Computer processors were for a long period constructed out of small and medium-scale ICs containing the equivalent of a few to a few hundred transistors. The integration of the whole CPU onto a single VLSI chip therefore greatly reduced the cost of processing capacity. From their humble beginnings, continued increases in microprocessor capacity have rendered other forms of computers almost completely obsolete (see history of computing hardware), with one or more microprocessor as processing element in everything from the smallest embedded systems and handheld devices to the largest mainframes and supercomputers.
Since the early 1970s, the increase in capacity of microprocessors has been known to generally follow Moore's Law, which suggests that the complexity of an integrated circuit, with respect to minimum component cost, doubles every 18 months. In the late 1990s, heat generation (TDP), due to current leakage and other factors, emerged as a leading developmental constraint.
Three projects arguably delivered a complete microprocessor at about the same time, namely Intel's 4004, the Texas Instruments (TI) TMS 1000, and Garrett AiResearch's Central Air Data Computer (CADC).
In 1968, Garrett AiResearch, with designer Ray Holt and Steve Geller, were invited to produce a digital computer to compete with electromechanical systems then under development for the main flight control computer in the US Navy's new F-14 Tomcat fighter. The design was complete by 1970, and used a MOS-based chipset as the core CPU. The design was significantly (approximately 20 times) smaller and much more reliable than the mechanical systems it competed against, and was used in all of the early Tomcat models. This system contained a "a 20-bit, pipelined, parallel multi-microprocessor". However, the system was considered so advanced that the Navy refused to allow publication of the design until 1997. For this reason the CADC, and the MP944 chipset it used, are fairly unknown even today. (see First Microprocessor Chip Set.) TI developed the 4-bit TMS 1000, and stressed pre-programmed embedded applications, introducing a version called the TMS1802NC on September 17, 1971, which implemented a calculator on a chip. The Intel chip was the 4-bit 4004, released on November 15, 1971, developed by Federico Faggin and Marcian Hoff, the manager of the designing team was Leslie L. Vadász.
TI filed for the patent on the microprocessor. Gary Boone was awarded for the single-chip microprocessor architecture on September 4, 1973. It may never be known which company actually had the first working microprocessor running on the lab bench. In both 1971 and 1976, Intel and TI entered into broad patent cross-licensing agreements, with Intel paying royalties to TI for the microprocessor patent. A nice history of these events is contained in court documentation from a legal dispute between Cyrix and Intel, with TI as intervenor and owner of the microprocessor patent.
Interestingly, a third party (Gilbert Hyatt) was awarded a patent which might cover the "microprocessor". See a webpage claiming an invention pre-dating both TI and Intel, describing a "microcontroller". According to a rebuttal and a commentary, the patent was later invalidated, but not before substantial royalties were paid out.
A computer-on-a-chip is a variation of a microprocessor which combines the microprocessor core (CPU), some memory, and I/O (input/output) lines, all on one chip. The computer-on-a-chip patent, called the "microcomputer patent" at the time, , was awarded to Gary Boone and Michael J. Cochran of TI. Aside from this patent, the standard meaning of microcomputer is a computer using one or more microprocessors as its CPU(s), while the concept defined in the patent is perhaps more akin to a microcontroller.
According to A History of Modern Computing, (MIT Press), pp. 220–21, Intel entered into a contract with Computer Terminals Corporation, later called Datapoint, of San Antonio TX, for a chip for a terminal they were designing. Datapoint later decided to use the chip, and Intel marketed it as the 8008 in April, 1972. This was the world's first 8-bit microprocessor. It was the basis for the famous "Mark-8" computer kit advertised in the magazine Radio-Electronics in 1974. The 8008 and its successor, the world-famous 8080, opened up the microprocessor component marketplace.
Both the Z80 and 6502 concentrated on low overall cost, by combining small packaging, simple computer bus requirements, and including circuitry that normally must be provided in a separate chip (example: the Z80 included a memory controller). It was these features that allowed the home computer "revolution" to accelerate sharply in the early 1980s, eventually delivering such inexpensive machines as the Sinclair ZX-81, which sold for US$99.
The Western Design Center, Inc. (WDC) introduced the CMOS 65C02 in 1982 and licensed the design to several firms. It became the core of the Apple IIc and IIe personal computers, medical implantable grade pacemakers and defibrilators, automotive, industrial and consumer devices. WDC pioneered the licensing of microprocessor technology which was later followed by ARM and other microprocessor Intellectual Property (IP) providers in the 1990’s.
Motorola trumped the entire 8-bit market by introducing the MC6809 in 1978, arguably one of the most powerful, orthogonal, and clean 8-bit microprocessor designs ever fielded – and also one of the most complex hard-wired logic designs that ever made it into production for any microprocessor. Microcoding replaced hardwired logic at about this time for all designs more powerful than the MC6809 – because the design requirements were getting too complex for hardwired logic.
A seminal microprocessor in the world of spaceflight was RCA's RCA 1802 (aka CDP1802, RCA COSMAC) (introduced in 1976) which was used in NASA's Voyager and Viking spaceprobes of the 1970s, and onboard the Galileo probe to Jupiter (launched 1989, arrived 1995). RCA COSMAC was the first to implement C-MOS technology. The CDP1802 was used because it could be run at very low power, and because its production process (Silicon on Sapphire) ensured much better protection against cosmic radiation and electrostatic discharges than that of any other processor of the era. Thus, the 1802 is said to be the first radiation-hardened microprocessor.
The RCA 1802 had what is called a static design, meaning that the clock frequency could be made arbitrarily low, even to 0 Hz, a total stop condition. This let the Voyager/Viking/Galileo spacecraft use minimum electric power for long uneventful stretches of a voyage. Timers and/or sensors would awaken/speed up the processor in time for important tasks, such as navigation updates, attitude control, data acquisition, and radio communication.
The first multi-chip 16-bit microprocessor was the National Semiconductor IMP-16, introduced in early 1973. An 8-bit version of the chipset was introduced in 1974 as the IMP-8. During the same year, National introduced the first 16-bit single-chip microprocessor, the National Semiconductor PACE, which was later followed by an NMOS version, the INS8900.
Other early multi-chip 16-bit microprocessors include one used by Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) in the LSI-11 OEM board set and the packaged PDP 11/03 minicomputer, and the Fairchild Semiconductor MicroFlame 9440, both of which were introduced in the 1975 to 1976 timeframe.
The first single-chip 16-bit microprocessor was TI's TMS 9900, which was also compatible with their TI-990 line of minicomputers. The 9900 was used in the TI 990/4 minicomputer, the TI-99/4A home computer, and the TM990 line of OEM microcomputer boards. The chip was packaged in a large ceramic 64-pin DIP package, while most 8-bit microprocessors such as the Intel 8080 used the more common, smaller, and less expensive plastic 40-pin DIP. A follow-on chip, the TMS 9980, was designed to compete with the Intel 8080, had the full TI 990 16-bit instruction set, used a plastic 40-pin package, moved data 8 bits at a time, but could only address 16 KB. A third chip, the TMS 9995, was a new design. The family later expanded to include the 99105 and 99110.
The Western Design Center, Inc. (WDC) introduced the CMOS 65816 16-bit upgrade of the WDC CMOS 65C02 in 1984. The 65816 16-bit microprocessor was the core of the Apple IIgs and later the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, making it one of the most popular 16-bit designs of all time.
Intel followed a different path, having no minicomputers to emulate, and instead "upsized" their 8080 design into the 16-bit Intel 8086, the first member of the x86 family which powers most modern PC type computers. Intel introduced the 8086 as a cost effective way of porting software from the 8080 lines, and succeeded in winning much business on that premise. The 8088, a version of the 8086 that used an external 8-bit data bus, was the microprocessor in the first IBM PC, the model 5150. Following up their 8086 and 8088, Intel released the 80186, 80286 and, in 1985, the 32-bit 80386, cementing their PC market dominance with the processor family's backwards compatibility.
16-bit designs were in the markets only briefly when full 32-bit implementations started to appear.
The most significant of the 32-bit designs is the MC68000, introduced in 1979. The 68K, as it was widely known, had 32-bit registers but used 16-bit internal data paths, and a 16-bit external data bus to reduce pin count, and supported only 24-bit addresses. Motorola generally described it as a 16-bit processor, though it clearly has 32-bit architecture. The combination of high speed, large (16 megabytes (2^24)) memory space and fairly low costs made it the most popular CPU design of its class. The Apple Lisa and Macintosh designs made use of the 68000, as did a host of other designs in the mid-1980s, including the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga.
The world's first single-chip fully-32-bit microprocessor, with 32-bit data paths, 32-bit buses, and 32-bit addresses, was the AT&T Bell Labs BELLMAC-32A, with first samples in 1980, and general production in 1982 (See this bibliographic reference and this general reference). After the divestiture of AT&T in 1984, it was renamed the WE 32000 (WE for Western Electric), and had two follow-on generations, the WE 32100 and WE 32200. These microprocessors were used in the AT&T 3B5 and 3B15 minicomputers; in the 3B2, the world's first desktop supermicrocomputer; in the "Companion", the world's first 32-bit laptop computer; and in "Alexander", the world's first book-sized supermicrocomputer, featuring ROM-pack memory cartridges similar to today's gaming consoles. All these systems ran the UNIX System V operating system.
Intel's first 32-bit microprocessor was the iAPX 432, which was introduced in 1981 but was not a commercial success. It had an advanced capability-based object-oriented architecture, but poor performance compared to other competing architectures such as the Motorola 68000.
Motorola's success with the 68000 led to the MC68010, which added virtual memory support. The MC68020, introduced in 1985 added full 32-bit data and address busses. The 68020 became hugely popular in the Unix supermicrocomputer market, and many small companies (e.g., Altos, Charles River Data Systems) produced desktop-size systems. Following this with the MC68030, which added the MMU into the chip, the 68K family became the processor for everything that wasn't running DOS. The continued success led to the MC68040, which included an FPU for better math performance. A 68050 failed to achieve its performance goals and was not released, and the follow-up MC68060 was released into a market saturated by much faster RISC designs. The 68K family faded from the desktop in the early 1990s.
Other large companies designed the 68020 and follow-ons into embedded equipment. At one point, there were more 68020s in embedded equipment than there were Intel Pentiums in PCs (See this webpage for this embedded usage information). The ColdFire processor cores are derivatives of the venerable 68020.
During this time (early to mid 1980s), National Semiconductor introduced a very similar 16-bit pinout, 32-bit internal microprocessor called the NS 16032 (later renamed 32016), the full 32-bit version named the NS 32032, and a line of 32-bit industrial OEM microcomputers. By the mid-1980s, Sequent introduced the first symmetric multiprocessor (SMP) server-class computer using the NS 32032. This was one of the design's few wins, and it disappeared in the late 1980s.
Other designs included the interesting Zilog Z8000, which arrived too late to market to stand a chance and disappeared quickly.
In the late 1980s, "microprocessor wars" started killing off some of the microprocessors. Apparently, with only one major design win, Sequent, the NS 32032 just faded out of existence, and Sequent switched to Intel microprocessors.
From 1985 to 2003, the 32-bit x86 architectures became increasingly dominant in desktop, laptop, and server markets, and these microprocessors became faster and more capable. Intel had licensed early versions of the architecture to other companies, but declined to license the Pentium, so AMD and Cyrix built later versions of the architecture based on their own designs. During this span, these processors increased in complexity (transistor count) and capability (instructions/second) by at least a factor of 1000. Intel's Pentium line is probably the most famous and recognizable 32-bit processor model, at least with the public at large.
With AMD's introduction of a 64-bit architecture backwards-compatible with x86, x86-64 (now called AMD64), in September 2003, followed by Intel's fully compatible 64-bit extensions (first called IA-32e or EM64T, later renamed Intel 64), the 64-bit desktop era began. Both versions can run 32-bit legacy applications without any speed penalty as well as new 64-bit software. With operating systems Windows XP x64, Windows Vista x64, Linux, BSD and Mac OS X that run 64-bit native, the software too is geared to utilize the full power of such processors. The move to 64 bits is more than just an increase in register size from the IA-32 as it also doubles the number of general-purpose registers.
The move to 64 bits by PowerPC processors had been intended since the processors' design in the early 90s and was not a major cause of incompatibility. Existing integer registers are extended as are all related data pathways, but, as was the case with IA-32, both floating point and vector units had been operating at or above 64 bits for several years. Unlike what happened with IA-32 was extended to x86-64, no new general purpose registers were added in 64-bit PowerPC, so any performance gained when using the 64-bit mode for applications making no use of the larger address space is minimal.
A different approach to improving a computer's performance is to add extra processors, as in symmetric multiprocessing designs which have been popular in servers and workstations since the early 1990s. Keeping up with Moore's Law is becoming increasingly challenging as chip-making technologies approach the physical limits of the technology.
In response, the microprocessor manufacturers look for other ways to improve performance, in order to hold on to the momentum of constant upgrades in the market.
A multi-core processor is simply a single chip containing more than one microprocessor core, effectively multiplying the potential performance with the number of cores (as long as the operating system and software is designed to take advantage of more than one processor). Some components, such as bus interface and second level cache, may be shared between cores. Because the cores are physically very close they interface at much faster clock speeds compared to discrete multiprocessor systems, improving overall system performance.
In 2005, the first mass-market dual-core processors were announced and as of 2007 dual-core processors are widely used in servers, workstations and PCs while quad-core processors are now available for high-end applications in both the home and professional environments.
Sun Microsystems has released the Niagara and Niagara 2 chips, both of which feature an eight-core design. The Niagara 2 supports more threads and operates at 1.6 GHz.
High-end Intel Xeon processors that are on the LGA771 socket are DP (dual processor) capable, as well as the new Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9775 also used in the Mac Pro by Apple and the Intel Skulltrail motherboard.
The first commercial design was released by MIPS Technologies, the 32-bit R2000 (the R1000 was not released). The R3000 made the design truly practical, and the R4000 introduced the world's first 64-bit design. Competing projects would result in the IBM POWER and Sun SPARC systems, respectively. Soon every major vendor was releasing a RISC design, including the AT&T CRISP, AMD 29000, Intel i860 and Intel i960, Motorola 88000, DEC Alpha and the HP-PA.
Market forces have "weeded out" many of these designs, with almost no desktop or laptop RISC processors and with the SPARC being used in Sun designs only. MIPS is primarily used in embedded systems, notably in Cisco routers. The rest of the original crop of designs have disappeared. Other companies have attacked niches in the market, notably ARM, originally intended for home computer use but since focussed on the embedded processor market. Today RISC designs based on the MIPS, ARM or PowerPC core power the vast majority of computing devices.
As of 2007, two 64-bit RISC architectures are still produced in volume for non-embedded applications: SPARC and Power Architecture. The RISC-like Itanium is produced in smaller quantities. The vast majority of 64-bit microprocessors are now x86-64 CISC designs from AMD and Intel.
Though the term "microprocessor" has traditionally referred to a single- or multi-chip CPU or system-on-a-chip (SoC), several types of specialized processing devices have followed from the technology. The most common examples are microcontrollers, digital signal processors (DSP) and graphics processing units (GPU). Many examples of these are either not programmable, or have limited programming facilities. For example, in general GPUs through the 1990s were mostly non-programmable and have only recently gained limited facilities like programmable vertex shaders. There is no universal consensus on what defines a "microprocessor", but it is usually safe to assume that the term refers to a general-purpose CPU of some sort and not a special-purpose processor unless specifically noted.
Silicon Valley has an old saying: "The first chip costs a million dollars; the second one costs a nickel." In other words, most of the cost is in the design and the manufacturing setup: once manufacturing is underway, it costs almost nothing.
Less than 10% of all the CPUs sold in the world are 32-bit or more. Of all the 32-bit CPUs sold, about 2% are used in desktop or laptop personal computers. Most microprocessors are used in embedded control applications such as household appliances, automobiles, and computer peripherals. "Taken as a whole, the average price for a microprocessor, microcontroller, or DSP is just over $6."
In 2007, the companies with the largest share of the microprocessor market were
Other notable microprocessor design companies include: