The 11 most influential microprocessors of all time

From the brains of the Voyager space mission to the inspiration for modern CPUs, here are the chips that built our modern technological culture.

Microprocessors are wondrous devices: They integrate the brain of a computer onto a single electronic component. 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 centimeter 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 realized 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 "486" or the like -- a chip was either a real Pentium or a knock-off. The trademarked CPU became a status symbol, and it remains so today.

10. Motorola 68000 (1980)

Breakthrough application: Apple Macintosh (1984)

Motorola 68000, Apple Macintosh

Photos: CPU-World.com, Apple

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.

9. AIM PowerPC 601 (1992)

Breakthrough application: Apple Power Macintosh 6100 (1994)

PowerPC sprang out of an unnatural and unholy alliance among three fierce competitors: Apple, IBM, and Motorola. The tech giants threw their weight behind this new microprocessor architecture in hopes of breaking the stranglehold that Intel and Microsoft had over the personal-computer market.

Although it didn't vanquish Intel, PowerPC found a niche as the heart of the Apple Macintosh (a runner-up in our list of The 25 Greatest PCs of All Time), which used versions of the CPU from 1994 to 2006. The processor also found acceptance outside of PCs, powering several generations of game consoles, including the Nintendo Wii and the Microsoft Xbox 360. It's also a component of the Sony PlayStation 3's Cell processor.

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