A math coprocessor is a computer chip that handles the floating point operations and mathematical computations in a computer. In early PCs, this chip was separate and often optional, and it was primarily used in computers where Computer Aided Design (CAD) was the primary focus. In today’s computers, it is generally built into the CPU, allowing the central processor to offshore the mathematical computations to this chip. This helps the CPU maintain more processes at one time.
Applications on a PC, like a CAD program or even a spreadsheet, that deal with floating point units (FPUs) and calculations relay on this coprocessor to assist in performing these calculations. This leaves the CPU more available for operating system tasks and overall PC management.
The math coprocessor can be compared to a computer’s graphics processing unit (GPU), a separate card that handles graphics rendering and can improve performance in graphics intensive applications, like games. The coprocessor, though neither as costly nor as noticeable in most PCs, is the workhorse of the chipset for mathematical computations. Considering that the majority of a computer’s actions are mathematical or binary, it plays a very important role, even though it is typically unseen or unnoticed by any computer user.
Because newer computers include this component as part of the CPU, its actions are not visible other than through overall CPU monitoring. While still optional, the fact that it is a part of the overall CPU does aid performance because programs that can make use of these functions will do so without user intervention. Comparing the performance of a spreadsheet on two computers, one with and one without a math coprocessor, should show considerable improvement in performance where the chip is present, assuming that the CPU chip speeds are the same.