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Did you know that the technology powering the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One already exists on today’s market, albeit in an earlier, less-powerful form? The Accelerated Processing Unit, or “APU”, design integrates a graphics processing unit onto the same die as the CPU, resulting in a faster, more efficient hybrid design.

The advantages of building an APU-based system over a traditional build are very narrow. For those of you seeking to build a low-wattage, low-price, low-end Steam Box or HTPC, APUs are ideal. Additionally, AMD APUs provide a relatively efficient means of mining Bitcoin alternatives, such as Litecoin and Feathercoin. On the downside, for use as either a Steam Box or mining rig, an APU system won’t give much in the way of cutting edge performance – it will however, provide a great balance between wattage, performance and price. Systems using the fastest APU components will cost around $450, or a bit more if you have a VAT tax in your region. On the cheaper end, an APU system can come in for around $200.

This article presents three build variations on the APU, ranging in price from $200 to $400. These machines can provide value-oriented performance in the areas of Scrypt hashing (cryptographic coin mining), as a Steam Box or as a low-wattage, silent HTPC. Additionally, it explains the requirements of building an AMD APU PC.

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Requirements of an AMD APU PC

APUs deal with three build options: First, they can coordinate their graphics with a discrete processor in what’s known as “Dual Graphics”. Second, fast RAM offers tremendous benefits to an APU’s frame rendering rate. Third, overclocking is generally a bad idea.

  1. Dual Graphics: On normal computers, if you use both a discrete GPU and an integrated GPU, by default your integrated GPU will be disabled. If you want to use a secondary, discrete GPU and combine its performance with your APU, you must enable what AMD refers to as “Dual Graphics”. For you history buffs, this was once referred to as “Hybrid CrossfireX“. Enabling Dual Graphics requires installation of the latest Catalyst Control Center version. After that, you can enable it from the Performance tab in the left pane from within the control center. It’s extremely easy to do, although I must note – most games don’t fully take advantage of Dual Graphics. For the curious, pictured below you can see my Dual Graphics setup. I had to add another fan to keep it cool.
  2. Fast RAM: Building an APU system that performs well requires fast RAM. While you can use RAM with a bus as fast as DDR3-2400, the best bang for your buck comes in at DDR3-1866. Compared to DDR3-1333, a 12-25% performance difference exists in the frames per second of most games, but won’t make as big a difference when playing media. On an HTPC, DDR3-1600 isn’t such a bad choice, compared to a Steam Box.
  3. Overclocking: Don’t overclock your APU. I’ve learned that the A10-5800K CPU is overkill. The lower wattage A10-5700 provides much better value in terms of performance to wattage. While APUs possess good overclocking properties, they do their best work in the low-watt, low-cost segments of the PC market.

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Example #1: The APU Powered Steam Box and Mining Rig

When I selected the components for my Steam Box/mining rig back in October of 2012, the best APU technology was AMD’s “Trinity” architecture. Since then, the “Richland” upgrade released, which offers a moderate improvement in performance over Trinity. Richland will likely support Dual Graphics with a Radeon 7750, making it vastly superior in performance compared to the older architecture. Readers should know that they can build an even faster system for a similar amount of money.

Here’s essentially what my Steam Box and mining rig looks like (it includes a combo deal):

  • CPU: AMD A10-5800K 3.4GHz Quad-Core Processor ($122.68 @ Amazon)
  • Motherboard: Biostar A55ML2 Micro ATX FM2 Motherboard ($44.98 @ Outlet PC)
  • Memory: Kingston T1 Black Series 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1866 Memory ($64.06 @ Amazon)
  • Storage: Western Digital Caviar Blue 250GB 3.5″ 7200RPM Internal Hard Drive ($34.99 @ MicroCenter)
  • Video Card: PowerColor Radeon HD 6670 1GB Video Card ($59.99 @ Newegg)
  • Case: Rosewill FBM-01 MicroATX Mini Tower Case ($29.99 @ Newegg)
  • Power Supply: Rosewill Capstone 450W 80 PLUS Gold Certified ATX12V / EPS12V Power Supply ($59.99 @ Newegg)
  • Total: $416.68

(prices accurate at the time of writing)

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Running two simultaneous instances of GUIminer guiminer - An Extensive Tool For Bitcoin Mining guiminer - An Extensive Tool For Bitcoin Mining As of late there's been a been a great buzz going around about Bitcoin, the latest P2P digital currency. One of the main activities of getting Bitcoins is through a process called mining. No need... Read More , it has a maximum hashrate of around 280 KH/s, which nets me around 7 Feathercoins per day and .80 Litecoins. At the current exchange rate, I make pennies per day, an absolutely horrid waste of my time. Profitable mining with an APU is possible with Dual Graphics and a newer APU build, since it will have a much higher hashrate at the same wattage. But in short, there are some serious drawbacks What Disadvantages Are There To Bitcoin Mining? What Disadvantages Are There To Bitcoin Mining? Several times since the beginning of this decade, Bitcoins have been slowly but surely been causing a (good) disturbance in the way people think about currency. If you don't know yet what Bitcoins are, then... Read More  to mining with APUs.

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For gaming, it handles more recent games at 1080p without much issue. I played a bit of Metro2033 at high detail settings in high definition and it ran at a near seamless 40+ FPS. However, the unfortunate reality of APUs and Dual Graphics is that if the developer did not program with Dual Graphics in mind, some games will be basically unplayable at high resolutions.

Overall, I feel as if I really got my money’s worth out of my homemade Steam Box. On the downside, the A10-5800K is something of a power hog for an APU. A combination of Richland with Radeon 7750 graphics would have been a much better choice.

Example #2: The Ultra-Low Wattage HTPC and Low End Steam Box

For those concerned about power consumption, you can build an extremely small, 96% efficient, low-noise, low-watt HTPC using an APU. Because APUs don’t rely on a discrete graphics card, it’s possible to trim off all the extra components and run the computer with only the bare necessities.

Once you break under the 200 W barrier, picoPSUs become viable power supply options. A picoPSU is an entirely solid state power supply with efficiencies over 96%, meaning it possesses the capability of converting 96% of wall current, with only 4% wasted. The average power supply converts at around 70% efficiency, wasting 30%.

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  • CPU: AMD A10-5700 3.4GHz Quad-Core Processor ($125.85 @ Amazon)
  • Motherboard: MSI FM2-A75IA-E53 Mini ITX  FM2 Motherboard ($84.99 @ Microcenter)
  • Memory: Crucial Ballistix Sport XT 4GB (1 x 4GB) DDR3-1866 Memory ($40.99 @ Newegg)
  • Storage: Sandisk 64GB 2.5″ Solid State Disk ($57.98 @ Microcenter)
  • Case: M350 Universal Mini-ITX PC Enclosure ($39.95 @ Amazon.com)
  • Power Supply: Mini-Box picoPSU-160-XT High Power 24 Pin Mini-ITX PSU + 192W Adapter ($76.95 @ Amazon.com)
  • Total: $426.71

(prices accurate at the time of writing)

Total power consumption on this particular build comes out to about 100 W, at max draw. You could easily use a cheaper picoPSU at around 120 W and reduce the price by another $20-40. I’ve over-provisioned as a precautionary matter – and to keep power efficiency as high as possible.

Example #3: The Cheapest Possible APU Build Imaginable

The absolute cheapest gaming machine you can build could cost around $200. While it won’t be playing Crysis 3, it makes an excellent platform for playing slightly older games from your Steam collection.

  • CPU: AMD A4-5300 3.4GHz Dual-Core Processor ($49.98 @ Outlet PC)
  • Motherboard: Biostar A55ML2 Micro ATX FM2 Motherboard ($44.98 @ Outlet PC)
  • Memory: Patriot Viper 3 4GB (1 x 4GB) DDR3-1600 Memory ($42.99 @ Newegg)
  • Storage: Western Digital Caviar Blue 250GB 3.5″ 7200RPM Internal Hard Drive ($50.97 @ Amazon)
  • Case: Diablotek CPA-0170 ATX Mid Tower Case w/400W Power Supply ($29.99 @ Microcenter)
  • Total: $218.91

(prices accurate at the time of writing)

Here’s an example of Resident Evil 6 being played at console resolution:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rT-VOdnPShw

This particular build is expandable, consumes about 150 W at max draw, and extremely cheap at less than $200. It will play a lot of older games and will do streaming media without issue.

Conclusion

AMD’s APU provides an excellent balance between performance, wattage and price. No other CPU can create a system as cheaply and as power efficient. On the downside, a stand-alone APU can only play games at console resolutions, with low to medium graphics detail. For casual gamers and HTPC users, this is an ideal computer build, as they can be designed to run extremely quietly, with very little issues.

For those of you interested in building your computer, MakeUseOf provides a variety of guides and manuals How To Build Your Own PC [PDF Guide] How To Build Your Own PC [PDF Guide] Read More . I also wrote an article on several sites that can automatically build your computer for you Save Time & Money! The 4 Best Sites For Automatically Building a PC Save Time & Money! The 4 Best Sites For Automatically Building a PC WARNING! Building a PC can cause the following symptoms - despair, rage, violence against inanimate objects, poverty, feelings of regret and worthlessness, depression and suicidal thoughts. Fortunately, websites exist that take the pain out of... Read More .

Does anyone else love AMD’s APU technology? Please share with us in the comments.

  1. Dalsan M
    July 20, 2013 at 11:06 pm

    This is why I recommend APU's for the majority of basic users. Cost effective with moderate overall performance. Most users (the general public that watches streaming video, uses social networking sites and play Facebook games, occasionally play games, etc.) would benefit more from APU's, especially when they can upgrade to a better GPU card later on when the need comes. Otherwise, the integrated discrete class GPU will outperform almost any Intel integrated discrete class GPU per dollar. I'm more than happy with my AMD A8 desktop as far as performance and gaming capabilities (purchased an HP P7 system for $229). I will upgrade various parts when the funds and needs arise, but as for now, it is a huge performance upgrade over every other computer that I had owned. When I can, I'll build an A10 Richland system with Crossfire so more modern games can be played on it and keep the A8 for basic use and media server, but until then, the A8 Trinity is plenty sufficient for my family.

    • Kannon Yamada
      July 21, 2013 at 4:45 am

      For a complete A8 Trinity system, $229 is fantastic! Good job!

      I'm curious - how fast was the bundled RAM? I noticed a lot of the laptops based on Trinity used single channel, 1600 RAM. It's really strange.

      • Dalsan M
        July 21, 2013 at 6:06 am

        I bought a used HP P7 desktop from http://www.cowboom.com, a Best Buy affiliate, but it didn't have Windows 8 installed nor a recovery partition on the 1TB hard drive or recovery discs (had to download and install Windows 8 and the BIOS plugged in the product key). It was only the tower and power cord, which I already had all the other peripherals and accessories. The system came with 6GB 1366MHz DDR3 RAM, so upgrading to 8GB dual channel 1866MHz memory would allow for even better performance (especially for the discrete level graphics) at a modest price.

        I had been a fan of AMD APU's since my Acer AO722 C-60 APU netbook I got almost two years ago. I didn't expect much from it, but for $197 brand new (pre-Black Friday holiday price) at Target department stores, I thought it would allow for great portability while allowing me to get basic things accomplished. Much tweaking went into it (including installing a 1.35v 8GB memory stick into its one memory slot), but it plays many of the older games, like Burnout Paradise, well enough to have some fun and a break from the norms of life. Maximizing the battery performance (including underclocking and undervolting) allows for me to get up to 8 hours run time, even almost two years later. At first, I could get around 12 hours (who could ask for better from a netbook that can play HD videos and several games decently). It will become my HTPC once I get a better laptop, but until then, I accomplish my school work and general uses just fine, except for slow loading times with several software.

        My family uses the HP desktop, and I use it mostly as a media/file server and use TeamViewer to access files and content that I don't have in the cloud. Eventually I will use it more, but for the price and to keep the family (kids and teens) happy, I couldn't pass on this desktop.

  2. Hbarnwheeler
    July 20, 2013 at 3:58 pm

    Also, 3D performance with AMD APUs scales dramatically with memory bandwidth. This provides a nice incentive to go with faster RAM, as you mention. But, it also means that going with a single-channel setup is to essentially cripple GPU performance. With a single stick of RAM (as recommended for two of the builds here), you will only get single-channel operation. Seeing that you can get a 4GB kit made up of two memory modules for the same price as a single 4GB stick, there is no financial incentive to not buy a 2x2GB kit for a dual-channel configuration. The only downside to this route is that you have no room to increase the amount of memory without removing the installed memory on a motherboard with only two slots.

    • Kannon Yamada
      July 20, 2013 at 11:07 pm

      That's a really good point - thanks for pointing out the issue with single channel mode.

      In my experience, a single stick works fine on an HTPC or light steambox. On a lower end system (as you've already noticed), it leaves room open for adding another stick in the future. But yeah, absolutely, on a midrange APU system, you'd definitely want two sticks.

      Also, many FM2 boards support up to 2GB of memory dedicated to onboard graphics. If you buy two sticks and want to allocate 2GB of onboard, you'll only have two left over for the operating system and the game itself. If I had to make this choice on an HTPC/low-end steambox, I'd go with one stick of 1866 and if I needed to play a more resource intensive game, I'd eventually upgrade to two sticks in the future.

      Good observation! Thanks for the comment.

  3. hbarnwheeler
    July 19, 2013 at 9:10 pm

    Notably, none of these build budgets include the cost of a Windows license, which is essentially required for gaming. If all you want is an HTPC, you could supplement even the cheapest option here with an GeForce 610 for $30 (after rebate, at Superbiiz right now) and install linux + XBMC (or get it all packaged nicely in the OPENELEC distribution) to save yourself the cost of a windows license. Unfortunately, the linux drivers for AMD APUs and Graphics cards are not up to snuff when it comes to linux (spotty hardware video acceleration and no support for DTS-HD or TrueHD for audio). Nvidia, on the other hand, enjoys very good linux support.

    • Kannon Yamada
      July 20, 2013 at 11:14 pm

      Yup. The Windows tax. I secretly regret every system that I've ever build based on Windows.

      There's so way around it, either. Linux is supported on APU machines, but it's always a step behind. The upcoming July 31st update for Dual Graphics will supposedly allow for the 6670 + A10 to basically become a 7770. But I have my doubts about that. And for Linux, that update is definitely going to lag behind the Windows update.

      AMD's open source support has become much better over the past year or so, though. Hopefully they can further improve support for APUs in the future.

    • John F
      November 22, 2013 at 12:22 pm

      SteamBox is a free Linux Distro from VALVE - therefore no Windwos needed here to play.

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