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Math coprocessors

All modern CPU's consist largely of two units, an integer unit and a floating point unit (FPU). These two units are integrated on one core and together they execute all the instructions. But at the time of the 8086 until the 386 and to some extent the 486, the CPU consisted only of the Integer Unit. The Floating Point Unit was housed in another processor, the math co-processor or short co-processor.

Like the name already says, the math co-processor is a processor that is specialized in math calculations. To be more specific, it does all the calculations involving decimal (floating point) numbers such as scientific calculations and algebraic functions. Calculations (additions, subtractions, multiplications, etc.) involving simple numbers is the job for the integer unit.
Can't the Integer Unit do decimal number calculations? Sure, but it does them slower and other calculations have to wait. A math co-processor helps the CPU to do its work faster by doing the specialized calculations.

But what applications in the MS-DOS time could benefit from having a co-processor?
First of all the software had to be able to communicate with the co-processor to use the FPU's calculating power. When the FPU could be accessed the software would accelerate.
Software that could benefit from the extra calculating power were CAD/CAM and graphical applications, but also the performance of some spreadsheet and database applications increased. Looking at the applications that used a math co-processor it can be said that not everybody would benefit from having one. And that was a good thing because co-processors were very expensive. Generally they cost as much as the CPU and sometimes they were even more expensive!

Production costs was the reason for not integrating the FPU into CPU in the early days of desktop computing. Manufacturing a CPU without the FPU was much less complicated and thus cheaper. However the performance advantages were known and motherboards often had a socket for a FPU. If needed a separate FPU could later be bought and installed on the motherboard. Big names on the co-processor market were Intel, Cyrix, AMD, IIT, ULSI, C&T and WEITEK. Most of these manufacturers produced co-processor for all CPU's up to the 486.

The co-processor for a 8086 and 8088 was the 8087, for the 80286 it was called 80287. Generally speaking it can be said that a co-processor can be identified by looking for the number 87 in the name. The Cyrix 83C87 is the co-processor for a 80386 and the IIT 2C87 for the 80286. Weitek co-processors had a different naming scheme, the 3167 was the co-processor for the 80386 and for the 80486 it was the 4167.

Manufacturer Print Notes
Intel 8087 8088/8086 coprocessor
  80187 186/188 coprocessor
  80287 -1, -2, -3, -4, -XL and -XLT versions
  387 DX, SX and SL versions
  RapidCAD 486DX CPU with 386 pinout
  487SX 486DX CPU
AMD 80C287 286 coprocessor
Cyrix 82S87 286 coprocessor
  83D87 386 coprocessor, 83S87 as SX version
  EMC87 Special version of the 83D87
ULSI 83C87 Also 83S87 as SX version
IIT 2C87 286 coprocessor
  3C87 386 coprocessor, 3S87 as SX version
  4C87 Co-processor for 486DLC CPU's
Weitek 1167 Predecessor of the 3167
  3167 386 coprocessor
  4167 486 coprocessor
Chips&Technologies 38700DX Also 38700SX

Cyrix and IIT made the fastest co-processors and they had the most features. AMD had copied the design from Intel and these were of course as fast as Intel's. Weitek used a different approach and designed a co-processor with a RISC like architecture. These were very expensive and not as available as co-processors from Intel or Cyrix. ULSI produced co-processors that were not 100% compatible with Intel CPU's, the performance of these processors was just a little better than the Intel co-processor.

With the introduction of the 486 by Intel the co-processor time ended. One of the innovations Intel made with the 486 was the integration of the match co-processor and the integer unit on one core. The only exception was the 486SX which did not have an integrated co-processor and was cheaper than the 486DX which had the co-processor n integrated on the core. For the 486SX Intel sold the 487 as a co-processor, which was a normal 486DX! It had an extra pin which disabled the 486SX on the motherboard.

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