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article imageChips And Processors: The Brain Of Modern Computers

By Bjoern Brodersen     Apr 4, 2001 in Technology
FELDKIRCHEN, Germany (dpa) - What do a computer and a coffeemaker have in common? Both have a chip inside to make them do what they do.

It's at the root of the reason why choosing the right chip is such an important part of choosing a computer - and not getting something with a coffee machine function.

Yet one look at the overflowing offerings of computer stores and departments leaves many potential buyers confused and asking themselves what exactly a chip is and what exactly it can do.

"Basically all semiconductors are chips," explains Christian Anderka from chip giant Intel. "The rules of logic dictate what the chip can ultimately do."

Each individual chip is only as big as a thumbnail, even though chips are produced in larger plates. These silicon plates, upon which the processors are given space, are called wafers.

The microprocessor itself is built onto the wafer in layers with the help of chemicals, gases, and light in a process that requires around 250 different steps.

Chips are then cut out individually using a diamond saw and packaged separately into a protective covering. This shielding does not completely encapsulate the processor, but instead leaves a link for the processor to be connected to the other computer components.

Microprocessors are the brains of a computer, but they can also give "intelligence" to other devices, such as the speed dial option on a telephone.

A microprocessor is a switch circuit that holds thousands or even millions of transistors that are connected to each other. The transistors save and manipulate information so that the processor can carry out specific functions. These functions are dictated to the processor through individual pieces of software.

The first microprocessor from Intel, the 4004 model from 1971, contained some 2,250 transistors. Today's latest Pentium processor has 42 million transistors.

"The processor carries out the computational operations of the PC," explains Jens Drews from Advanced Micro Devices' Saxony manufacturing plant in Dresden, Germany.

Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) is Intel's biggest competitor and has been for over a decade. "One sees that the higher the clock speed, the more efficient the processor - and usually the computer as well," says Drews.

The term "clock speed" denotes how many computational cycles the computer can perform per second; a Gigahertz indicates one billion computations.

In addition to the computation and control work, the processor also controls a register that allows for the temporary storage of data.

Yet the capabilities of a PC do not depend solely on clock speed, but also on how well the processor is tuned to the other components in the computer.

A high clock speed means little to a graphic artist if he or she doesn't also have a good graphics card and plenty of random access memory (RAM).

Furthermore, the different megahertz (MHz) numbers for chips from different manufacturers don't always tell the full story about a chip's power.

"This numbers means very little to the end customer anymore," says Christof Windeck of computer magazine "c't."

This is why on some tests, for example, Intel's Pentium IV processor, with a maximum clock speed of 1500 Mhz, comes out behind the ostensibly slower AMD Athlon, with its maximum clock speed 1200 Mhz.

"They aren't really light years apart from one another, though," says Windeck. A more important comparison between different models can be gleaned from the so-called benchmarks, which are comprised of tests of specific processor functions.

For computers, the Microsoft-compatible processors of Intel and AMD make up about 90 per cent of the market, according to AMD spokesman Drews. The development of processor speed has shot ahead enormously in the past year, from 500 MHz to over a Gigahertz.

Gigahertz figures are simply not important for home users, counters "c't" editor Windeck. Good graphic cards also contain many unbelievably quick functions that even computer game fans don't often need.

The vast majority of games are oriented towards the technical capabilities of the current standard PC models. Nevertheless, the manufacturers are going after even more computing power and aim at crossing the two Gigahertz threshold in the coming year.

"We'll stop only when the PC becomes as user friendly as we think it should be," explains Intel press spokesman Anderka. "We are still far away from having an intuitive PC and we need more computing power to get there."

Beyond that, the responsibilities of computers are getting more and more extravagant, claims Anderka. The conversion of musical data into the MP3 format or non-linear video editing with a digital it is important that the buyer be clear beforehand about what activities the computer will have to perform.
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