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A personal computer is probably what you are using to look at this website. It's "processor type" is a name given by its manufacturer to a specialized type of integrated circuit it uses to perform computations.

For example, a pocket calculator has a very simple processor. With this processor a calculator is only capable of performing a few calculations per second (regardless of how fast you can type numbers into it). A calculation is a numerical operation like addition, subtraction, multiplication etc.

Current personal computers (2011) have processors capable of performing many many calculations per second. An estimate from wikipedia places the Intel Core i7 2600K (processor type) at approximately 128,300 million instructions per second.

An instruction is not an entire calculation, and long division or multiplication of large numbers may be composed of many instructions. Here's a rough idea. Imagine adding 1 + 1, 128,300,000,000,000 times, by hand. At a quick rate of ten per second it would take roughly 406837 years to complete the task.

A modern computer can do this every second.

However, speed is commonly measured in gigahertz. This is not a direct measure of how many instructions the processor can execute per second, but the rate at which it's internal clock cycles. The internal clock is used to coordinate the calculations so that everything works out alright, and provides some measure of the computer's computational speed.

If you imagine the second hand on a old-timey (analog) wall clock, the amount of time it takes for the hand to rotate fully around the face is equal to one cycle. The term Hertz is a measure of cycles per second. The term "giga" follows a naming convention typical in science and represents one billion. So a 2.9 gigahertz processor (similar to the Intel Core i7 discussed above) cycles 2.9 billion times per second. Pretty fast.

If you were watching a clock cycling at 2.9 GHz you wouldn't be able to visually detect any change at all since your vision cycles somewhere in the 72 Hz range. The hand would instead appear as a solid surface. Of course, if the width of the second hand was approximately one 360th of the clock's circumference this phenomenon would occur closer to 26,000 Hz, 2.6 KHz (kilohertz). So this is a really poor example. If we wanted to take some number of these clocks cycling just at the limit of human vision 2.6 KHz, and we wanted them to collectively cycle as fast as a modern processor we would need to stack up roughly 111,538 of them.

That's a lot of clocks!

Personal computer processors come in a variety of flavors. These are specific to the manufacturer and can be looked up at a manufacturer website (Intel or AMD for PC, Apple for Mac).

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Q: What is personal computer processor type and speed?
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