Computer Basics: Processors

By Martin Jansen, Owner of Jansen-PCINFO

Every computer has three basic components: RAM (Random Access Memory), Storage (today usually measured in Gigabytes and Terabytes) and the king of these is the Processor; aka: Central Processing Unit (CPU).

The Processor is the ‘brains’ of the computer.  It acts as a traffic cop for all other computer functions, but, as you might suspect, all processors are not created equal.

Let’s start with the high end x64 processors which are also the most expensive.  Computer manufacturers use these high end processors in their gaming and video processing rigs.  We have two competitors in the world: Intel and AMD who are trying to best each other in packing more processing power in a single chip.  Intel’s highest end processor is the i9, while AMD names their processors Ryzen, with their best processor, the Ryzen 9.  When comparing the processors focus on the number, not the letters.

Following the 9 series, we have 7, 5 and 3.  Each less powerful and less expensive as the numbers diminish.  Technically, all these processors are classified as Complex Instruction Set Architecture (CISC).  CISC processors require higher power consumption and cooling, especially on the higher end chips sets.

Apple, Qualcomm, MediaTek and other processors.

For many years Apple used Intel chips in their Mac computers.  Now they have switched to their own processors starting with the M1.  Apple users are anticipating the newest M4 chip.  Meanwhile, Apple’s M series and other mobile processors fall into the Reduced Instruction Set Architecture (RISC) category.  These processors are perfect for cell phones and tablets as they require less power and do not run nearly as warm as CISC processors.  Lately, these RISC processors have become very good at emulating x64 apps as Apple has proven.  Qualcomm’s Snapdragon series and MediaTek’s Kompanio series are currently running on Chromebooks as well as tablets and cell phones.


Intel is hedging its bet on CISC processors by investing in RISC-V, which is an open source implementation of the reduced instruction set.  It could be that RISC-V will be the path forward should the CISC processor falter.

The Low End

Computer manufacturers are producing Windows laptops with low end processors at a lower cost.  Intel has a variety of low end processors by the names of Atom, Celeron and Pentium.  Intel also has the N series as in the N100 and N200 popular in mini-computers and laptops.  These processors have increased their efficiencies over the years and can be compared to older i Series processors.  Meanwhile, AMD has been working on their Athlon series of lower end processors.  For instance, I have an AMD Athlon Gold in my Lenovo Thinkpad C13 Yoga Chromebook.  I still can’t believe I got this new Chromebook for around $150.  It has some high end features, like a lighted keyboard and a garaged pen for input.  This chromebook is my traveling companion when I volunteer as a Tech Help person at the library and on road trips.

I maintain that Windows laptops require at least 8 GB of RAM to run decently long term.  I warn that a combination of a low end processor, 4 GB of RAM and a slow hard drive will make the average user regret their purchase of a cheap Windows computer.

Business Computers

Businesses usually purchase a computer with an i5 processor for their employees.  Laptops for their mobile employees, like sales persons, and desktops for stationary employees.  Desktops have been getting smaller over the years.  HP, Dell and Lenovo have been making tiny desktops that offer the same power as full sized desktop for years now.   Along with the i5 processor, these tiny desktops usually have 16GB of RAM and 256 or 512 GB Solid State Drive.  This combination runs Windows efficiently enough, while Linux Mint (due it’s lighter use of resources) runs great.

Large businesses buy thousands of these tiny computers and put them on a depreciation schedule for tax purposes.  Once the computers are “obsolete”, in company terms, they are replaced with newer computers.  The old computers are sold to refurbishers at an extremely low cost.  That savings is passed on to the home user.


As it stands today, processors fall into two categories: 1) CISC Processors from AMD and Intel and 2) RISC processors from Apple, Qualcomm and MediaTek.  CISC processors rule the x64 operating systems of Windows computers while RISC processors run our Android and iOS cell phones and tablets.  ChromeOS and Linux can run on both CISC and RISC processors.

Apple, with its M series, may be leading to a future where the mobile RISC processor becomes dominant in the marketplace.  If so, AMD and Intel may have to introduce their own versions of RISC processors.  All this competition is good for consumers as processors improve and manufacturing costs are lowered.