You might not realize it, but every time you buy a new desktop processor you also get a ticket for a giveaway called a “silicon lottery”. Two processors of the same model can perform differently when pushed to their limits with something called “CPU binning”.
What is Binning?
Binning is a sorting process in which the best performing chips are sorted from the lowest performing chips. It can be used for processors, GPUs (graphics cards) and RAM.
Say you want to make and sell two different processor models: one fast and expensive and the other slower cheaply.
Do you design two different models of CPU and manufacture them separately? Why bother when you can just use “binning”?
The manufacturing process is never perfect, especially given the incredible precision required to produce processors. When you make these fast and expensive processors, you’ll end up with some that just can’t run at the highest speeds. You can then modify them to run at slower speeds and sell them as bargain processors.
For a simpler example, let’s say you are making an eight and six core chip. Rather than making two separate products, you just need to have your factory make the eight-core chips. Some will be faulty and have only six functional cores. So to get six-core chips, you just need to take those eight bad cores, deactivate the two non-working cores, and then sell them as six-core chips.
Binning is a way to be more efficient and reduce waste in the manufacturing process.
Sorting processors into metaphorical “bins”
A processor can start its life intended to be a more powerful processor, such as the Core i7-10700 or its predecessor, the Core i7-9700. But when it comes time to try out Team Core i7, our little chip doesn’t make the cut and never gets a jersey.
However, the chip can still perform reasonably well and it would be a waste of time and money to just throw it away. Thus, our silicon “is grouped”, certain cores are deactivated and is found in Team Core i5, where it happily participates in the Spreadsheet Olympics.
Creating a processor is a complicated, time consuming and expensive process. This is why companies always want to minimize waste during manufacturing. So if a chip designed to perform the best fails to pass QA, it puts the proverbial chuck in the lowest performing bin to become a lower processor in the product line.
Now, to be clear, no one grabs the processors, throws them in a barrel, and then throws them in Core i5 or Core i3 cases. Just think of “binning” as a type of sorting, in which processors are placed in different price and performance levels based on their performance in factory testing.
Also, keep in mind that different generations of processors may have different (or more) consolidation procedures. The examples we have described above are for illustrative purposes only. This is not necessarily what happens with every generation of CPU.
RELATED: How are processors actually made?
How it all happens
We have covered how processors are made before, including the most complicated details. In short, however, a CPU maker starts with a silicon ingot that is cut into thin circular slices. The wafers then receive transistors etched onto them via a process called photolithography.
There are also various stages during manufacturing in which the wafers are polished, sprayed with copper ions and to which metallic layers are added. At the end of this complicated process, you have a finished wafer loaded with processors.
Most of the work is done by machines with humans observing in protective suits, slippers, balaclavas, and even masks. This is because silicon wafers are sensitive to contaminants, including human skin and hair. So, one of the main goals in manufacturing is to keep the pads as intact as possible.
Inevitably, however, there will be sections of the pad that won’t measure up. Once the wafer is cut from the processor silicon and placed on the green substrate (that piece of printed circuit board that sits between the silicon and the computer’s processor socket), the units leave for testing.
This is when our “trials” occur. The company tests processors to see if they are performing at the correct voltages, temperatures and clock speeds. Those who are not may be candidates for lower level models.
A processor can be downgraded due to its poorly performing or non-functioning cores. These cores are then deactivated, usually by being laser cut. When this happens, an eight-core chip can become a six or even a four-core chip.
Likewise, if the integrated GPU is not functioning, it can be disabled and the processor downgraded to an Intel F-series chip that comes without an integrated graphics card.
For example, in October 2020, AMD released four Ryzen 5000 desktop processors: the 9 5950X, 9 5900X, 7,5800X, and 5 5600X, with 16, 12, 8, and 6 cores, respectively. These processors are built using what is called a “core complex”, which is the silicon that contains the processor cores.
The Ryzen 5000 CCX have eight cores by design, which means the eight-core Ryzen 7 5800X has one CCX, while the 16-core Ryzen 9 5950X has two.
But how do you get a 12-core chip from an eight-core CCX? Most likely, via binning and disabling poorly performing or non-functioning cores to create 12 and 6 core processors without too much waste.
How binning can impact overclocking
For anyone who isn’t overclocking their processor, binning often doesn’t have much of a noticeable impact. The specs you see on the packaging are what you can expect the processor to do in your system.
If you’re interested in overclocking, however, binning may matter, and the aforementioned silicon lottery kicks in. It is possible for disabled cores to come back to life, but this is extremely rare now, as cores defective are physically disabled by laser cutting. A more common result is that the chip only operates at higher frequencies than expected.
It varies from processor to processor, which is why it is called a “lottery”. There are even specialty retailers that sort processors by performance and sell the same model of processors with different top frequencies.
This means that two Ryzen 7 processors sitting right next to each other on a store shelf can have very different results for overclocking. One can run faster, but also get a lot hotter than it should, while the other performs as intended depending on CPU boost speeds.
If you want to know how you performed in the silicon lottery, be sure to check out our guide on how to overclock an intel processor. AMD overclocking is a bit easier if you use Ryzen Master Software, rather than diving into the BIOS with Intel processors. Remember that overclocking voids your part’s warranty.
Scratching that ticket to the overclocked silicon lottery isn’t for everyone. However, it may be worth it, especially if you think of it as an “inline upgrade” for a slightly older processor. Even if you aren’t interested in overclocking, at least now you know what binning is!