You may not realize it, but every time you buy a new desktop CPU, you also get a ticket to a giveaway called the “silicon lottery”
What is binning?
Binning is a sorting process where the best performing chips are sorted from the poorly performing chips. It can be used for CPUs, GPUs (graphics cards) and RAM.
Let’s say you want to manufacture and sell two different CPU models: one that’s fast and expensive, and another that’s slower at a bargain price
Are you designing two different CPU models and manufacturing them separately? Why bother if you could just use binning?
The manufacturing process is never perfect, especially considering the incredible precision it takes to produce CPUs. When you make those fast, expensive CPUs, you end up with one that just can’t run at the fastest speeds. You can then adapt these to run at slower speeds and sell them as inexpensive processors.
To give a simpler example, suppose you are making an eight and six core chip. Instead of manufacturing two separate products, just let your factory manufacture the eight-core chips. Some are faulty and have only six functional cores. So to get six-core chips, you just take those defective eight-cores, take out the two non-functional cores, and sell them as six-core chips.
Binning is a way to be more efficient and to reduce waste during the production process.
Sorting processors into metaphorical “bins”
A processor can start life as 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 won’t make it and never get a jersey.
However, the chip can still perform quite well and it would be a waste of time and money to just throw it away. So our silicon “gets discarded,” knocked out some cores, and falls back to Team Core i5, where it happily competes in the Spreadsheet Olympics.
Making a processor is a complicated, time consuming and expensive process. That is why companies always want to reduce waste during manufacturing as much as possible. So if a chip designed to be a top performer doesn’t pass quality assurance, it’ll get the proverbial claw in the underperforming bin to become a CPU further down the product line.
To be clear, no one picks up CPUs, throws them in a barrel, then dumps them in Core i5 or Core i3 boxes. Just think of “binning” as sort of sorting, where CPUs are placed in different price and performance levels depending on how well they fare in factory testing.
Also keep in mind that different generations of CPUs can have different (or multiple) binning procedures. The examples we’ve covered above are for illustrative purposes only – that’s not necessarily what happens with each generation of CPU.
RELATED: How are CPUs actually made?
How it all happens
We’ve discussed how CPUs are made before, including the more complicated details. Basically, a CPU manufacturer starts with a silicon rod that is cut into thin circular wafers. The wafers then have transistors etched on them through a process called photolithography.
There are also several steps in manufacturing where the wafers are polished, doused with copper ions and metal layers added. At the end of this complicated process, you will get a finished wafer loaded with processors.
Most of the work is done by machines where people observe in protective overalls, slippers, hoods and even masks. This is because silicon wafers are sensitive to contaminants, including human skin and hair. So one of the main goals during manufacturing is to keep the wafers as clean as possible.
However, it is inevitable that there are parts of the wafer that cannot sniff. Once the wafer is cut in CPU silicon and placed on the green substrate (that piece of printed circuit board that sits between the silicon and the computer’s CPU connector), the units begin testing.
This is when our “try-outs” take place. The company is running tests on the CPUs to see if they are performing at the correct voltages, temperatures and clock speeds. Anyone who doesn’t can qualify for lower tier models.
A processor can be downgraded because it has poorly performing or non-functional cores. These cores are then turned off, usually by laser cutting. When that happens, an eight-core chip can become a six- or even a four-core.
Likewise, if the integrated GPU is not working, it may be disabled and the CPU will be downgraded to an Intel F-series chip that ships 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 a so-called ‘core complex’, the silicon that contains the cores of the CPU.
Ryzen 5000 CCXs have eight cores by default, meaning the Ryzen 7 5800X with eight cores has one CCX, while the Ryzen 9 5950X with 16 cores has two.
But how do you get a 12-core chip from an 8-core CCX? Most likely through binning and disabling underperforming or non-working cores to create 12- and 6-core CPUs without much waste.
How binning can affect overclocking
For anyone who doesn’t overclock their CPU, binning often doesn’t have much noticeable impact. The specifications you see on the package are what you can expect the CPU to do in your system.
However, if you’re interested in overclocking, binning can matter, and the aforementioned silicon lottery comes into play. It’s possible for disabled cores to be brought back to life, but this is extremely rare now that bad cores are physically disabled via laser cutting. A more common result is that the chip simply performs at higher frequencies than expected.
This varies from CPU to CPU, which is why it is called a “lottery”. There are even specialty stores that sort the processors by performance and sell the same model CPUs with different top frequencies.
This means that two Ryzen 7 processors sitting side by side on a store shelf can have very different outcomes for overclocking. One might perform faster, but it also gets a lot hotter than it should, while the other performs as expected based on the processor’s boost speeds.
If you want to know how you did in the silicon lottery, be sure to check out our guide on overclocking an Intel processor. AMD overclocking is a bit easier if you’re using the company’s Ryzen Master software, rather than diving into the BIOS with Intel CPUs. Remember, overclocking will void your part warranty.
Scratching the silicon lottery ticket with overclocking is not for everyone. However, it may be worth it, especially considering it a “built-in upgrade” for a CPU that is a bit older. Even if you’re not interested in overclocking, at least you now know what binning is!
RELATED: How to Overclock Your Intel Processor and Speed Up Your PC