Technology Explained

What Is the Difference Between an APU, a CPU, and a GPU?

Danny Stieben 14-02-2013

Updated by James Frew on 07/14/2017.


Over the last decade, computing has become an essential part of our daily lives. Alongside the introduction of new technology, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of terms you are expected to know. When it comes to time to buy a new computer, terms like APU, CPU, and GPU can get lumped together.

When it’s time to buy your new computer, knowing the difference between the three could be a huge advantage. It could even end up saving you money. This is especially true if you plan to build your own PC.

So, what exactly is the difference between an APU, CPU, and GPU?

Central Processing Unit (CPU)

The Central Processing Unit 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  (CPU) is often referred to as the brains of the computer. In the early days of computing, the CPU would be spread across multiple electronic chips. Modern computers, smartphones, and other smart devices use microprocessors, where the CPU has been manufactured onto a single chip. The CPU aids everything from loading your operating system, to executing commands, and performing calculations in Excel.

What Is the Difference Between an APU, a CPU, and a GPU? CPU Shutterstock

Video gaming demands a lot from the CPU, so benchmark tests are usually performed against gaming standards How to Benchmark Your CPU and GPU Like a Pro Benchmarking allows users to gauge hardware performance, troubleshoot issues, and compare system setups. It's commonly used among gamers. We introduce you to the technical details and show you how the pros benchmark their systems. Read More . CPUs are available in many variants ranging from energy efficient single-core chips, to top performance octo-cores. Intel uses their own Hyper-Threading technology What Is Hyper-Threading? [Technology Explained] Read More to make a quad-core CPU act as though it is an octo-core. This helps to squeeze the most power and efficiency from your CPU.

Graphics Processing Unit (GPU)

The Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) is the processor that generates the video and graphics content that appear on your screen. It is possible for a computer to function without a GPU, as is the case with many remote access servers. The GPU is often found on your computer’s graphics card. Alternatively, it can be embedded directly onto the computer’s motherboard.

Although it would be technically possible to perform graphics operations on a CPU, the GPU is specifically adapted for its purpose. Their parallel structure means that they can perform the potential billions of calculations per second required for some graphics processing. GPUs also have multiple cores like CPUs. However, a GPU is likely to have hundreds or even thousands of cores.

And yes, you can get an external GPU, even to upgrade your Mac graphics power The Best External GPU for a MacBook Pro Need an external GPU for your Mac? Here's how they work, what's compatible, and which of the best eGPU enclosures you might want to get. Read More or improve PC gaming What Are CUDA Cores and How Do They Improve PC Gaming? Checking the spec of a new graphics card and noticed reference to CUDA cores? Here's how CUDA cores improve gaming on your PC. Read More .

Accelerated Processing Unit (APU)

An Accelerated Processing Unit What Is An APU? [Technology Explained] Read More (APU) combines the CPU and GPU onto a single chip. The APU was developed by AMD and initially released under the name Fusion. By combining both processors onto a single chip, the components are able to communicate faster and give you greater processing power and performance. APUs are generally not seen as a replacement to a standalone graphics card. Instead, they look to replace the GPUs embedded on the motherboard.

As GPUs are optimized for quickly performing calculations the CPU is able to offload some of the processing work directly to the GPU in an APU. Although AMD is thought to have been the market leader, Intel also produces them but does not call them APUs. This may be because Intel is well known as a CPU manufacturer, or because the term is heavily associated with AMD. Despite this, both firms have been pushing the APU as the processing unit of choice for mobile devices, laptops, and lower-end laptops.

The More You Know

There are a lot of processing unit choices when you are looking to upgrade or buy a new computer. You could choose to go with a separate CPU and GPU, where the GPU is either included on a graphics card or embedded onto the motherboard. If you aren’t going to be performing top-range graphics processing, then an APU might be the right choice.

There is no set rule on the best setup as there are so many configurations and models of processor. What you need will be largely determined by what you want to do with the computer What to Do With Old Computers: 10 Cool Uses for Used PCs and Laptops Read More . Fortunately, you now have an understanding of the difference between the three processor types, so you can make the best decision for your needs.

Explore more about: AMD Processor, Computer Processor, CPU, Graphics Card, Video Card.

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  1. Tom OConnor
    September 19, 2017 at 5:41 pm

    Although I've yet to use an APU, to me it sounds like the best choice as I can see how it would generate less heat. I've been using PC's not for about 20 years and have learned the hard way just how bad it is to run iot at excessive heat. In fact, lately I've completely gotten away from Desktops and run completely on Laptops/Notebooks while at iPad while on the road, and I've gone so far as to remove my battery (tip to newer users) and run an external cooler and keep the temperature at 32-34 deg. celsius.

    • Brandon Clark
      November 12, 2017 at 2:09 pm

      If you have used an intel CPU in the last eight years then you have likely used an 'APU'. APU is a marketing gimmick that AMD uses, and it just means CPU with onboard graphics, something that intel has done since Sandy Bridge.

  2. Sidney Weisberg
    January 8, 2016 at 7:09 am

    Great Article I loved it helped me better understand so I don't look silly asking on the internet.

  3. Sahil
    November 15, 2015 at 7:13 am

    Thanks , GOOD Article

  4. Anonymous
    September 4, 2015 at 11:32 pm

    Thank You Very Much It Helped Me A Lot Thank You Very Much

  5. Anonymous
    August 21, 2015 at 6:18 am

    this makes it sound like hyperthreading is a good thing, its not. if an app only uses 1 thread then a cpu with hyperthreading will only process that thread at half speed

    • dinkles
      January 29, 2017 at 5:07 pm

      ummmm... dude, hyperthreading is a good thing... why on earth would it be a selling point for CPU's if it wasnt, theres a reason why i7's are better suited for some tasks over an i5...

    • SOC
      February 8, 2018 at 6:44 pm

      That is just not true, Hyper-Threading is essentially just an extra thread in each core that will only work when there is downtime on one of the cores (In case it's waiting for another core to finish before continuing).
      It increases performance by maximizing efficiency. It does NOT slow down single threaded tasks, it's just useless to have Hyper-Threading for single threaded tasks.
      Please don't spread wrong information.

  6. John
    February 27, 2015 at 6:18 pm

    Hi I only download say movies plus browse the net just want some speed computer with no problems don't play games., No number crunching or anything was looking at the amd6800 what you think


  7. Tom
    February 3, 2015 at 5:37 am

    Hey there, thanks for that. Spelled out perfectly. So i'm wanting to get into Cinema 4D animation and want to build a rendering machine that is external to my iMac, connecting it via a Gigabit connection for network rendering so i can send jobs to it while continuing to work on my iMac without the massive lag effect rendering has on the computer.

    What would be the best setup CPU, GPU/Graphics card, RAM wise? Should i be looking to combine 8-12 GPU's? If so, do i need more than one CPU or motherboard? Do i need a lot of RAM (32+ GB) or is this covered off in the GPU?

    Now comes the tricky part... it needs to run OSX otherwise the iMac wont register it. So are there GPU's / CPU's / motherboards / RAM bla bla that won't be compatible with OSX?

    Its a bit question i know... but one i've wanted answered for some time!


  8. Norma
    July 25, 2013 at 2:43 pm

    Thanks for this article is really nice

  9. Mohammad Shajapurwala
    February 19, 2013 at 6:23 am

    thanks for coming up with such a great knowledge......its is very help full peace of details...thanks once again

  10. Humza Aamir
    February 15, 2013 at 1:24 pm

    Very informative, is there a way to find how many cores my GPU has? For bragging rights ;)

    • Mohammad Shajapurwala
      February 19, 2013 at 6:28 am

      hello hamza...!
      within GPU process is not has full complete process.....u must be thinking of like quad core processor or like that stuff....but it is graphical unit section so deals completly....not a single process is hadle individually

    • Danny Stieben
      February 28, 2013 at 8:35 pm

      You can find it out by using tools such as CPU-Z or by simply researching the GPU online if you know the model number. Most retailers have such details on their pages.

  11. Scott Macmillan
    February 15, 2013 at 11:49 am

    Great article.It explained a lot to me about about what is happening under the hood.

    • Danny Stieben
      February 28, 2013 at 8:34 pm

      I'm glad I could help you better understand! :)

  12. Nevzat Akkaya
    February 15, 2013 at 7:22 am

    An article that definitely needs to get bookmarked. Thanks MUO and Danny.

    • Danny Stieben
      February 28, 2013 at 8:33 pm

      No problem! I'm glad you enjoyed it!

  13. Alberto Lerma
    February 15, 2013 at 4:59 am

    Why don't you drink a cup of bleach instead?? I've heard that if you do, in your next job you'll get paid 85 an hour without doing anything at all. Try it m8!! now go back to LH and stay there. Cheers.

    • DarknessTSG
      February 2, 2015 at 6:16 pm

      But I wanna hit WW with everyone else!!

  14. Mara Averick
    February 14, 2013 at 6:54 pm

    Timely article for me as I've been planning a low(ish) cost Linux build for an alternative development environment/fun project (although I'll never abandon my MacBook Pro). I was interested to read that GPUs pack the big punch in number crunching- since most of my 'heavy' work is with non-graphical data (I spend a lot of time in R, and, of course, in Terminal) I had been thinking I would skimp on the GPU, but it sounds like that would be a terrible idea... Right?

    • Anonymous
      February 14, 2013 at 10:30 pm

      Normally, you would use a GPU to do more of the number crunching involving physics and vectors, ie. more algebraic functionality rather than running process strings and terminal based applications really. GPU's are particularly useful in builds that focus on graphic design, CAD (Computer Aided Design) work, gaming (shadows, physics, simulated enviroments), or multi-desktop (more than 1-2 monitors).

      If you aren't going to be doing any of those, you can probably skimp on the GPU a little. :)

      • Mara Averick
        February 15, 2013 at 2:17 am

        Thanks, great advice! Sine my Adobe suite is all Mac I think my graphic work won't really play into this build- though I'm gonna look into some of the visualization packages I'll be using in R/R64, but I'm pretty sure the type of SVG-based map work I work with aren't all that complex graphically (despite being computationally mind-boggling at times)!

        • Danny Stieben
          February 28, 2013 at 8:31 pm

          I wouldn't totally ignore the GPU aspect of your build, but if I'd think that a mid-range GPU or APU should work out fine for you.