Current Generation of PC Processors
Personal computer microprocessors, or "PC processors" for short, are the computational heart of a computer. They are in charge of executing program code and producing mathematical results. This is what enables software applications to run as expected by the developer and user. The current most popular platform is known as "x86," named after the original 8086 processor designed by Intel. It has been succeeded by the 286, 386, 486, Pentium-class (586) and beyond.
The current generation of processors is commonly known as the ninth, or "986" for short. It includes the latest processors from AMD and Intel, namely Intel's Ivy Bridge and Sandy Bridge processors, as well as AMD's Bulldozer and Trinity processor series. These processors are notable for including an on-die GPU or graphics processing unit that is able to supplement the CPU for 2D and 3D graphical tasks such as rendering, desktop publishing, and gaming. Although these onboard GPUs are fairly entry-level and not capable of sustaining high frame rates in modern games compared to more high-end parts, they are able to run most titles at conservative settings and video resolutions. Gaming performance can be supplemented by adding a compatible graphics card to work with an AMD CPU in what is known as "Hybrid Crossfire-X" mode. The card is installed into an open PCI-Express X16 slot and is enabled via software, allowing both GPUs in the system to work on rendering a different portion of the same image at one time. This results in smoother gameplay and a higher frame rate, but also requires more cost investment, uses more power, and produces more heat.
Most modern processors are built on the "multi-core" principle, which means that they incorporate more than one microprocessor inside the chip housing. These individual cores can work together on a "multi-threaded" task or can be assigned specific single-threaded applications. This boosts the overall performance of the computer when it is performing more than one operation at a time. Prior to this, computers were only capable of executing one instruction at a time using a methodology known as "task scheduling." An exception is the Pentium 4's "hyperthreading" feature, which improved performance somewhat by appearing to be two individual processors to the operating system. However, not until the Athlon 64 X2 and Pentium D series were desktop processors truly capable of executing multiple instructions at once. High-end servers were known to often include motherboards with multiple processor slots and memory banks to allow for more than one single-core processor to be installed at a time, but at significant user expense.
Modern high-end PCs and gaming machines tend to leverage 64-bit technology. This allows larger data words to be processed for higher precision in tasks such as physics, but also introduces one-gigabyte memory pages. This means that the machine is capable of utilizing more than four gigabytes of memory, which was previously the maximum usable by a personal computer. In fact, less than this was typically available to the user due to the memory that the operating system occupied. It is not uncommon for modern computers to contain 8 to 16 gigabytes of memory.