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11 most important chips in computing history

Processors that made a difference

A microprocessor is the brain of your PC and yet can still fit into the palm of your hand. The computing power that once required a room full of equipment now fits onto a razor-thin slice of silicon, usually no larger than a centimetre square.

Almost everything we do these days - such as cooking our food, driving our cars, doing our laundry, and, of course, reading articles just like this one - depends on these mighty mites.

In the wide field of microprocessors, some chips have stood out for the influence they've had technologically, culturally, and economically. They aren't necessarily the most successful, the best selling, or the most powerful, but they each started an important and persistent trend - an architecture, a marketing concept, or a whole new use for computing.

11. Intel Pentium (1993)

Breakthrough application: Brand-name processors

After a court rejected trademarking '386' in a 1991 ruling, Intel realised that it would need to move beyond mere numbers in naming its widely anticipated new processor, which had been known as the 586. So the processor giant devised a unique, easy-to-trademark identity: Pentium.

Initially critics ridiculed the name, but in fact the Pentium opened a new era in consumer-microprocessor marketing. No longer were CPUs referred to solely by numbers such as 286, 386, and 486; instead they carried a brand name that resonated in the public consciousness.

That brand gave Intel processors a certain cachet that computer owners could easily brag about. Rival manufacturers could no longer produce clones and call them '48' or similar - a chip was either a real Pentium or a knock-off. The trademarked CPU became a status symbol, and it remains so today.

Photo: CPU-World.com

10. Motorola 68000 (1980)

Breakthrough application: Apple Macintosh (1984)

When Motorola released the 68000 in 1980, it was one of the most powerful chips on the market. Initially the 68000 powered Unix workstations and servers, including the Sun-1.

But the hybrid 16/32-bit processor didn't make huge waves in the personal-computer world until Apple incorporated it in 1984's Macintosh. Descendants of the 68000 powered all Macintosh computers until Apple switched to PowerPC chips in the late 1990s.

After Motorola dropped the 68000's price the mid-1980s, the processor also saw significant use in the Atari ST and Amiga computer lines, the Sega Genesis video game console, and arcade machines. The 68K core still lives on in embedded microcontrollers used in various applications such as automotive-engine controllers, front-panel displays, and weather-monitoring instruments.

Photos: CPU-World.com, Apple

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NEXT PAGE: AIM PowerPC 601 and RCA COSMAC CDP 1802

  1. Chips that made a difference
  2. AIM PowerPC 601 and RCA COSMAC CDP 1802
  3. AMD Opterton 240 and Zilog Z80
  4. MOS Technology 6502 and Intel 8088
  5. Acorn Computers ARM2 and Intel 8080
  6. The number one processor


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