Clock rate

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The clock rate typically refers to the frequency at which a chip like a central processing unit (CPU), one core of a multi-core processor, is running and is used as an indicator of the processor's speed. It is measured in clock cycles per second or its equivalent, the SI unit hertz (Hz). The clock rate of the first generation of computers was measured in hertz or kilohertz (kHz), the first personal computers (PC's) to arrive throughout the 1970s and 1980s had clock rates measured in megahertz (MHz), and in the 21st century the speed of modern CPUs is commonly advertised in gigahertz (GHz). This metric is most useful when comparing processors within the same family, holding constant other features that may affect performance. Video card and CPU manufacturers commonly select their highest performing units from a manufacturing batch and set their maximum clock rate higher, fetching a higher price.

Frequency is the number of occurrences of a repeating event per unit of time. It is also referred to as temporal frequency, which emphasizes the contrast to spatial frequency and angular frequency. The period is the duration of time of one cycle in a repeating event, so the period is the reciprocal of the frequency. For example: if a newborn baby's heart beats at a frequency of 120 times a minute, its period—the time interval between beats—is half a second. Frequency is an important parameter used in science and engineering to specify the rate of oscillatory and vibratory phenomena, such as mechanical vibrations, audio signals (sound), radio waves, and light.

Integrated circuit electronic circuit manufactured by lithography; set of electronic circuits on one small flat piece (or "chip") of semiconductor material, normally silicon 639-1 ısoo

An integrated circuit or monolithic integrated circuit is a set of electronic circuits on one small flat piece of semiconductor material that is normally silicon. The integration of large numbers of tiny transistors into a small chip results in circuits that are orders of magnitude smaller, cheaper, and faster than those constructed of discrete electronic components. The IC's mass production capability, reliability and building-block approach to circuit design has ensured the rapid adoption of standardized ICs in place of designs using discrete transistors. ICs are now used in virtually all electronic equipment and have revolutionized the world of electronics. Computers, mobile phones, and other digital home appliances are now inextricable parts of the structure of modern societies, made possible by the small size and low cost of ICs.

Central processing unit electronic circuitry within a computer that carries out the instructions of a computer program by performing the basic arithmetic, logical, control and input/output (I/O) operations specified by the instructions

A central processing unit (CPU), also called a central processor or main processor, is the electronic circuitry within a computer that carries out the instructions of a computer program by performing the basic arithmetic, logic, controlling, and input/output (I/O) operations specified by the instructions. The computer industry has used the term "central processing unit" at least since the early 1960s. Traditionally, the term "CPU" refers to a processor, more specifically to its processing unit and control unit (CU), distinguishing these core elements of a computer from external components such as main memory and I/O circuitry.


Determining factors


Manufacturers of modern processors typically charge premium prices for processors that operate at higher clock rates, a practice called binning. For a given CPU, the clock rates are determined at the end of the manufacturing process through actual testing of each processor. Chip manufacturers publish a "maximum clock rate" specification, and they test chips before selling them to make sure they meet that specification, even when executing the most complicated instructions with the data patterns that take the longest to settle (testing at the temperature and voltage that runs the lowest performance). Processors successfully tested for compliance with a given set of standards may be labeled with a higher clock rate, e.g., 3.50 GHz, while those that fail the standards of the higher clock rate yet pass the standards of a lesser clock rate may be labeled with the lesser clock rate, e.g., 3.3 GHz, and sold at a lower price. [1]

In semiconductor device fabrication, product binning is the categorizing of finished products based on their characteristics.


The clock rate of a CPU is normally determined by the frequency of an oscillator crystal. Typically a crystal oscillator produces a fixed sine wave—the frequency reference signal. Electronic circuitry translates that into a square wave at the same frequency for digital electronics applications (or, in using a CPU multiplier, some fixed multiple of the crystal reference frequency). The clock distribution network inside the CPU carries that clock signal to all the parts that need it. An A/D Converter has a "clock" pin driven by a similar system to set the sampling rate. With any particular CPU, replacing the crystal with another crystal that oscillates at half the frequency ("underclocking") will generally make the CPU run at half the performance and reduce waste heat produced by the CPU. Conversely, some people try to increase performance of a CPU by replacing the oscillator crystal with a higher frequency crystal ("overclocking"). [2] However, the amount of overclocking is limited by the time for the CPU to settle after each pulse, and by the extra heat created.

Crystal oscillator electronic oscillator circuit

A crystal oscillator is an electronic oscillator circuit that uses the mechanical resonance of a vibrating crystal of piezoelectric material to create an electrical signal with a precise frequency. This frequency is often used to keep track of time, as in quartz wristwatches, to provide a stable clock signal for digital integrated circuits, and to stabilize frequencies for radio transmitters and receivers. The most common type of piezoelectric resonator used is the quartz crystal, so oscillator circuits incorporating them became known as crystal oscillators, but other piezoelectric materials including polycrystalline ceramics are used in similar circuits.

Sine wave mathematical curve that describes a smooth repetitive oscillation; continuous wave

A sine wave or sinusoid is a mathematical curve that describes a smooth periodic oscillation. A sine wave is a continuous wave. It is named after the function sine, of which it is the graph. It occurs often in pure and applied mathematics, as well as physics, engineering, signal processing and many other fields. Its most basic form as a function of time (t) is:

Square wave

A square wave is a non-sinusoidal periodic waveform in which the amplitude alternates at a steady frequency between fixed minimum and maximum values, with the same duration at minimum and maximum. Although not realizable in physical systems, the transition between minimum and maximum is instantaneous for an ideal square wave.

After each clock pulse, the signal lines inside the CPU need time to settle to their new state. That is, every signal line must finish transitioning from 0 to 1, or from 1 to 0. If the next clock pulse comes before that, the results will be incorrect. In the process of transitioning, some energy is wasted as heat (mostly inside the driving transistors). When executing complicated instructions that cause many transitions, the higher the clock rate the more heat produced. Transistors may be damaged by excessive heat.

There is also a lower limit of the clock rate, unless a fully static core is used.

Static core generally refers to a microprocessor (MPU) entirely implemented in static logic. A static core MPU may be halted by stopping the system clock oscillator that is driving it, maintaining its state and resume processing at the point where it was stopped when the clock signal is restarted, as long as power continues to be applied. Static core MPUs are fabricated in the CMOS process and hence consume very little power when the clock is stopped, making them useful in designs in which the MPU remains in standby mode until needed and minimal loading of the power source is desirable during standby.

Historical milestones and current records

The first electromechanical general purpose computer, the Z3 operated at a frequency of about 5–10 Hz. The first electronic general purpose computer, the ENIAC, used a 100 kHz clock in its cycling unit. As each instruction took 20 cycles, it had an instruction rate of 5 kHz.

Z3 (computer) first working programmable, fully automatic digital computer

The Z3 was a German electromechanical computer designed by Konrad Zuse. It was the world's first working programmable, fully automatic digital computer. The Z3 was built with 2,600 relays, implementing a 22-bit word length that operated at a clock frequency of about 4–5 Hz. Program code was stored on punched film. Initial values were entered manually.

ENIAC electronic general-purpose computer

ENIAC was amongst the earliest electronic general-purpose computers made. It was Turing-complete, digital and able to solve "a large class of numerical problems" through reprogramming.

The first commercial PC, the Altair 8800 (by MITS), used an Intel 8080 CPU with a clock rate of 2 MHz (2 million cycles per second). The original IBM PC (c. 1981) had a clock rate of 4.77 MHz (4,772,727 cycles per second). In 1992, both Hewlett-Packard and Digital Equipment Corporation broke the difficult 100 MHz limit with RISC techniques in the PA-7100 and AXP 21064 DEC Alpha respectively. In 1995, Intel's P5 Pentium chip ran at 100 MHz (100 million cycles per second). On March 6, 2000, AMD reached the 1 GHz milestone a few months ahead of Intel. In 2002, an Intel Pentium 4 model was introduced as the first CPU with a clock rate of 3 GHz (three billion cycles per second corresponding to ~3.3×10−10seconds or 0.33 nanoseconds per cycle). Since then, the clock rate of production processors has increased much more slowly, with performance improvements coming from other design changes.

Altair 8800 microcomputer designed in 1975

The Altair 8800 is a microcomputer designed in 1974 by MITS and based on the Intel 8080 CPU. Interest grew quickly after it was featured on the cover of the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics, and was sold by mail order through advertisements there, in Radio-Electronics, and in other hobbyist magazines. The designers hoped to sell a few hundred build-it-yourself kits to hobbyists, and were surprised when they sold thousands in the first month. The Altair also appealed to individuals and businesses that just wanted a computer and purchased the assembled version. The Altair is widely recognized as the spark that ignited the microcomputer revolution as the first commercially successful personal computer. The computer bus designed for the Altair was to become a de facto standard in the form of the S-100 bus, and the first programming language for the machine was Microsoft's founding product, Altair BASIC.

IBM Personal Computer personal computer

The IBM Personal Computer, commonly known as the IBM PC, is the original version and progenitor of the IBM PC compatible hardware platform. It is IBM model number 5150, and was introduced on August 12, 1981. It was created by a team of engineers and designers under the direction of Don Estridge of the IBM Entry Systems Division in Boca Raton, Florida.

DEC Alpha 64-bit RISC microprocessor

Alpha, originally known as Alpha AXP, is a 64-bit reduced instruction set computing (RISC) instruction set architecture (ISA) developed by Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), designed to replace their 32-bit VAX complex instruction set computer (CISC) ISA. Alpha was implemented in microprocessors originally developed and fabricated by DEC. These microprocessors were most prominently used in a variety of DEC workstations and servers, which eventually formed the basis for almost all of their mid-to-upper-scale lineup. Several third-party vendors also produced Alpha systems, including PC form factor motherboards.

As of 2011, the Guinness World Record for the highest CPU clock rate is an overclocked, 8.429 GHz AMD Bulldozer-based FX-8150 chip. It surpassed the previous record, an 8.308 GHz AMD FX "Piledriver" chip. [3]

As of mid-2013, the highest clock rate on a production processor is the IBM zEC12, clocked at 5.5 GHz, which was released in August 2012.


Engineers continue to find new ways to design CPUs that settle a little more quickly or use slightly less energy per transition, pushing back those limits, producing new CPUs that can run at slightly higher clock rates. The ultimate limits to energy per transition are explored in reversible computing.

The first fully reversible CPU, the Pendulum, was implemented using standard CMOS transistors in the late 1990s at MIT. [4] [5] [6] [7]

Engineers also continue to find new ways to design CPUs so that they complete more instructions per clock cycle, thus achieving a lower CPI (cycles or clock cycles per instruction) count, although they may run at the same or a lower clock rate as older CPUs. This is achieved through architectural techniques such as instruction pipelining and out-of-order execution which attempts to exploit instruction level parallelism in the code.


The clock rate of a CPU is most useful for providing comparisons between CPUs in the same family. The clock rate is only one of several factors that can influence performance when comparing processors in different families. For example, an IBM PC with an Intel 80486 CPU running at 50 MHz will be about twice as fast (internally only) as one with the same CPU and memory running at 25 MHz, while the same will not be true for MIPS R4000 running at the same clock rate as the two are different processors that implement different architectures and microarchitectures. Further, a "cumulative clock rate" measure is sometimes assumed by taking the total cores and multiplying by the total clock rate (e.g. dual core 2.8 GHz being considered processor cumulative 5.6 GHz). There are many other factors to consider when comparing the performance of CPUs, like the width of the CPU's data bus, the latency of the memory, and the cache architecture.

The clock rate alone is generally considered to be an inaccurate measure of performance when comparing different CPUs families. Software benchmarks are more useful. Clock rates can sometimes be misleading since the amount of work different CPUs can do in one cycle varies. For example, superscalar processors can execute more than one instruction per cycle (on average), yet it is not uncommon for them to do "less" in a clock cycle. In addition, subscalar CPUs or use of parallelism can also affect the performance of the computer regardless of clock rate.

See also

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Athlon series of x86-compatible microprocessors

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Celeron is a brand name given by Intel to a number of different low-end IA-32 and x86-64 computer microprocessor models targeted at low-cost personal computers.

Pentium 4 is a brand by Intel for an entire series of single-core CPUs for desktops, laptops and entry-level servers. The processors were shipped from November 20, 2000, until August 8, 2008.

Pentium III Line of desktop and mobile microprocessors produced by Intel

The Pentium III brand refers to Intel's 32-bit x86 desktop and mobile microprocessors based on the sixth-generation P6 microarchitecture introduced on February 26, 1999. The brand's initial processors were very similar to the earlier Pentium II-branded microprocessors. The most notable differences were the addition of the SSE instruction set, and the introduction of a controversial serial number embedded in the chip during the manufacturing process.

The PR system was a figure of merit developed by AMD and Cyrix in the mid-1990s as a method of comparing their x86 processors to those of rival Intel.

Overclocking action of increasing a components clock rate

Overclocking in the context of computing devices refers to making them "run faster" than originally intended. More specifically it is the configuration of computer hardware components to operate faster than certified by the original manufacturer, with "faster" specified as clock frequency in megahertz (MHz) or gigahertz (GHz). Commonly operating voltage is also increased to maintain a component's operational stability at accelerated speeds. Semiconductor devices operated at higher frequencies and voltages increase power consumption and heat. An overclocked device may be unreliable or fail completely if the additional heat load is not removed or power delivery components cannot meet increased power demands. Many device warranties state that overclocking and/or over-specification voids any warranty.

Front-side bus computer communication interface (bus) often used in Intel-chip-based computers during the 1990s and 2000s; replaced by replaced by HyperTransport, Intel QuickPath Interconnect or Direct Media Interface in modern CPUs

A front-side bus (FSB) is a computer communication interface (bus) that was often used in Intel-chip-based computers during the 1990s and 2000s. The competing EV6 bus served the same function for AMD CPUs. Both typically carry data between the central processing unit (CPU) and a memory controller hub, known as the northbridge.

Underclocking, also known as downclocking, is modifying a computer or electronic circuit's timing settings to run at a lower clock rate than is specified. Underclocking is used to reduce a computer's power consumption, increase battery life, reduce heat emission, and it may also increase the system's stability and compatibility. Underclocking may be implemented by the factory, but many computers and components may be underclocked by the end user.

Tejas was a code name for Intel's microprocessor which was to be a successor to the latest Pentium 4 with the Prescott core. Jayhawk was a code name for its Xeon counterpart. The cancellation of the processors in May 2004 underscored Intel's historical transition of its focus on single-core processors to multi-core processors.

In computer architecture, instructions per cycle (IPC) is one aspect of a processor's performance: the average number of instructions executed for each clock cycle. It is the multiplicative inverse of cycles per instruction.

The megahertz myth, or less commonly the gigahertz myth, refers to the misconception of only using clock rate to compare the performance of different microprocessors. While clock rates are a valid way of comparing the performance of different speeds of the same model and type of processor, other factors such as an amount of execution units, pipeline depth, cache hierarchy, branch prediction, and instruction sets can greatly affect the performance when considering different processors. For example, one processor may take two clock cycles to add two numbers and another clock cycle to multiply by a third number, whereas another processor may do the same calculation in two clock cycles. Comparisons between different types of processors are difficult because performance varies depending on the type of task. A benchmark is a more thorough way of measuring and comparing computer performance.

Enhanced SpeedStep is a series of dynamic frequency scaling technologies built into some Intel microprocessors that allow the clock speed of the processor to be dynamically changed by software. This allows the processor to meet the instantaneous performance needs of the operation being performed, while minimizing power draw and heat generation. EIST was introduced in several Prescott 6 series in the first quarter of 2005, namely the Pentium 4 660.

The Time Stamp Counter (TSC) is a 64-bit register present on all x86 processors since the Pentium. It counts the number of cycles since reset. The instruction RDTSC returns the TSC in EDX:EAX. In x86-64 mode, RDTSC also clears the higher 32 bits of RAX and RDX. Its opcode is 0F 31. Pentium competitors such as the Cyrix 6x86 did not always have a TSC and may consider RDTSC an illegal instruction. Cyrix included a Time Stamp Counter in their MII.

CPU multiplier mechanism that sets the ratio of an internal CPU clock rate to the externally supplied clock

In computing, the clock multiplier sets the ratio of an internal CPU clock rate to the externally supplied clock. A CPU with a 10x multiplier will thus see 10 internal cycles for every external clock cycle. For example, a system with an external clock of 100 MHz and a 36x clock multiplier will have an internal CPU clock of 3.6 GHz. The external address and data buses of the CPU also use the external clock as a fundamental timing base; however, they could also employ a (small) multiple of this base frequency to transfer data faster.

AMD Turion is the brand name AMD applies to its x86-64 low-power consumption (mobile) processors codenamed K8L. The Turion 64 and Turion 64 X2/Ultra processors compete with Intel's mobile processors, initially the Pentium M and the Intel Core and Intel Core 2 processors.

Dynamic frequency scaling is a technique in computer architecture whereby the frequency of a microprocessor can be automatically adjusted "on the fly" depending on the actual needs, to conserve power and reduce the amount of heat generated by the chip. Dynamic frequency scaling helps preserve battery on mobile devices and decrease cooling cost and noise on quiet computing settings, or can be useful as a security measure for overheated systems. Dynamic frequency scaling is used in all ranges of computing systems, ranging from mobile systems to data centers to reduce the power at the times of low workload.

Phenom II family of AMDs multi-core 45 nm processors

Phenom II is a family of AMD's multi-core 45 nm processors using the AMD K10 microarchitecture, succeeding the original Phenom. Advanced Micro Devices released the Socket AM2+ version of Phenom II in December 2008, while Socket AM3 versions with DDR3 support, along with an initial batch of triple- and quad-core processors were released on February 9, 2009. Dual-processor systems require Socket F+ for the Quad FX platform. The next-generation Phenom II X6 was released on April 27, 2010.

Conroe (microprocessor)

Conroe is the code name for many Intel processors sold as Core 2 Duo, Xeon, Pentium Dual-Core and Celeron. It was the first desktop processor to be based on the Core microarchitecture, replacing the NetBurst microarchitecture based Cedar Mill processor. It has product code 80557, which is shared with Allendale and Conroe-L that are very similar but have a smaller L2 cache. Conroe-L has only one processor core and a new CPUID model. The mobile version of Conroe is Merom, the dual-socket server version is Woodcrest, and the quad-core desktop version is Kentsfield. Conroe was replaced by the 45 nm Wolfdale processor.

AMD FX series of high-end AMD microprocessors

AMD FX is a series of high-end AMD microprocessors for personal computers debuted in 2011, claimed as AMD's first native 8-core desktop processor. The line was introduced with the Bulldozer microarchitecture at launch, and was then succeeded by its derivative Piledriver in 2012.


  1. "Overclocking" early processors was as simple – and as limited – as changing the discrete clock crystal ... The advent of adjustable clock generators has allowed "overclocking" to be done without changing parts such as the clock crystal."-- Overclocking Guide Part 1: Risks, Choices and Benefits : Who Overclocks? by Thomas Soderstrom
  2. Chiappetta, Marco (23 September 2011). "AMD Breaks 8 GHz Overclock with Upcoming FX Processor, Sets World Record". HotHardware. Retrieved 2012-04-28.
  3. Michael Frank. "RevComp - The Reversible and Quantum Computing Research Group".
  4. Michael Swaine. "Backward to the Future". Dr. Dobb's Journal. 2004.
  5. Michael P. Frank. "Reversible Computing: A Requirement for Extreme Supercomputing".
  6. Matthew Arthur Morrison. "Theory, Synthesis, and Application of Adiabatic and Reversible Logic Circuits For Security Applications". 2014.

This article is based on material taken from the Free On-line Dictionary of Computing prior to 1 November 2008 and incorporated under the "relicensing" terms of the GFDL, version 1.3 or later.