Q: What is a Multi-Core Processor?

Tech Q & A– Submitted by Tony Cecena, Cecena’s Jewelry
A: It used to be relatively simple to compare computer processors. One could look at the clock speed of a processor (Mhz or Ghz) and that would be a good indicator of the relative performance of that processor. Of course, this wasn’t a perfect method, but it was a good way to approximate. Within the last few years, however, processor manufacturers have stopped focusing on clock speed and have started introducing and marketing other technologies in processors. One of the more commonly touted technologies are processors with multiple cores. Unfortunately, most people have no idea what a multiple-core processor is. So let me enlighten you.

First a little background. Many years ago, computer manufacturers developed technology to allow computers to have multiple processors. A computer with more than one processor could be more powerful. For some applications, multiple processor computers showed significant performance improvements. Unfortunately, multiple processor computers were generally a lot more expensive and required specialized motherboards and software that was specifically written to take advantage of extra processors.

Fast forward a few years and processor manufacturers develop technology that allow a processor to have multiple “cores”, which in very simple terms is a single processor that behaves in many ways as if it is multiple processors. For many reasons multiple core processors are a great improvement over single-core processors and multiple processors. However, all the average person needs to know is that most processors made today have multiple cores and the specifics are not all that important. The only important fact to determine is relative performance. Competent sales people and technology professionals should be able to explain the relative performance of various processors when asked. If not, perhaps you should move on.

One thing to keep in mind is that just because a processor has multiple cores does not mean it is a factor of that multiple faster than a single core processor. For example, a dual-core processor is not necessarily twice as fast as a single-core processor, nor is a quad-core processor four times as fast. One reason is that software needs to be written so as to be optimized for multiple-core processors to take full advantage of them. Most software developers will not do this as it requires a lot more work. However, it should become easier in the future as software development tools will allow programmers to automatically take advantage of multiple-core technologies. One example of this is Apple’s Mac OS X 10.6 operating system, known as Snow Leopard. Snow Leopard has programming technology in it that allows software developers to automatically take full advantage of the processor technology in the computer without needing to specifically optimize their software to that processor. So no matter if the computer’s processor is single, dual, or quad core, their software will be able to run at full performance on all of them.

If you have a technology question, please let me know and it will be featured in a future newsletter!