You might not realize it, but every time you purchase a new desktop CPU, you also get a ticket for a giveaway called the “silicon lottery.” Two CPUs of the same model can perform differently when pushed to their limits thanks to something called “CPU binning.”
What Is Binning?
Binning is a sorting process in which top-performing chips are sorted from lower-performing chips. It can be used for CPUs, GPUs (graphics cards), and RAM.
Say you want to manufacture and sell two different models of CPU: one that’s fast and expensive, and another that’s slower at a bargain price
Do you design two different models of CPU and manufacture them separately? Why bother when you could just use “binning?”
The manufacturing process is never perfect, especially given the incredible precision necessary to produce CPUs. When you’re manufacturing those speedy, expensive CPUs, you’ll end up with some that just can’t run at the top-end speeds. You can then tweak these to run at slower speeds and sell them as bargain processors.
For a simpler example, say you’re manufacturing an eight- and six-core chip. Rather than manufacturing two separate products, you just have your factory manufacture the eight-core chips. Some will be faulty and only have six functional cores. So, to get six-core chips, you just take those faulty eight-cores, disable the two nonfunctional cores, and then sell them as six-core chips.
Binning is a way of being more efficient and reducing waste in the manufacturing process.
Sorting Processors Into Metaphorical “Bins”
A processor might start its life destined to be a higher-powered processor, such as the Core i7-10700 or its predecessor, the Core i7-9700. But when it comes time for Team Core i7 tryouts, our little chip doesn’t make the cut and never gets a jersey.
The chip can still perform reasonably well, however, and it would be a waste of time and money to just throw it out. So, our silicon “gets binned,” has some cores disabled, and drops down to Team Core i5, where it happily competes in the Spreadsheet Olympics.
Creating a processor is a complicated, time-consuming, and expensive process. That’s why businesses always want to reduce waste as much as possible during manufacturing. So, if a chip designed to be a top-performer doesn’t pass quality assurance, it gets the proverbial chuck into the lower-performing bin to become a CPU further down the product line.
Now, to be clear, no one is grabbing CPUs, throwing them in a barrel, and then dumping them into Core i5 or Core i3 boxes. Just think of “binning” as a type of sorting, in which CPUs get placed into different pricing and performance tiers depending on how well they do during factory testing.
Also, keep in mind that different generations of CPUs can have different (or multiple) binning procedures. The examples we covered above are for illustrative purposes only—that isn’t necessarily what happens with every generation of CPU.
RELATED: How Are CPUs Actually Made?
How It All Happens
We’ve covered how CPUs are made before, including the more complicated details. Briefly, however, a CPU manufacturer starts with a silicon ingot that gets sliced into thin circular wafers. The wafers then get transistors etched onto them via a process called photolithography.
There are also various steps during manufacturing in which the wafers are polished, doused with copper ions, and have metal layers added to them. By the end of this complicated process, you get a finished wafer loaded with processors.
Most of the work is done by machines with humans observing in protective overalls, booties, hoods, and even masks. This is because silicon wafers are sensitive to contaminants, including human skin and hair. Thus, one of the main goals during manufacturing is to keep the wafers as pristine as possible.
Inevitably, however, there’ll be sections of the wafer that aren’t up to snuff. Once the wafer is cut into CPU silicon and placed on the green substrate (that piece of circuit board that sits between the silicon and the computer’s CPU socket), the units go off for testing.
This is when our “tryouts” occur. The company runs tests on the CPUs to see if they perform at the right voltages, temperatures, and clock speeds. Any that don’t might be candidates for lower-tiered models.
A processor might be downgraded because it has poor-performing or nonfunctional cores. These cores are then disabled, usually by being laser cut. When that happens, an eight-core chip can become a six- or even a four-core.
Similarly, if the integrated GPU isn’t working, it might be disabled and the CPU downgraded to an Intel F-series chip that ships without integrated graphics.
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’s called a “core complex,” which is the silicon that contains the CPU’s cores.
Ryzen 5000 CCXs have eight cores by design, meaning 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 poor-performing or nonfunctioning cores to create 12- and 6-core CPUs without much waste.
How Binning Can Impact Overclocking
For anyone who doesn’t overclock their CPU, binning often doesn’t have much of a noticeable impact. The specs you see on the package are what you can expect the CPU to do in your system.
If you’re interested in overclocking, however, binning can matter, and the aforementioned silicon lottery comes into play. It’s possible for disabled cores to be coaxed back to life, but this is exceedingly rare now as bad cores are physically disabled via laser cutting. A more common result is the chip just performs at higher frequencies than expected.
This varies from CPU to CPU, which is why it’s dubbed a “lottery.” There are even specialty retailers that sort the processors by performance and sell the same model of CPUs with different top frequencies.
This means two Ryzen 7 processors sitting right next to each other on a store shelf can have very different outcomes for overclocking. One might perform faster, but also get a lot hotter than it should, while the other performs as expected based on the processor’s boost speeds.
If you want to find out how you fared in the silicon lottery, be sure to check out our guide on how to overclock an Intel processor. AMD overclocking is a little easier if you use the company’s Ryzen Master software, rather than dipping into the BIOS with Intel CPUs. Just remember that overclocking voids your part’s warranty.
Scratching that ticket for the silicon lottery with overclocking isn’t for everyone. However, it can be worthwhile, especially if you treat it as a “built-in upgrade” for a CPU that’s a bit older. Even if you’re not interested in overclocking, at least you now know what binning is!