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What does i386 exactly mean?

The debian packages contain in their names i386. That means, as far as I know, 
that these programs are compiled to be able to run on at least on intel 386 
processors. But does it also mean that if are run on newer machines, they run 
slower because don't exploit the capabilities of the newer processors? Is it 
worth to compile the packages before installing them, and if so are there any 
configurations to be made to get a more optimized binary?

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