example, a great use for one of these is installing a math coprocessor. For computers that crunch a lot of numbers, a math coprocessor can really lower the time it takes to do a bunch of calculations.


@Logicfest -- True, but some people with computers that are not PCs need PC compatibility. You don't need PC cards for that these days, though, because most CPUs are compatible. So, if you need PC compatibility, then you can buy a program that will allow you to run Microsoft Windows on the system you have.

In other words, software emulation and standardization have done away with the need of CPU cards almost completely.


CPU cards used to be a popular way to make a computer behave like it is another type of computer. Back when the IBM-PC was gaining a foothold on the market in the early 1980s, some users were reluctant because they couldn't use their "old" programs on those new computers.

The solution? Plug in a CPU card that would make the IBM behave like an Apple 2, CP/M based system or something else when the card was active.

So, what happened? The PC became the most dominant system on the planet and the need to make that platform compatible with other systems vanished.

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    • A dual core CPU mounted to a motherboard.
      A dual core CPU mounted to a motherboard.
    • A Central Processing Unit (CPU).
      By: Gudellaphoto
      A Central Processing Unit (CPU).