Upgrading And Repairing PCs 21st Edition: Processor Specifications

Data I/O Bus, Address Bus, And Internal Registers

Data I/O Bus

Two of the more important features of a processor are the speed and width of its external data bus. These define the rate at which data can be moved into or out of the processor.

Data in a computer is sent as digital information in which certain voltages or voltage transitions occurring within specific time intervals represent data as 1s and 0s. You can increase the amount of data being sent (called bandwidth) by increasing either the cycling time or the number of bits being sent at a time, or both. Over the years, processor data buses have gone from 8 bits wide to 64 bits wide. The more wires you have, the more individual bits you can send in the same interval. All mod- ern processors from the original Pentium and Athlon through the latest Core i7, AMD FX 83xx series, and even the Itanium series have a 64-bit (8-byte)-wide data bus. Therefore, they can transfer 64 bits of data at a time to and from the motherboard chipset or system memory.

A good way to understand this flow of information is to consider a highway and the traffic it carries. If a highway has only one lane for each direction of travel, only one car at a time can move in a cer- tain direction. If you want to increase the traffic flow (move more cars in a given time), you can either increase the speed of the cars (shortening the interval between them), add more lanes, or both.

As processors evolved, more lanes were added, up to a point. You can think of an 8-bit chip as being a single-lane highway because 1 byte flows through at a time. (1 byte equals 8 individual bits.) The 16-bit chip, with 2 bytes flowing at a time, resembles a two-lane highway. You might have four lanes in each direction to move a large number of automobiles; this structure corresponds to a 32-bit data bus, which has the capability to move 4 bytes of information at a time. Taking this further, a 64-bit data bus is like having an eight-lane highway moving data in and out of the chip.

After 64-bit-wide buses were reached, chip designers found that they couldn’t increase speed further, because it was too hard to synchronize all 64 bits. It was discovered that by going back to fewer lanes, it was possible to increase the speed of the bits (that is, shorten the cycle time) such that even greater bandwidths were possible. Because of this, many newer processors have only 4-bit or 16-bit-wide data buses, yet they have higher bandwidths than the 64-bit buses they replaced.

Another improvement in newer processors is the use of multiple separate buses for different tasks. Traditional processor design had all the data going through a single bus, whereas newer processors have separate physical buses for data to and from the chipset, memory, and graphics card slot(s).

Address Bus

The address bus is the set of wires that carry the addressing information used to describe the memory location to which the data is being sent or from which the data is being retrieved. As with the data bus, each wire in an address bus carries a single bit of information. This single bit is a single digit in the address. The more wires (digits) used in calculating these addresses, the greater the total number of address locations. The size (or width) of the address bus indicates the maximum amount of RAM a chip can address.

The highway analogy in the previous section, “Data I/O Bus,” can show how the address bus fits in. If the data bus is the highway and the size of the data bus is equivalent to the number of lanes, the address bus relates to the house number or street address. The size of the address bus is equivalent to the number of digits in the house address number. For example, if you live on a street in which the address is limited to a two-digit (base 10) number, no more than 100 distinct addresses (00–99) can exist for that street (102). Add another digit, and the number of available addresses increases to 1,000 (000–999), or 103.

Computers use the binary (base 2) numbering system, so a two-digit number provides only four unique addresses (00, 01, 10, and 11), calculated as 22. A three-digit number provides only eight addresses (000–111), which is 23. For example, the 8086 and 8088 processors use a 20-bit address bus that calculates a maximum of 220, or 1,048,576 bytes (1MB), of address locations. The following table describes the memory-addressing capabilities of processors.

Swipe to scroll horizontally
64-bit AMD/Intel
Address Bus40-bit

The data bus and address bus are independent, and chip designers can use whatever size they want for each. Usually, however, chips with larger data buses have larger address buses. The sizes of the buses can provide important information about a chip’s relative power, measured in two important ways. The size of the data bus indicates the chip’s information-moving capability, and the size of the address bus tells you how much memory the chip can handle.

Internal Registers (Internal Data Bus)

The size of the internal registers indicates how much information the processor can operate on at one time and how it moves data around internally within the chip. This is sometimes also referred to as the internal data bus. A register is a holding cell within the processor; for example, the processor can add numbers in two different registers, storing the result in a third register. The register size determines the size of data on which the processor can operate. The register size also describes the type of software or commands and instructions a chip can run. That is, processors with 32-bit internal registers can run 32-bit instructions that are processing 32-bit chunks of data, but processors with 16-bit registers can’t. Processors from the 386 to the Pentium 4 use 32-bit internal registers and can run essentially the same 32-bit OSs and software. The Core 2, Athlon 64, and newer processors have both 32-bit and 64-bit internal registers, which can run existing 32-bit OSs and applications as well as newer 64-bit versions.

  • xkm1948
    Really nice intro article!
  • DelightfulDucklings
    Very interesting article, I quite enjoyed the part about Cache memory
  • kindiana
    nice article
  • burnley14
    One of the most interesting and informative articles I've ever read on the site. Great job!
  • aredflyingbird
    Agreed, excellent article.
  • palladin9479
    Really good article, actually was spot on with how caching works.
  • AndrewJacksonZA
    "Forward From The Editor"
    Shouldn't that be "Foreword?"
  • iam2thecrowe
    I need more cache in my kitchen.
  • LalitMotagi
    Great Article.
  • Rex Romero
    Andrew. It's so advanced so it's forward. lol