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The grey matter of a computer

The Central Processing Unit, also called the CPU or the Processor, is the generic term of the hardware in a computer which processes all the instructions given by the computer operator and enables various mathematical, intelligent and logic-oriented functions on the machine. Aptly, it is called the brain of a computer. This short essay examines the basic architecture and functions of the CPU. It also briefly delves into the technological advances which will determine the future of the CPU.

The first commercial CPU was introduced by Intel® in 1971. A CPU is a microprocessor which has three core components – the arithmetic logic unit or the ALU, the control unit or the CU, and the cache. The ALU is a digital circuit which actualizes all the mathematical and logical functions, while the CU is the centralized management system of the computer. When a computer is asked to perform a certain task, the command is stored in the input register of the ALU. The CU interprets and decodes this data in the input register and asks the ALU to perform a task accordingly. The completed task is then sent to the output register of the ALU. The CU converts it into signals which alert other components to actualize the task. The third component, the cache, is the memory hub where instructions are copied and retrieved at very high speeds.

Just as a person’s brain determines his performance, the CPU establishes a computer’s performance parameters. Practically all technological advancements aim at increasing the CPU speed. In this context, the speedier the Processor, the smarter is the computer. Clock rate, the basic unit of measuring CPU speed, is measured in cycles per second. So computer scientists are pushing the limits of this clock cycle in quest of ever-faster Processors. Along with increasing speed, a parallel thrust is also on producing greener CPUs which require lesser power to run them.

Computing is no more a static desktop or laptop function. With the advent of mobile computing, the present and next-generation CPUs have traversed to the extremely demanding speed requirements of on-the-go devices such as smart mobile phones, notebooks, gaming consoles, reading devices, and other infotainment gadgets. Along with speed, the range of functions is also increasing. Hence, future CPUs will be required to be not only super-fast, but also super-efficient and super-smart.