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History of the x86 Processor (Page 1/10)

Posted: February 26, 2001
Written by: Dustin "TimmyC" Jones


Arguably one of the fastest advancing components of computer technology, the CPU has leaped to extraordinary levels on both workstation and desktop platforms alike. In the span of 20 or so years, the CPU has made such incredible changes; that it would be hard to imagine what they will be like in another 10 years. 500GHz anybody?

When you say CPU today, the first thing that pops into the heads of an average computer user is Intel or AMD. There are more than just those two companies though. In fact, one company; Cyrix has just released a new - but somewhat disappointing - processor: the Cyrix III. A recently formed company, Transmeta, has released an x86 compatible processor called Crusoe for portable devices.

Going back to the old school days, before the real boom of computer popularity, many other companies were developing their own processors. Both Motorola and Sun had their own flavors of CPU, going by the name 68000 for Motorola (which were used in the early Macintosh systems) and SunSPARC for Sun. However, this article deals with the history of x86, and more specifically, the product history of Intel, AMD, and Cyrix.

Quick Links

Since this is a 10 page article, here are some quick links if you want to skip parts:

Introduction/8086/8088/80186 (Current Page)
Intel 286/386/486
Intel Pentium/MMX/Pro
Intel Pentium II/Xeon/Celeron
Intel Pentium III/IV
AMD 286/486/586
AMD K5/K6/K6-2/K6-3
AMD K6+/Athlon/T-bird/Duron
Cyrix 486/5x86/6x86/MediaGX
Cyrix III and Conclusion

Intel and x86

The start of the modern CPU boom we're still seeing today is hard to put a finger on. I believe the start was at the release of the 8086, which sported a 16-bit internal design and external bus that allowed it to work in 16-bit mode everywhere. The 8086 blasted away at amazing speeds of 4.77 and eventually 8 MHz -- hardly a calculator by today's standards. All this started in 1978.

Late 1978: Just a short while later, Intel released the 8088. This processor also came in 4.77 and 8MHz flavors, and was used in many of the early IBM PC computers as it was cheap(er) to produce and of course, featured the stunning 16-bit internal design. The 8088 used an 8-bit external bus, however, because IBM didn't want the PC being faster than its mainframe systems. An 8-bit external bus also allowed IBM to use off-the-shelf components to make the system, resulting in higher market priority.

I wonder if an 8088 is worth more today than it was then. Not likely.

Next in line was the 80186 which wasn't very impressive or known, as the chip was buggy and there was little improvement over the 8088 except for an external 16 bit bus. It wasn't a popular processor and was passed over by most manufacturers. The big guns hit with the 286...

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