Technology Explained

What Is an APU? The Accelerated Processing Unit, Explained

James Frew Updated 22-04-2020

The Central Processing Unit (CPU) is the brain of the computer, handling most of the processing. However, one area where it doesn’t excel is graphics.

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To compensate for this, Graphics Processing Units (GPU) deal exclusively with visual output tasks. However, designing and manufacturing two units to handle this data is inefficient.

The solution is the Accelerated Processing Unit or APU.

What Is an APU?

Electronics Production Line In Chinese Factory
Image Credit: omur12/DepositPhotos

The Accelerated Processing Unit is designed to combine the two separate units onto a single die. In this case, a die is a small segment of semiconducting material, containing a copy of a mass-produced circuit.

Although placing two circuits onto a single die doesn’t sound that forward-thinking, it is the manufacturing and design decisions that dictate the performance of your computer.

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Reducing the footprint of the processing units brings down the cost, allows more room for other hardware, and is more efficient. Keeping the components close together increases the data transfer rates and reduces power consumption, too.

If you haven’t heard of APU technology before, there may be a reason; the term is almost exclusively used by a single manufacturer, AMD.

The Benefits of an APU

Illustration of a computer processor
bodkins18/Pixabay

When considering upgrading your CPU or GPU, things can quickly become overwhelming. There are many products out there, with similar numerical names, and tall marketing claims. Each new release is touted as a vast improvement over the last, even if this isn’t strictly borne out in benchmarking tests.

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Of course, it’s natural that a company should want to sell their product, so you’d be right to be skeptical of APUs, too. However, there are some real benefits to using the technology. The most immediate transformation is in system performance.

If your computer previously used just a single CPU and integrated graphics, then you’ll see a noticeable bump in performance. Tasks will be quicker, videos will run smoother, and speeds will generally increase. In the long-term, you’ll also see a reduction in power usage.

Although it is a significant change, the actual reduction may be minimal. Given the global climate, many of us want to decrease our energy usage. This is especially the case when it comes to our technology. You can, however, find out how much energy your PC uses and how to reduce it How Much Energy Does Your PC Use? (And 8 Ways to Cut It Down) Wondering if computers use a lot of power? It's time to learn how much electricity your computer is using and how to reduce it. Read More .

As the two processors reside on the same die, they can share resources, too. This makes your computer more efficient, increases speeds, and reduces the cost of manufacturing. For this reason, APUs are often good value for money and are a more affordable way of upgrading your hardware.

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Should You Buy an APU?

Exposed PC motherboard undergoing repair
jarmoluk/Pixabay

Despite these performance improvements, choosing whether to buy an APU isn’t as straightforward as it seems. The first point to consider is that AMD’s APUs are just one variety of combined processing unit. Intel and other manufacturers also produce components that are APUs in all but name.

Given that you can purchase devices that look and behave like APUs, you may wonder why you’d opt for AMD’s implementation. While others turned their focus solely toward combined processors, AMD has continued to develop unique ranges; CPUs, GPUs, and APUs.

You should also consider, though, that APUs are a step up from your motherboard’s integrated graphics, but are still trumped by an independent GPU. If gaming or video is a vital part of your setup, then an APU will only offer you limited improvements.

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In this case, it would likely be preferable to purchase a high-end CPU and GPU separately. If you aren’t sure of the function of a Central Processing Unit, then you may be interested in finding out more about the CPU and what it does What Is A CPU and What Does It Do? Computing acronyms are confusing. What is a CPU anyway? And do I need a quad or dual-core processor? How about AMD, or Intel? We're here to help explain the difference! Read More .

Furthermore, APUs were impactful when they were first released in 2011, but technology has since moved on. As a combined processor became an industry standard, designers looked for other improvements they could make to the electronics. This led to the transformation of the APU into the System-on-a-Chip.

The Evolution of APUs

Snapdragon System on a Chip
Monoar Rahman Rony/Pixabay

AMD released its first APU in January 2011. As mentioned before, APU was the firm’s marketing term for combining two processing units on a single die. However, they weren’t the only company to explore the benefits of this union.

Another notable processor manufacturer was also moving in the same direction. Intel began development on its own combined processing units, released under multiple Intel product names. If you’re unsure of all the differences, check out our guide to Intel’s CPU models Understanding Intel's Laptop CPU Models: What the Numbers and Letters Mean Looking for a new Intel CPU but don't understand the model numbers and letters? We explain and decode the Intel processor list. Read More .

As predicted by Moore’s Law, the cost of technology has reduced, while the capability has increased. APUs were the first stage in the evolution of computer processing and electronics manufacturing.

If combining two computer components on a single die brings performance benefits, then it would follow that adding more onto that die would do the same. This led to the creation of System-on-a-Chip (SoC) designs.

SoCs combine the majority of all critical components on a single chip. The benefits of APU design—reduced power consumption, lower heat generation, increased performance—hold true here, too.

This design trend was prompted by the explosion in mobile devices, which happened around a similar time that APUs first launched. Mobile devices, like smartphones and tablets, needed to be both cheaper and more portable than their desktop counterparts.

Thus, the SoC became an industry-standard. However, this was only possible thanks to the advances made through APU design.

The Best Processor for Your Computer

While APUs were instrumental in the development of processors, these days, they are mostly a relic of an older time. The units were a stepping stone between standalone CPUs and GPUs and the SoC designs in use today. That said, their combined power offers an advantage over your motherboard’s integrated graphics.

Still, times have moved on, and there’s a lot of choice out there if you want to upgrade your setup. To find the most effective option, consider the parts of a computer and how to upgrade them The Basic Parts of a Computer and How to Upgrade Them Know what the basic parts of a computer are called? Considering replacing parts of your PC? It's time to learn how your PC works. Read More .

Related topics: AMD Processor, APU, Building PCs, Computer Parts, CPU.

Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the site alive. Read more.

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  1. nodir
    June 17, 2016 at 5:50 pm

    i always thought why my HP laptop ran so quick with that AMD APU

  2. nah
    May 13, 2016 at 5:31 pm

    I have an AMD processor in my self-built desktop and it's been great so far. I trust the company is working harder to compete against Intel in the newest line of products, so AMD is still a good and cheaper option.

  3. Anonymous
    February 12, 2016 at 8:42 pm

    My question is: Do they run hotter than a CPU, thus requiring a higher end cooling system?

    • Slaver
      March 26, 2016 at 7:05 pm

      I would probably say no.And I bet cause the same APU are built in this current gen consoles and they don't overheat more than the norm.

  4. Apostolis
    March 1, 2015 at 4:56 pm

    Thanks,really informative.

  5. Umarfarooqleo
    February 19, 2011 at 5:02 pm

    Great Article.....
    beautifully explained in simple words!!!

  6. Umarfarooqleo
    February 19, 2011 at 6:02 pm

    Great Article.....
    beautifully explained in simple words!!!

  7. Tim Brookes
    February 19, 2011 at 10:46 am

    Currently on the look out for a new laptop (as this thing dies a bit more each day) so I will certainly be looking for APU technology in my upcoming purchase.

    It's going to have to be an Intel chip though. Not had AMD since an Athlon 3000+ way back when...

    • Aibek
      February 24, 2011 at 2:20 pm

      If I am not mistaken I had the same processor once :-) It was my last AMD as well.

  8. Tim Brookes
    February 19, 2011 at 11:46 am

    Currently on the look out for a new laptop (as this thing dies a bit more each day) so I will certainly be looking for APU technology in my upcoming purchase.

    It's going to have to be an Intel chip though. Not had AMD since an Athlon 3000+ way back when...