Both Intel and AMD know this, and have for some time. In response they’ve combined the strengths of both CPUs and GPUs, resulting in a new type of product called the APU.
What is an APU? The term APU stands for Accelerated Processing Unit. At the moment, this is a term that only AMD is using for its products. Intel’s recently released update to its processors also qualifies as an APU; Intel simply seems unwilling to use the definition. That’s understandable, since the company has been known as the world’s leading CPU maker for years.
An APU is simply a processor that combines CPU and GPU elements into a single architecture. The first APU products being shipped by AMD and Intel do this without much fuss by adding graphics processing cores into the processor architecture and letting them share a cache with the CPU. While both AMD and Intel are using their own GPU architectures in their new processors, the basic concepts and reasons behind the decision to bring a GPU into the architecture remain the same.
The Benefits Of An APU
AMD and Intel wouldn’t go to the trouble of integrating a GPU into their CPU architectures if there weren’t some benefits to doing so, but sometimes the benefit of a new technology seems to be focused more on the company selling the product than the consumer. Fortunately, the benefits of the APU are dramatic and will be noticed by end users.
Obviously, improved performance is one advantage. The graphics placed on current APUs are not meant to be competitive with high-end or even mid-range discrete graphics cards, but they are better than previous integrated graphics processors. Intel HD Graphics 3000, the fastest graphics option available on the company’s newest processor, is two to three times quicker than the previous Intel HD Graphics solution, which was on the processor die but not integrated into the architecture. This also makes it possible to include new features, like Intel’s QuickSync video transcoding techology.
Another advantage brought by APUs is improved power efficiency. Integrated the GPU into the architecture makes it possible to share resources and achieve the same results with less silicon. This means an APU can replicate the performance of a system equipped with a low-end discrete graphics card while using far less power. Early benchmarks of Intel Sandy Bridge and AMD Fusion laptops make this advantage obvious; systems equipped with these processors have better battery life than similar system saddled with a CPU and a separate discrete or integrated graphics processor.
Should You Buy One?
Now you know the benefits of an APU, you may be thinking about purchasing one of these fancy new processors. Upgrading to a new processor is never inexpensive, however. Is an APU worth your money?
The answer is yes, but on the other hand, it doesn’t matter if you upgrade now or later. You are, eventually, going to end up owning an APU no matter what you do. All of Intel’s processors from here on, with the exception of the Atom processor, will be APUs. AMD’s entire line of processors will be updated to APUs by the end of this year. And Nvidia, which recently announced intentions to create a line of ARM processors for desktops, will of course be creating an APU.
In fact, you may want to wait, if only because this technology is relatively new. Both Intel and AMD are hard at work on new products that further leverage the advantages of this design, and AMD’s desktop APU is unlikely to become available before the summer.
The APU is the future of processor design. The only question at this point is the term itself. While Intel’s new processors also fit the definition of an APU, the term APU is only used by AMD in its marketing. If Nvidia also decides this is a term worth using as it develops its new processor it may have some legs. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be surprised if Intel uses its considerable marketshare might to squash it.
But whatever this new generation of hardware is called five years from now, the results are the same. APUs are here, they’re awesome, and they’ll make it easier for users to enjoy media without consuming unreasonable amounts of power.
The benchmark graph is part of Anandtech’s review of Intel’s Sandy Bridge processors. Check it out for full information.