But for people who are confused about acronyms, it’s difficult to understand what a computer really has.
Each component has its advantages and disadvantages, so understanding these terms could help in determining which computer would be the best to purchase, or simply aid in improving your practical understanding of computers.
Let’s start with the easiest of the three – the central processing unit, or CPU for short. This chip serves all your essential processing needs. Without a CPU of some sort, a computer simply cannot function. It aids in everything from loading your operating system to executing commands in the command prompt to performing calculations in Excel or similar software.
Video games demand much from CPUs, and usually earmark the physics calculations to it. CPUs can come in many different variants, from energy-efficient single-core chips running at a mere 1.0Ghz, to monstrous 8-core powerhouses that can easily achieve 4.0Ghz. Some CPUs also carry with them different technologies, such as Intel’s Hyperthreading, where 4 physical cores can appear to the operating system as 8 virtual cores, getting the most power out of the 4 that you really have.
For more detailed information about CPUs and what they do, check out Angela’s article describing exactly what a CPU is and how it works.
Graphical processing units, or GPUs, are what give you the video and graphics that appear on your screen. While computers can function without some sort of a GPU, you won’t be able to connect a monitor to them.
Such machines (most commonly servers) are generally accessed remotely via command terminal anyways. GPUs come in all different shapes and forms, such as dedicated cards which you can plug into your desktop’s PCI-Express slot, to graphical chips called integrated graphics chips, which are built directly into the motherboard – the backbone component of your system.
The difference between CPUs and GPUs is that GPUs are highly specialized in number crunching, something that graphics processing desperately needs as it involves millions, if not billions, of calculations per second. The amount of cores that GPUs have depends on the manufacturer. nVidia graphics solutions tend to pack more power into fewer chips, while AMD solutions pack in more cores to increase processing power. Typical high-end graphics cards have 68 cores if it’s nVidia, and ~1500 cores if it’s AMD.
Now that you have a better idea of what a CPU and GPU are, you’re able to much more easily determine what an APU is. Short for accelerated processing unit, these chips pack the components of a CPU and GPU into one. This is supposed to be more advantageous because the different components can communicate with each other more easily, providing great processing power in a smaller, more efficient package.
While APUs generally don’t satisfy power users’ highest demands, they are more than enough for those with light to medium-high requirements for general processing as well as gaming. Although they can be used in many machines, they are usually recommended for mobile devices, laptops, and lower-end desktops. AMD has been making a big push toward APUs with a combination of their CPUs and Radeon graphics.
Intel has also been doing the same, including graphics capabilities in their Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge processors, although they don’t market them as APUs. For more detailed information on APUs, check out Matt’s article where he describes the APU.
Whether you want to buy a computer with a CPU/GPU combination or one that just includes an APU is really up to you and what your needs are. If you know that you won’t have a lot of graphical needs such as playing games, then an APU or a CPU with a weak GPU will do you just fine. If you want a lot of performance in any situation, then an APU is probably out of the question, so you should look for a strong CPU with a good GPU.
What’s considered “good” or not depends on what’s currently offered, so do some research to find out. However, you now have the basic knowledge to know what those parts are and what they do so that you can get exactly what you need.
Is there anything you’d like to add about CPUs, GPUs, and APUs? Which one(s) do you have? Let us know in the comments!