Are Computers Truly Multitask?

CPU multitasking

Have you ever thought that how your computers/processors be able to handle all the tasks given to them? You can open a lot of browser tabs, multiple programs, and watching YouTube videos all at once. If you have a decently equipped computer, it seems like the computer deals with all tasks at the same time, or does it?

True Multitasking

It was common to think that we can do separate things at the same time, until scientists proved that human in fact cannot truly multitask. We are just switching our brain’s attention quickly between two things.

The CPU in your computer is a complex electronic circuit that performs arithmetic/logical operations, creating a physical processing core. Similar to human’s brain, a CPU core can only handle one process at a time. It switches between different processes quickly (in milliseconds), making an illusion of true multitasking. This is called time-sharing, allocating computer resources to multiple processes.

This is the answer for the question (computers cannot truly multitasking)? No and Yes.

Multi-core Processors

Although each physical CPU core can only focus on one task, there are two or more physical processing cores in a single CPU. This unlocks the ability of true multitasking, if the operating systems support it. For example, your computer has a quad-core CPU. You can theoretically run four separate programs simultaneously (neglecting OS’s background processes), without the need of time-sharing resources. Each core handle one program.

Please note that multi-core is completely different from multi-thread. CPU thread can be treated as the data pipeline that feeds instructions to the CPU. It does not carry out any actual computing.


Photo from KRoock74 (Wikipedia)

Imagine the CPU is a toll highway. A physical core is the toll booth. The number of toll booths is determined by the number of cores. The queuing line in front of the toll booth is the CPU thread, assuming each lane is wide enough to feed two queuing lines (multi-thread). Vehicles entering the highway are the data/processes.

Each toll booth can only handle one car at a time, collecting the fee. A single toll booth cannot multitask at all. If more toll booths are added to the highway, multiple cars can be process simultaneously. The highway is then truly multitasking.

Final Answer

Are Computers Truly Multitask? Yes, for almost any modern CPU in the market. If your computer has a multi-core processor, it is able to truly multitask.

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