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What is MIPS?

MIPS, or the Million Instructions Per Second, is a measure of a computer's processing speed, reflecting how many calculations it can perform in a single second. This metric helps gauge a machine's raw computational power. But how does this translate to real-world performance, and what are its limitations? Join us as we unravel the true significance of MIPS in computing.
M. McGee
M. McGee

MIPS is an abbreviation for two different computing terms; millions of instructions per second and microprocessor without interlocking pipeline stages. The first use is a common method of determining a computer’s processor speed. Generally, the more MIPS it can perform, the faster it operates. The second use is for a specific type of microprocessor that is common in some computers and embedded systems made from the early 80s onward. This system is a variety of reduced instruction set computer (RISC), a design that reduces the complexity of its processor in order to speed up the system.

The millions of instructions per second version of MIPS is generally the more common version. The speed of a processor is often expressed in this value, so any sort of benchmarking sites or ads for the chip will typically have a MIPS rating. While this information is interesting, it is rarely as descriptive as processor manufacturers want users to believe.

Woman doing a handstand with a computer
Woman doing a handstand with a computer

There are a huge range of things that can influence the speed at which a processor performs calculations. Factors outside the processor can influence the speed and type of instructions given; this, in turn, changes the speed at which the processes are executed. In addition, when two processors of different architectures are compared, the actual MIPS rating is nearly meaningless.

The MIPS rating for home computers has come a long way since its early stages. In the 1970s, most computers operated between .5 and 1 million instructions per second. During the 80s and 90s, this number increased to over 1,200. In the following 10 years, the instruction speed has gone as high as 140,000, although most home computers are 60 to 70,000.

The second common meaning for MIPS is a specific kind of microprocessor. This meaning is less known among the public, but it is very common in some engineering fields. A MIPS processor is a basic RISC system. These processors have several of the more complex functions removed in order to increase their raw processing power. The basic idea is that they can operate faster without the additional functionality interrupting them.

These chips were used heavily throughout the 80s for desktop systems. This came to an abrupt halt when Microsoft® announced that its operating system would no longer support a wide range of RISC chips. While other operating systems still used RISC technology, MIPS moved into embedded systems.

Embedded systems are small built-in computers that run advanced gadgets and devices, such as gaming consoles, telephones and car computer systems. The MIPS processor is well-suited to this sort of design, as it is already whittled down to the essentials. Many embedded systems manufacturers found that these chips could be used in their systems with little modification.

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