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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 (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.
Video gaming demands a lot from the CPU, so benchmark tests are usually performed against gaming standards. 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 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.
Accelerated Processing Unit (APU)
An Accelerated Processing Unit (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. Fortunately, you now have an understanding of the difference between the three processor types, so you can make the best decision for your needs.