A processor is a piece of hardware that interprets the instructions that drive a computer. Processors are the brains of a computer with good reason. Without a processor, computers could not run programs.[1]

Processors are found in many modern electronic devices, including PCs, smartphones, tablets, and other handheld devices. Their purpose is to receive input in the form of program instructions and execute trillions of calculations to provide the output that the user will interface with. A processor includes an arithmetical logic and control unit (CU), which measures capability in terms of the following:

  • Ability to process instructions at a given time.
  • Maximum number of bits/instructions.
  • Relative clock speed.

Every time that an operation is performed on a computer, such as when a file is changed or an application is open, the processor must interpret the operating system or software’s instructions. Depending on its capabilities, the processing operations can be quicker or slower, and have a big impact on what is called the “processing speed” of the CPU.

Each processor is constituted of one or more individual processing units called “cores”. Each core processes instructions from a single computing task at a certain speed, defined as “clock speed” and measured in gigahertz (GHz). Since increasing clock speed beyond a certain point became technically too difficult, modern computers now have several processor cores (dual-core, quad-core, etc.). They work together to process instructions and complete multiple tasks at the same time.

Modern desktop and laptop computers now have a separate processor to handle graphic rendering and send output to the display monitor device. Since this processor, the GPU, is specifically designed for this task, computers can handle all applications that are especially graphic-intensive such as video games more efficiently.

A processor is made of four basic elements: the arithmetic logic unit (ALU), the floating point unit (FPU), registers, and the cache memories. The ALU and FPU carry basic and advanced arithmetic and logic operations on numbers, and then results are sent to the registers, which also store instructions. Caches are small and fast memories that store copies of data for frequent use, and act similarly to a random access memory (RAM).

The CPU carries out his operations through the three main steps of the instruction cycle: fetch, decode, and execute.

  • Fetch: the CPU retrieves instructions, usually from a RAM.
  • Decode: a decoder converts the instruction into signals to the other components of the computer.
  • Execute: the now decoded instructions are sent to each component so that the desired operation can be performed.[2]

RAM Vs. Processor[3]

  • RAM stands for Random Access Memory (RAM), and is used as a short-term memory storage space for the computer to place data it’s currently working on so it’s easily accessible. The more RAM a computer has, the more data it can usually juggle at any given moment. Think of RAM as a workspace: A giant workbench is obviously easier to work at than a tiny tea tray would be. While more RAM can be good, there are limits to the benefit of adding more RAM. One restriction is physical; your motherboard can only hold a certain amount of RAM, so if you’re upgrading an older machine that already is nearing maximum RAM capacity, you might not have much room to grow. Another critical limit is processing power. All the short-term memory in the world won’t make your employees work lives easier if you don’t have the processing power to take advantage of it.
  • The processor, also known as the CPU, provides the instructions and processing power the computer needs to do its work. The more powerful and updated your processor, the faster your computer can complete its tasks. By getting a more powerful processor, you can help your computer think and work faster. This alone may be enough to optimize the power of the RAM you already have and help you maximize your investment in any new RAM you do add. If more RAM is like a bigger workbench, then a faster processor is similar to inviting a friend over to help you with your work.
  • But it’s not a matter of making an either-or choice between more RAM and a faster CPU — each can be as important as the other, and are reliant and complementary to the other, as well as to the performance capabilities of your motherboard, hard drive, and other computer components.

See Also

The term "processor," often synonymous with the Central Processing Unit (CPU), is a critical component of virtually all modern computing systems, from personal computers and smartphones to servers and embedded systems. It executes a computer program's instructions by performing the basic arithmetic, logical, control, and input/output (I/O) operations specified by the instructions.

  • Microarchitecture: The detailed architecture design of a processor, including how it implements instructions in its instruction set. Microarchitecture defines how a processor is built at the micro-level and influences its performance and power efficiency.
  • Multi-Core Processor: A single computing component with two or more independent actual processing units (called "cores"), which are the units that read and execute program instructions. Multi-core processors can run multiple instructions in parallel, significantly improving performance for programs designed to take advantage of them.
  • Clock Speed: Measured in gigahertz (GHz), clock speed is the rate at which a processor executes instructions. Higher clock speeds indicate the ability to execute more instructions per second, although this is just one factor determining a processor's overall performance.
  • Cache Memory is a small type of volatile computer memory that provides high-speed data access to the processor and stores frequently used computer programs, applications, and data. By storing essential data and instructions close to the processor, cache memory helps speed up instruction execution.
  • Instruction Set Architecture (ISA): This is the part of the processor visible to the programmer or compiler writer. The ISA serves as the boundary between software and hardware and defines the set of instructions that the processor can execute.
  • Thermal Design Power (TDP) is the maximum amount of heat generated by a computer chip or component (often the CPU or GPU) that the cooling system in a computer is designed to dissipate under any workload. TDP is essential in designing systems, influencing cooling system requirements and overall power consumption.
  • Overclocking is the practice of increasing the clock speed of a processor beyond the manufacturer's specified performance parameters to achieve increased performance. While overclocking can lead to faster processing speeds, it can also increase the risk of overheating and instability.
  • Integrated Graphics Processor (IGP): A graphics chip integrated into the processor. Integrated graphics share the system's RAM with the CPU for both graphics and computing tasks, providing a more cost-effective and energy-efficient solution than separate graphics cards for many users.
  • Process Node: Refers to the specific manufacturing process technology used to build a processor, measured in nanometers (nm). Smaller process nodes often allow for faster, more power-efficient processors due to the decreased size of transistors.
  • System on a Chip (SoC): An integrated circuit that combines all components of a computer or other electronic system into a single chip. It may include a CPU, graphics processing unit (GPU), memory, USB controller, and wireless communication chips, among others.

These terms highlight the complexity and diversity of technology within and surrounding processors, underscoring their pivotal role in modern computing by driving performance, efficiency, and the development of new features and capabilities in electronic devices.


  1. Definition of a Processor Careerkarma
  2. Explaining what a Processor is Techopedia
  3. RAM Vs. Processor Intel