Clock rate

Clock rate
"Clocking" redirects here. For tampering with vehicle odometers, see Odometer fraud.

The clock rate is the rate in cycles per second (measured in hertz) or the frequency of the clock in any synchronous circuit, such as a central processing unit (CPU). The clock period is measured in time units (not cycles) and is the time between successive cycles.

For example, a crystal oscillator frequency reference typically is synonymous with a fixed sinusoidal waveform, a clock rate is that frequency reference translated by electronic circuitry (AD Converter) into a corresponding square wave pulse [typically] pr sampling rate for digital electronics applications. In this context the use of the word, speed (physical movement), should not be confused with frequency or its corresponding clock rate. Thus, the term "clock speed" is a misnomer.

A single clock cycle (typically shorter than a nanosecond in modern non-embedded microprocessors) toggles between a logical zero and a logical one state[dubious ].

CPU manufacturers typically charge premium prices for CPUs that operate at higher clock rates, a practice called binning. For a given CPU, the clock rates are determined at the end of the manufacturing process through actual testing of each CPU. CPUs that are tested as complying with a given set of standards may be labeled with a higher clock rate, e.g., 1.50 GHz, while those that fail the standards of the higher clock rate yet pass the standards of a lesser clock rate may be labeled with the lesser clock rate, e.g., 1.33 GHz, and sold at a lower price.[1] [2]

The clock of a CPU is normally determined by the frequency of an oscillator crystal. The first commercial PC, the Altair 8800 (by MITS), used an Intel 8080 CPU with a clock rate of 2 MHz (2 million cycles/second). The original IBM PC (c. 1981) had a clock rate of 4.77 MHz (4,772,727 cycles/second). In 1995, Intel's P5 Pentium chip ran at 100 MHz (100 million cycles/second), and in 2002, an Intel Pentium 4 model was introduced as the first CPU with a clock rate of 3 GHz (three billion cycles/second corresponding to ~0.3 10−9seconds per cycle).

With any particular CPU, replacing the crystal with another crystal that oscillates half the frequency ("underclocking") will generally make the CPU run at half the performance. It will also make the CPU produce roughly half as much waste heat. Conversely, some people try to increase performance of a CPU by replacing the oscillator crystal with a higher frequency crystal ("overclocking").[1] However, the amount of overclocking is limited by the time for the CPU to settle after each pulse, and by the extra heat created.

After each clock pulse, the signal lines inside the CPU need time to settle to their new state. That is, every signal line must finish transitioning from 0 to 1, or from 1 to 0. If the next clock pulse comes before that, the results will be incorrect. Chip manufacturers publish a "maximum clock rate" specification, and they test chips before selling them to make sure they meet that specification, even when executing the most complicated instructions with the data patterns that take the longest to settle (testing at the temperature and voltage that runs the lowest performance).

Also, some energy is wasted as heat (mostly inside the driving transistors) whenever a signal line makes a transition from the 0 to the 1 state or vice versa. When executing complicated instructions that cause many transitions, higher clock rates produce more heat. If electricity is converted to heat faster than a particular computer cooling system can cool it, then the transistors may get hot enough to be destroyed.

Engineers continue to find new ways to design CPUs that settle a little more quickly or use slightly less energy per transition, pushing back those limits, producing new CPUs that can run at slightly higher clock rates. The ultimate limits to energy per transition are explored in reversible computing, although no reversible computers have yet been implemented. Engineers have struggled to design CPUs that run much faster than about 3.5 GHz due to thermodynamic limits in current semiconductor process technologies and other limitations. The highest clock speed microprocessor ever sold commercially to date is found inside IBM's zEnterprise 196 mainframe, introduced in July, 2010. The z196's cores run continuously at 5.2 GHz.

Engineers also continue to find new ways to design CPUs so that, although they may run at the same or a lower clock rate as older CPUs, they complete more instructions per clock cycle.



The clock rate of a CPU is most useful for providing comparisons between CPUs in the same family. The clock rate is only one of several factors that can influence performance when comparing processors in different families. For example, an IBM PC with an Intel 80486 CPU running at 50 MHz will be about twice as fast (internally only) as one with the same CPU and memory running at 25 MHz, while the same will not be true for MIPS R4000 running at the same clock rate as the two are different processors that implement different architectures and microarchitectures. There are many other factors to consider when comparing the performance of CPUs, like the clock rate and width of the CPU's data bus, the latency of the memory, and the cache architecture.

Clock rates alone should not be used when comparing different CPUs families. Software benchmarks are more useful. Clock rates can sometimes be misleading since the amount of work different CPUs can do in one cycle varies. For example, superscalar processors can execute more than one instruction per cycle (on average), yet it is not uncommon for them to do "less" in a clock cycle. In addition, subscalar CPUs or use of parallelism can also affect the performance of the computer regardless of clock rate.


For most of the early history of microcomputers, clock rate was not a differentiating factor between models. Each CPU type was typically clocked at a standard rate - 1 MHz for 6502-based architectures like the Commodore 64 and Apple II series, 4.77 MHz for Z-80 computers and the first generation of Intel 8086 as used in the original IBM PC, 8 MHz for early Motorola 68000 machines such as the Macintosh 128k and Amiga 1000. Since these processor generations followed each other quickly and generally did not compete between themselves (except for the Z-80 and 8086, which shared the same clock rate), manufacturers tended not to emphasize clock rate in their marketing material.

Computer buyers first became aware of clock speed when new generations of PC compatibles started to appear with "Turbo" clock rates faster than 4.77 MHz. On some of these computers the speed was selectable by a front panel switch from the faster speed down to the then-standard 4.77 MHz. This was used for games, which had no timing routines of their own then, or for compatibility with software that couldn't operate at the faster speed. When the 80286 was released in 1982 at a standard clock rate of 6 MHz, followed by the 80386 in 1985, running at 12 MHz, computer manufacturers seized on the clock rate as an easy way to promote the faster, more expensive CPUs to potential buyers. They were helped by Intel, which was able to increase the rate of the 286 to 25 MHz over that processor's lifetime, and the 386 was clocked up to 40 MHz by the time it was superseded by the 80486.

By the early 1990s, most computer companies advertised their computers' performance chiefly by referring to their CPUs' clock rates. This led to various marketing games, such as Apple Computer's decision to create and market the Power Macintosh 8100 with a clock rate of 110 MHz so that Apple could advertise that its computer had the fastest clock rate available—the fastest Intel processor available at the time ran at 100 MHz. This slight superiority in clock rate was meaningless, however, since the PowerPC 601 and Pentium implemented different instruction set architectures and had different microarchitectures.

After 2000, Intel's competitor, Advanced Micro Devices, started using model numbers instead of clock rates to market its CPUs because of the lower CPU clocks when compared to Intel. Continuing this trend it attempted to dispel the "megahertz myth" which it claimed did not tell the whole story of the power of its CPUs. In 2004, Intel announced it would do the same, probably because of consumer confusion over its Pentium M mobile CPU, which reportedly ran at about half the clock rate of the roughly equivalent Pentium 4 CPU. As of 2007, performance improvements have continued to come through innovations in pipelining, instruction sets, and the development of multi-core processors, rather than clock rate increases (which have been constrained by CPU power dissipation issues).


  1. ^ "Overclocking" early processors was as simple - and as limited - as changing the discrete clock crystal ... The advent of adjustable clock generators has allowed "overclocking" to be done without changing parts such as the clock crystal."-- Overclocking Guide Part 1: Risks, Choices and Benefits : Who Overclocks? by Thomas Soderstrom

This article was originally based on material from the Free On-line Dictionary of Computing, which is licensed under the GFDL.

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