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History of the Microprocessor

Microprocessor History

The brain or engine of the PC is the processor—sometimes called microprocessor or central processing unit (CPU). The CPU performs the system’s calculating and processing. The processor is one of the two most expensive components in the system (the other being the video card). In higher-end systems, the processor can cost up to four or more times more than the motherboard it plugs into. Intel is generally credited with creating the first microprocessor in 1971 with the introduction of a chip called the 4004. Today Intel still has control over the processor market, at least for PC systems, although AMD has garnered a respectable market share. For the most part, PC-compatible systems use either Intel processors or Intel-compatible processors from AMD.

It is interesting to note that the microprocessor had existed for only 10 years prior to the creation of the PC! Intel released the first microprocessor in 1971; IBM created the PC in 1981. Nearly three decades later, we are still using systems based more or less on the design of that first PC. The processors powering our PCs today are still backward compatible in many ways with the Intel 8088 that IBM selected for the first PC in 1981.

The First Microprocessor

Intel was founded on July 18, 1968 (as N M Electronics) by two ex-Fairchild engineers, Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore. Almost immediately, they changed the company name to Intel and were joined by cofounder Andrew Grove. They had a specific goal: to make semiconductor memory practical and affordable. This was not a given at the time, considering that silicon chip–based memory was at least 100 times more expensive than the magnetic core memory commonly used in those days. At the time, semiconductor memory was going for about a dollar a bit, whereas core memory was about a penny a bit. Noyce said, “All we had to do was reduce the cost by a factor of a hundred, then we’d have the market; and that’s basically what we did.”

By 1970, Intel was known as a successful memory chip company, having introduced a 1Kb memory chip, much larger than anything else available at the time. (1Kb equals 1,024 bits, and a byte equals 8 bits. This chip, therefore, stored only 128 bytes—not much by today’s standards.) Known as the 1103 dynamic random access memory (DRAM), it became the world’s largest-selling semiconductor device by the end of the following year. By this time, Intel had also grown from the core founders and a handful of others to more than 100 employees.

Because of Intel’s success in memory chip manufacturing and design, Japanese manufacturer Busicom asked Intel to design a set of chips for a family of high-performance programmable calculators. At the time, all logic chips were custom-designed for each application or product. Because most chips had to be custom-designed specific to a particular application, no one chip could have widespread usage.

Busicom’s original design for its calculator called for at least 12 custom chips. Intel engineer Ted Hoff rejected the unwieldy proposal and instead proposed a single-chip, general-purpose logic device that retrieved its application instructions from semiconductor memory. As the core of a four-chip set including read-only memory (ROM), random access memory (RAM), input/output (I/O) and the 4004 processor, a program could control the processor and essentially tailor its function to the task at hand. The chip was generic in nature, meaning it could function in designs other than calculators. Previous chip designs were hard-wired for one purpose, with built-in instructions; this chip would read a variable set of instructions from memory, which would control the function of the chip. The idea was to design, on a single chip, almost an entire computing device that could perform various functions, depending on which instructions it was given.

In April 1970, Intel hired Frederico Faggin to design and create the 4004 logic based on Hoff’s proposal. Like the Intel founders, Faggin came from Fairchild Semiconductor, where he had developed the silicon gate technology that would prove essential to good microprocessor design. During the initial logic design and layout process, Faggin had help from Masatoshi Shima, the engineer at Busicom responsible for the calculator design. Shima worked with Faggin until October 1970, after which he returned to Busicom. Faggin received the first finished batch of 4004 chips at closing time one day in January 1971, working alone until early the next morning testing the chip before declaring, “It works!” The 4000 chip family was completed by March 1971 and put into production by June 1971. It is interesting to note that Faggin actually signed the processor die with his initials (F.F.), a tradition that others often carried out in subsequent chip designs.

There was one problem with the new chip: Busicom owned the rights to it. Faggin knew that the product had almost limitless application, bringing intelligence to a host of “dumb” machines. He urged Intel to repurchase the rights to the product. Although Intel founders Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce championed the new chip, others within the company were concerned that the product would distract Intel from its main focus: making memory. They were finally convinced by the fact that every four-chip microcomputer set included two memory chips. As the director of marketing at the time recalled, “Originally, I think we saw it as a way to sell more memories, and we were willing to make the investment on that basis.”

Intel offered to return Busicom’s $60,000 investment in exchange for the rights to the product. Struggling with financial troubles, the Japanese company agreed. Nobody in the industry at the time, even Intel, realized the significance of this deal, which paved the way for Intel’s future in processors.

The result was the November 15, 1971 introduction of the 4-bit Intel 4004 CPU as part of the MCS-4 microcomputer set. The 4004 ran at a maximum clock speed of 740KHz (740,000 cycles per second, or nearly 3/4 of a megahertz), contained 2,300 transistors in an area of only 12 sq. mm (3.5mm×3.5mm), and was built on a 10-micron process, where each transistor was spaced about 10 microns (millionths of a meter) apart. Data was transferred 4 bits at a time, and the maximum addressable memory was only 640 bytes. The chip cost about $200 and delivered about as much computing power as ENIAC, one of the first electronic computers. By comparison, ENIAC relied on 18,000 vacuum tubes packed into 3,000 cubic feet (85 cubic meters) when it was built in 1946.

The 4004 was designed for use in a calculator but proved to be useful for many other functions because of its inherent programmability. For example, the 4004 was used in traffic light controllers, blood analyzers, and even in the NASA Pioneer 10 deep-space probe. You can see more information about the legendary 4004 processor at and

In April 1972, Intel released the 8008 processor, which originally ran at a clock speed of 500KHz (0.5MHz). The 8008 processor contained 3,500 transistors and was built on the same 10-micron process as the previous processor. The big change in the 8008 was that it had an 8-bit data bus, which meant it could move data 8 bits at a time—twice as much as the previous chip. It could also address more memory, up to 16KB. This chip was primarily used in dumb terminals and general-purpose calculators.

The next chip in the lineup was the 8080, introduced in April 1974. The 8080 was conceived by Frederico Faggin and designed by Masatoshi Shima (former Busicom engineer) under Faggin’s supervision. Running at a clock rate of 2MHz, the 8080 processor had 10 times the performance of the 8008. The 8080 chip contained 6,000 transistors and was built on a 6-micron process. Similar to the previous chip, the 8080 had an 8-bit data bus, so it could transfer 8 bits of data at a time. The 8080 could address up to 64KB of memory, which was significantly more than the previous chip.

The 8080 helped start the PC revolution because it was the processor chip used in what is generally regarded as the first personal computer, the Altair 8800. The CP/M operating system (OS) was written for the 8080 chip, and the newly founded Microsoft delivered its first product: Microsoft BASIC for the Altair. These initial tools provided the foundation for a revolution in software because thousands of programs were written to run on this platform.

In fact, the 8080 became so popular that it was cloned. Wanting to focus on processors, Frederico Faggin left Intel in 1974 to found Zilog and create a “Super-80” chip, a high-performance, 8080-compatible processor. Masatoshi Shima joined Zilog in April 1975 to help design what became known as the Z80 CPU. The Z80 was released in July 1976 and became one of the most successful processors in history. In fact, it is still being manufactured and sold today. The Z80 was not pin compatible with the 8080, but instead combined functions such as the memory interface and RAM refresh circuitry, which enabled cheaper and simpler systems to be designed. The Z80 incorporated a superset of 8080 instructions, meaning it could run all 8080 programs. It also included new instructions and new internal registers; therefore, whereas 8080 software would run on the Z80, software designed for the Z80 would not necessarily run on the older 8080. The Z80 ran initially at 2MHz (later versions ran up to 20MHz), contained 8,500 transistors, and could access 64KB of memory.

RadioShack selected the Z80 for the TRS-80 Model 1, its first PC. The chip also was the first to be used by many pioneering personal computer systems, including the Osborne and Kaypro machines. Other companies followed, and soon the Z80 was the standard processor for systems running the CP/M OS and the popular software of the day.

Intel released the 8085, its follow-up to the 8080, in March 1976. The 8085 ran at 5MHz and contained 6,500 transistors. It was built on a 3-micron process and incorporated an 8-bit data bus. Even though it predated the Z80 by several months, it never achieved the popularity of the Z80 in personal computer systems. It was, however, used in the IBM System/23 Datamaster, which was the immediate predecessor to the original PC at IBM. The 8085 became most popular as an embedded controller, finding use in scales and other computerized equipment.

Along different architectural lines, MOS Technologies introduced the 6502 in 1976. Several ex-Motorola engineers who had worked on Motorola’s first processor, the 6800, designed this chip. The 6502 was an 8-bit processor like the 8080, but it sold for around $25, whereas the 8080 cost about $300 when it was introduced. The price appealed to Steve Wozniak, who placed the chip in his Apple I and Apple ][/][+ designs. The chip was also used in systems by Commodore and other system manufacturers. The 6502 and its successors were used in game consoles, including the original NintendoEntertainment System (NES), among others. Motorola went on to create the 68000 series, which became the basis for the original line of Apple Macintosh computers. The second-generation Macs used the PowerPC chip, also by Motorola and a successor to the 68000 series. Of course, the current Macs have adopted PC architecture, using the same processors, chipsets, and other components as PCs.

In the early 1980s, I had a system containing both a MOS Technologies 6502 and a Zilog Z80. It was a 1MHz (yes, that’s one megahertz!) 6502-based Apple ][+ system with a Microsoft Softcard (Z80 card) plugged into one of the slots. The Softcard contained a 2MHz Z80 processor, which enabled me to run both Apple and CP/M software on the system.

All these previous chips set the stage for the first PC processors. Intel introduced the 8086 in June 1978. The 8086 chip brought with it the original x86 instruction set that is still present in current x86-compatible chips such as the Core i Series and AMD Phenom II. However, it was a reduced-feature version of the 8086, the Intel 8088, that became the processor used by the first IBM PC.

To learn more about the 8086 and 8088, see “P1 (086) Processors,” later in this chapter.

PC Processor Evolution

Since the first PC came out in 1981, PC processor evolution has concentrated on four main areas:

  • Increasing the transistor count and density

  • Increasing the clock cycling speeds

  • Increasing the size of internal registers (bits)

  • Increasing the number of cores in a single chip

Intel introduced the 286 chip in 1982. With 134,000 transistors, it provided about three times the performance of other 16-bit processors of the time. Featuring on-chip memory management, the 286 also offered software compatibility with its predecessors. This revolutionary chip was first used in IBM’s benchmark PC-AT, the system upon which all modern PCs are based.

In 1985 came the Intel 386 processor. With a new 32-bit architecture and 275,000 transistors, the chip could perform more than five million instructions per second (MIPS). Compaq’s Deskpro 386 was the first PC based on the new microprocessor.

Next out of the gate was the Intel 486 processor in 1989. The 486 had 1.2 million transistors and the first built-in math coprocessor. It was some 50 times faster than the original 4004, equaling the performance of some mainframe computers.

Then, in 1993, Intel introduced the first P5 family (586) processor, called the Pentium, setting new performance standards with several times the performance of the previous 486 processor. The Pentium processor used 3.1 million transistors to perform up to 90 MIPS—now up to about 1,500 times the speed of the original 4004.


Intel’s change from using numbers (386/486) to names (Pentium/Pentium Pro) for its processors was based on the fact that it could not secure a registered trademark on a number and therefore could not prevent its competitors from using those same numbers on clone chip designs.

The first processor in the P6 (686) family, called the Pentium Pro processor, was introduced in 1995. With 5.5 million transistors, it was the first to be packaged with a second die containing high-speed L2 memory cache to accelerate performance.

Intel revised the original P6 (686/Pentium Pro) and introduced the Pentium II processor in May 1997. Pentium II processors had 7.5 million transistors packed into a cartridge rather than a conventional chip, allowing the L2 cache chips to be attached directly on the module. The Pentium II family was augmented in April 1998, with both the low-cost Celeron processor for basic PCs and the high-end Pentium II Xeon processor for servers and workstations. Intel followed with the Pentium III in 1999, essentially a Pentium II with Streaming SIMD Extensions (SSE) added.

Around the time the Pentium was establishing its dominance, AMD acquired NexGen, which had been working on its Nx686 processor. AMD incorporated that design along with a Pentium interface into what would be called the AMD K6. The K6 was both hardware and software compatible with the Pentium, meaning it plugged in to the same Socket 7 and could run the same programs. As Intel dropped its Pentium in favor of the more expensive Pentium II and III, AMD continued making faster versions of the K6 and made huge inroads in the low-end PC market.

In 1998, Intel became the first to integrate L2 cache directly on the processor die (running at the full speed of the processor core), dramatically increasing performance. This was first done on the second-generation Celeron processor (based on the Pentium II core), as well as the Pentium IIPE (performance-enhanced) chip used only in laptop systems. The first high-end desktop PC chip with on-die full-core speed L2 cache was the second-generation (Coppermine core) Pentium III introduced in late 1999. After this, all major processor manufacturers began integrating L2 (and even L3) cache on the processor die, a trend that continues today.

AMD introduced the Athlon in 1999 to compete with Intel head to head in the high-end desktop PC market. The Athlon became successful, and it seemed for the first time that Intel had some real competition in the higher-end systems. In hindsight, the success of the Athlon might be easy to see, but at the time it was introduced, its success was anything but assured. Unlike the previous K6 chips, which were both hardware and software compatible with Intel processors, the Athlon was only software compatible and required a motherboard with an Athlon supporting chipset and processor socket.

The year 2000 saw a significant milestone when both Intel and AMD crossed the 1GHz barrier, a speed that many thought could never be accomplished. In 2001, Intel introduced a Pentium 4 version running at 2GHz, the first PC processor to achieve that speed. November 15, 2001 marked the 30th anniversary of the microprocessor, and in those 30 years processor speed had increased more than 18,500 times (from 0.108MHz to 2GHz). AMD also introduced the Athlon XP, based on its newer Palomino core, as well as the Athlon MP, designed for multiprocessor server systems.

In 2002, Intel released a Pentium 4 version running at 3.06GHz, the first PC processor to break the 3GHz barrier, and the first to feature Intel’s Hyper-Threading (HT) Technology, which turns the processor into a virtual dual-processor configuration. By running two application threads at the same time, HT-enabled processors can perform tasks at speeds 25%–40% faster than non-HT-enabled processors can. This encouraged programmers to write multithreaded applications, which would prepare them for when true multicore processors would be released a few years later.

In 2003, AMD released the first 64-bit PC processor: the Athlon 64 (previously code-named ClawHammer, or K8), which incorporated AMD-defined x86-64 64-bit extensions to the IA-32 architecture typified by the Athlon, Pentium 4, and earlier processors. That year Intel also released the Pentium 4 Extreme Edition, the first consumer-level processor to incorporate L3 cache. The whopping 2MB of cache added greatly to the transistor count as well as performance. In 2004, Intel followed AMD by adding the AMD-defined x86-64 extensions to the Pentium 4.

In 2005, both Intel and AMD released their first dual-core processors, basically integrating two processors into a single chip. Although boards supporting two or more processors had been commonly used in network servers for many years prior, this brought dual-CPU capabilities in an affordable package to standard PCs. Rather than attempting to increase clock rates, as has been done in the past, adding processing power by integrating two or more processors into a single chip enables future processors to perform more work with fewer bottlenecks and with a reduction in both power consumption and heat production.

In 2006, Intel released a new processor family called the Core 2, based on an architecture that came mostly from previous mobile Pentium M/Core duo processors. The Core 2 was released in a dual-core version first, followed by a quad-core version (combining two dual-core die in a single package) later in the year. In 2007, AMD released the Phenom, which was the first quad-core PC processor with all four cores on a single die. In 2008, Intel released the Core i Series (Nehalem) processors, which are single-die quad-core chips with HT (appearing as eight cores to the OS) that include integrated memory and optional video controllers. AMD also released its Phenom II series of multi-core (up to six-core) processors with support for both DDR2 and DDR3 memory in 2008. In 2011, Intel released the “Sandy Bridge” second generation of Core i-series processors, including four-core and six-core processors with HT Technology, supporting up to 12 execution threads. Some models include an on-die video controller that permits dynamic switching of resources between GPU and CPU (TurboBoost 2.0), depending on the type of processing being performed. In 2011, AMD introduced its Fusion processors, which incorporate Radeon graphics, low power consumption, and acceleration for video, photo, and web operations.


Intel began to develop mobile versions of its processors in the early 1990s with the development of the 386 processor. Both Intel and AMD have developed mobile versions of almost all of their processors.

Although a mobile processor may have the same code name, a similar model number, and be based on the same general architecture as its desktop counterpart, it might feature lower clock speeds, smaller cache sizes, and different implementations of some features. The processor features for a particular processor family discussed in this chapter apply to desktop processors. For more information about mobile processors in a given processor family, see the Intel or AMD websites.

16-Bit to 64-Bit Architecture Evolution

The first major change in processor architecture was the move from the 16-bit internal architecture of the 286 and earlier processors to the 32-bit internal architecture of the 386 and later chips, which Intel calls IA-32 (Intel Architecture, 32-bit). Intel’s 32-bit architecture dates to 1985. It took a full 10 years for both a partial 32-bit mainstream OS (Windows 95) as well as a full 32-bit OS requiring 32-bit drivers (Windows NT) to surface, and it took another 6 years for the mainstream to shift to a fully 32-bit environment for the OS and drivers (Windows XP). That’s a total of 16 years from the release of 32-bit computing hardware to the full adoption of 32-bit computing in the mainstream with supporting software. I’m sure you can appreciate that 16 years is a lifetime in technology.

Now we are near the end of another major architectural jump, as Intel, AMD, and Microsoft have almost completely shifted from 32-bit to 64-bit architectures. In 2001, Intel had introduced the IA-64 (Intel Architecture, 64-bit) in the form of the Itanium and Itanium 2 processors, but this standard was something completely new and not an extension of the existing 32-bit technology. IA-64 was announced in 1994 as a CPU development project with Intel and HP (code-named Merced), and the first technical details were made available in October 1997.

The fact that the IA-64 architecture is not an extension of IA-32 but is instead a new and completely different architecture was fine for non-PC environments such as servers (for which IA-64 was designed), but the PC market has always hinged on backward compatibility. Even though emulating IA-32 within IA-64 is possible, such emulation and support is slow.

With the door now open, AMD seized this opportunity to develop 64-bit extensions to IA-32, which it calls AMD64 (originally known as x86-64). Intel eventually released its own set of 64-bit extensions, which it calls EM64T or IA-32e mode. As it turns out, the Intel extensions are almost identical to the AMD extensions, meaning they are software compatible. It seems for the first time that Intel has unarguably followed AMD’s lead in the development of PC architecture.

However, AMD and Intel’s 64-bit processor could only run in 32-bit mode on existing operating systems. To make 64-bit computing a reality, 64-bit OSs and 64-bit drivers are also needed. Microsoft began providing trial versions of Windows XP Professional x64 Edition (which supports AMD64 and EM64T) in April 2005, but it wasn’t until the release of Windows Vista x64 in 2007 that 64-bit computing would begin to go mainstream. Initially, the lack of 64-bit drivers was a problem, but by the release of Windows 7 x64 in 2009, most device manufacturers were providing both 32-bit and 64-bit drivers for virtually all new devices. Linux is also available in 64-bit versions, making the move to 64-bit computing possible for non-Windows environments as well.

Another important development is the introduction of multicore processors from both Intel and AMD. Current multicore desktop processors have up to six full CPU cores operating off of one CPU package—in essence enabling a single processor to perform the work of multiple processors. Although multicore processors don’t make games that use single execution threads play faster, multicore processors, like multiple single-core processors, split up the workload caused by running multiple applications at the same time. If you’ve ever tried to scan for malware while simultaneously checking email or running another application, you’ve probably seen how running multiple applications can bring even the fastest processor to its knees. With multicore processors available from both Intel and AMD, your ability to get more work done in less time by multitasking is greatly enhanced. Multicore processors also support 64-bit extensions, enabling you to enjoy both multicore and 64-bit computing’s advantages.

PCs have certainly come a long way. The original 8088 processor used in the first PC contained 29,000 transistors and ran at 4.77MHz. Compare that to today’s chips: The AMD Phenom II x6 has an estimated 904 million transistors and runs at up to 3.3GHz or faster, and the six-core Intel Core i7 models have around 1.17 million transistors and run at up to 3.4GHz or faster. As multicore processors with large integrated caches continue to be used in designs, look for transistor counts and real-world performance to continue to increase well beyond a billion transistors. And the progress won’t stop there, because according to Moore’s Law, processing speed and transistor counts are doubling every 1.5–2 years.

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