What is a Microprocessor and How Does it Work?

What is a Microprocessor and What You Need to Know

Almost everyone uses a computer these days, whether it's at home or at work. In fact, it's rare to run into someone that doesn't have access to a computer. We depend greatly on computers, especially in the business world. Yet few people really understand how computers work. How is a computer able to execute the commands that you input? The answer to that question is through the computer's microprocessor. Of course, knowing that doesn't provide much in the way of an explanation. We’ll give you an overview of what a microprocessor is, how it functions, and more.

What is a Microprocessor?

The microprocessor is the central unit of a computer system that performs arithmetic and logic operations, which generally include adding, subtracting, transferring numbers from one area to another, and comparing two numbers. It's often known simply as a processor, a central processing unit, or as a logic chip. It's essentially the engine or the brain of the computer that goes into motion when the computer is switched on. It's a programmable, multipurpose device that incorporates the functions of a CPU (central processing unit) on a single IC (integrated circuit).

How Does a Microprocessor Work?

A microprocessor accepts binary data as input, processes that data, and then provides output based on the instructions stored in the memory. The data is processed using the microprocessor's ALU (arithmetical and logical unit), control unit, and a register array. The register array processes the data via a number of registers that act as temporary fast access memory locations. The flow of instructions and data through the system is managed by the control unit.

Benefits of a Microprocessor

But computer systems aren't the only devices that use microprocessors. Everything from smartphones to household appliances to cars use microprocessors these days. Here are a few reasons why microprocessors are so widely used:

  • They don't cost a lot - Due to their use of IC technology, microprocessors don't cost much to produce. This means that the use of microprocessors can greatly reduce the cost of the system it's used in.

  • They are fast - The technology used to produce modern microprocessors has allowed them to operate at incredibly high speeds--today's microprocessors can execute millions of instructions per second.

  • They consume little power - Power consumption is much lower than other types of processors since microprocessors are manufactured using metal oxide semiconductor technology. This makes devices equipped with microprocessors much more energy efficient.

  • They are portable - Due to how small microprocessors are and that they don't consume a lot of power, devices using microprocessors can be designed to be portable (like smartphones).

  • They are reliable - Because semiconductor technology is used in the production of microprocessors, their failure rate is extremely low.

  • They are versatile - The same microprocessor chip can be used for numerous applications as long as the programming is changed, making it incredibly versatile.

Common Terms Used

When it comes to discussing microprocessors, their function, and more, you're likely to come across a number of terms that you may not be familiar with. The following are some common terms related to microprocessors:

Word Length

Word length refers to the number of bits in the processor's internal data bus--or the number of bits that a processor can process at any given time. For example, an 8-bit processor will have 8-bit registers, an 8-bit data bus, and will perform 8-bit processing at a time.

Instruction Set

The instruction set is the series of commands that a microprocessor can understand. Essentially, it's the interface between the hardware and the software.

Cache Memory

The cache memory is used to store data or instructions that the software or program frequently references during operation. Basically, it helps to increase the operation's overall speed by allowing the processor to access data more quickly than from a regular RAM.

Clock Speed

The clock speed is the speed at which a microprocessor is able to execute instructions. It's typically measured in Hertz and expressed in measurements like MHz (megahertz) and GHz (gigahertz).


A bus is the term used to describe the set of conductors that transmit data or that address or control information to the microprocessor's different elements. Most microprocessors consist of three different buses, which include the data bus, the address bus, and the control bus.

Categories of Microprocessors

Microprocessors can be classified in different categories, as follows:.

Based on Word Length

Microprocessors can be based on the number of bits the processor's internal data bus or the number of bits that it can process at a time (which is known as the word length). Based on its word length, a microprocessor can be classified as 8-bit, 16-bit, 32-bit, and 64-bit.

Reduced Instruction Set Computer (RISC)

RISC microprocessors are more general use than those that have a more specific set of instructions. The execution of instructions in a processor requires a special circuit to load and process data. Because RISC microprocessors have fewer instructions, they have simpler circuits, which means they operate faster. Additionally, RISC microprocessors have more registers, use more RAM, and use a fixed number of clock cycles to execute one instruction.

Complex Instruction Set Computer

CISC microprocessors are the opposite of RISC microprocessors. Their purpose is to reduce the number of instructions for each program. The number of cycles per instruction is ignored. Because complex instructions are made directly into the hardware, CISC microprocessors are more complex and slower. CISC microprocessors use little RAM, have more transistors, have fewer registers, have numerous clock cycles for each instruction, and have a variety of addressing modes.

Special Purpose Processors

Some microprocessors are built to perform specific functions. For example, coprocessors are used in combination with a main processor, while a transputer is a transistor computer: a microprocessor that has its own local memory.

The Microprocessor Was a Turning Point for Modern Computing

CPUs used to be enormous. It wasn't until the 1960s that designers were attempting to integrate the functions of a CPU onto microprocessor units. It was the successful development of the microprocessor that led to the home computer. General purpose microprocessors are what allows our computers to be used for text editing, multimedia display, computation, and communication over the Internet. Because of how fast, small, and energy-efficient they are, they have been integral to the development of everyday technology, including appliances, smartphones, and more. Since the microprocessor basically changed the world, it's worth understanding what it is and how it functions!

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