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What is Computer Processing?

By Ray Hawk
Updated: May 16, 2024

Computer processing is an action or series of actions that a microprocessor, also known as a central processing unit (CPU), in a computer performs when it receives information. The CPU is a type of electronic “brain” for a computer system, and it executes a series of instructions that are fed to it by software programs installed onto a computer’s hard drive and loaded into random access memory (RAM). Though modern computer systems have become much faster and more complex than their earlier counterparts, they still perform the same basic type of computer processing.

At their very basic level of function, CPUs are made up of an array of transistors that through a series of binary electrical states of 1s and 0s — or "on" and "off" states — perform mathematical and logical operations that together add up to computer processing capability. The instructions fed to a CPU by a software program alter the states of these transistors to perform calculations for the software program. These results are then usually fed back to RAM memory for use by the software program.

There are four distinct states that processing goes through in order to produce meaningful data output for any program. These states are commonly referred to as fetch, decode, execute and writeback. Fetch is the first state, in which the computer accesses its memory to retrieve instructions, which are always a series of numbers represented by binary code. Binary code is an eight-bit series of digits — strings of 1s and 0s — that together represent one “byte” of data.

After fetching these instructions, computer processing decodes them. That is, the instructions are now broken up into meaningful parts or series of bytes by the CPU’s control unit (CU). These instructions are then executed by the CU.

When the instructions are complex mathematical calculations, the CPU draws on its arithmetic logic unit (ALU) to execute them. In the final computer processing step, a writeback of the data occurs. It is channeled back into computer memory for use by the software program, or it can be stored in memory registers within the CPU itself for later use by the program.

These four processing steps cycle through the CPU continuously, as long as a software program is loaded into memory and is running in the computer itself. These cycles of processing power by CPUs are continuously increasing in speed as computer systems become more advanced, with computers now capable of gigahertz processing cycles. One gigahertz cycle of computer processing is the equivalent of 1 billion instruction sets performed by the CPU every second.

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Discussion Comments
By anon999569 — On Feb 03, 2018

Most important concepts perfectly clarified. Thanks!

By bythewell — On Jan 15, 2015

@Fa5t3r - The majority are never going to be able to utilize any technological advance to its fullest, because they will always either be experts in their own field or generalists. The amazing thing about the computers we have these days is that they can help people in very specific ways in very diverse fields.

So, yes, we do have a lot of people playing games on advanced hardware, but we also have scientists writing words with individual atoms, or calculating engineering feats that were previously impossible, or making art so detailed that it can't be distinguished from reality.

The same person who uses a computer to research DNA and build cures at work will go home and post pictures of her cat on the internet. Computer hardware is so amazing because its power is so versatile.

By Fa5t3r — On Jan 15, 2015

@Mor - Actually, that kind of makes me feel a bit ashamed of the human race. We have massive computer processing speed even in the most basic of home devices and yet we don't use it for anything except to play games and post pictures of our pets and babies.

I think it's kind of embarrassing how little we use the amazing gifts that previous generations have made for us.

By Mor — On Jan 14, 2015

I love reading articles where they compare how much computer processing power has increased over the last few decades with what it used to be. My favorite fact is that the amount of computer processing in the computers used in the moon landing mission is the equivalent of what you might find in a scientific calculator these days, which is the kind of calculator that kids have at high school.

I think that really says something about human ingenuity. Not only that we managed to augment our abilities by so much recently, but that we were capable of landing on the moon even when we had nowhere near the same power.

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