APU vs CPU – Guide To Better Builds

Austin
| Last Updated: June 2, 2021

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Do technical terms scare you away when you think of building your PC?

Assembling your PC can be interesting until you come across some jargon that sounds like rocket science. APU, CPU, and GPU are critical components in building a computer. To put up a powerful machine, you’ll need to invest some time in understanding how these components work.

We’ve broken this down to make the process as smooth as possible for you. We will focus on APUs and CPUs, how each can affect your gaming and other computing experience, and which unit to choose if you’re building a PC but on a budget.

Follow along as we explain all these in simple and understandable terms.

TL;DR: CPU vs APU

CPU

APU

Pros

Pros

  • Efficient for multi-tasking

  • Best for gaming when paired with a discrete GPU

  • It can be overclocked to increase performance
  • Compact size thus best for use in laptops and notebooks

  • Highly affordable

  • Easy to upgrade and uses less power

Cons

Cons

  • Works with a specific type of motherboards

  • Expensive to upgrade

  • It heats up when overclocked
  • Limited performance capability

  • Compatible with AMD motherboards alone

  • Available from a single manufacturer (AMD)

Best For

Best For

For gaming, when paired with a mid-range discrete GPU

Entry-level gaming and basic computing

What is a CPU? 

The CPU, also known as the central processing unit or simply the processor, is the ‘brain’ of the computer. The CPU receives data commands from all other computer hardware, executes them as per the instructions, and sends the results back to the appropriate recipient.

A computer CPU has two essential components that complete data processing. The control unit (CU) extracts data from memory, and the arithmetic logic unit (ALU) receives instructions and executes them accordingly. 

All these processes take place in nanoseconds.

Considering that a processor is a multi-purpose unit relied upon by all other hardware peripherals, it is designed to carry out all its processes with speed to avoid much wait-time for further operations.

Unlike the earlier single-core computers that could only handle one operation at a time, modern-day processors have more cores that will complete multiple tasks simultaneously without feeling the load.

Each core solves one problem at a time. So, more cores mean a more powerful processor. Coupled with multi-threading technology, where a single core is doubled to form an additional virtual core, the CPU performance is enhanced even further.

Technically, a processor with multi-threading technology runs an extra virtual processor.  A dual-core processor will double the number of cores to four. A quad-core will have additional four virtual cores.

The processor is, therefore, able to perform billions of functions in seconds. 

The processor speed is measured in gigahertz (GHz). Usually, the processor will work at a rate of 3GHz. One GHz is the speed of one billion instructions per second. So, 3GHz means the processor will complete up to 3 billion instructions in one second.

What is an APU?

An APU, which stands for accelerated processing unit, is a type of processor from AMD company that features both a CPU and a GPU on a single die. Although not as powerful as a standalone CPU or GPU, this processor beats CPUs in gaming efficiency.

Since AMD company manufactures both GPU and CPUs, the idea behind APUs was to leverage GPU architecture for a more powerful processor with integrated graphics.

Photo credit: digitaltrends.com

However, the integration between the two processing units to form an APU does not mean it will beat a dedicated graphics card and a CPU combo in terms of performance. 

Instead, APUs were made to target entry-level gamers with basic computing needs but are on a low budget.

APUs are also exceedingly power-efficient and space-conscious on your laptop. You can overclock them to increase performance speed just as the regular CPUs.

Unlike the initial APUs that you could not upgrade due to different sockets used in the motherboard sockets, modern-day APUs come with AM4 sockets to allow you to add more graphics cards for enhanced gaming.

One major downside to APUs is their limited performance capability since they heat up when pushed beyond their power limit.

Relevant Characteristics Between a CPU and an APU

CPU

APU

More core count of up to 16 and more

Cores

Limited core count of 4

More memory

Memory Bandwidth

Limited memory

Sequential processing

Parallel Processing

Yes

Available for both Intel and AMD motherboards

Compatibility

Compatible with only AMD motherboards with AM4 sockets

Expensive

Cost

More affordable

Similarities and Differences 

APUs and CPUs are two closely related computer processing units that share so much in common. However, there are many notable features as well that distinguish one from the other.

CPU and APU Differences

Below we explore the differences between the two.

Acronym

CPU stands for "central processing unit," whereas APU stands for the "accelerated processing unit".

Clock Speed

Boost speed varies from one processor to the other.

For instance, the highest boost speed for APU top model Ryzen 5 3400G is 4.2 GHz. On the other hand, the highest clock speed in CPUs’ history goes up to 8.7 GHz on AMD FX-8150 Bulldozer-based chip.

Photo credit: techowns.com

Processor Type

CPUs are available in several processor types with varying core count and efficiency levels. From single-core CPUs to Deca-core processors of ten cores, you have more than six types of CPUs to choose from for your needs.

On the other hand, APUs have two main types of processors, Ryzen 3 3200G and Ryzen 5 3400G, each with four maximum core counts.

Availability

AMD is the only manufacturer of accelerated processing units (APUs), which are only compatible with AMD motherboards.

On the other hand, apart from the two famous CPU manufacturers, AMD and Intel, several other market players manufacture CPUs, including IBM, Apple, and Qualcomm.

Architecture

An APU is a combination of GPU and CPU and integrated into the same chip on a motherboard

On the other hand, CPUs are independent units, also integrated into the motherboard but only act to support other GPU processes. CPUs don’t combine GPUs in their chips.

Cost

Buying either a GPU or CPU on its own is generally more expensive than acquiring an integrated APU.

CPU and APU Similarities

And here are some features that the two share.

Future Upgrade

You can upgrade CPUs to perform better at gaming by adding a discrete GPU or attaching a graphics card to its motherboard. The same is true for APUs, which, apart from the embedded GPU, still offer room for GPU upgrades for a more enhanced gaming experience.

Initially, APUs didn’t have a GPU upgrade option due to their motherboard incompatibility with other AM4 sockets.

Functionality

CPUs are multi-purpose units. They run multiple programs simultaneously, including browsing web pages, listening to music, and playing light video games. 

APUs are also great multi-taskers. With the integration of CPUs and GPUs in their chips, they’ll perform all graphics processing tasks just like any GPU and handle other CPU processes.

Architecture

Although APUs are only available from one manufacturer, AMD, its chips are integrated into the motherboard. Therefore, to upgrade an APU, you’ll need to replace the entire motherboard from a dual-core to a quad-core.

The same is valid for CPUs. A CPU socket is part of the motherboard, and so, an upgrade means an overhaul of the whole system.

Memory

Unlike discrete GPUs that come with separate storage for their intensive graphics processing tasks, APUs and CPUs share system memory. One downside to shared memory, though, is the restriction on the performance speed. 

The more RAM space there is, the faster the speed.

Additionally, the system dictates the amount of memory to allocate to each unit. However, when building your PC, you may decide on the amount of memory to assign to the processing unit depending on the available RAM.

Power Consumption

Most integrated computer peripherals are very energy-efficient compared to dedicated computer components. Both APUs and CPUs will use very little power compared to pairing your system to a dedicated graphics card. 

You’ll notice discrete graphics cards come with separate power and memory to avoid eating into the system’s power supply.

Overclocking

You can overclock both CPU and APU processors to boost performance. The boost speed varies though between the two units.

Hyper-threading Technology

Hyperthreading is multiplying the number of processor cores by two for enhanced speed performance and completion of more tasks simultaneously.

Although APUs come with a limited core count of up to four, you can double the core to create additional virtual cores to speed up processes; the same is true with CPUs.

Advantages of a CPU

Below are some of the reasons why you should consider investing in a CPU.

Multitasking Function

Computers are great multi-tasker, which makes processes complete faster and with high accuracy levels. Technological evolution has seen CPUs complete tasks even faster than when technologists first introduced them in the 1970S.

Modern CPUs have inbuilt multi-threading technology that makes a computer technically run two CPUs simultaneously, completing tasks twice as first with the long wait time as used to be when they first ran on single-core processors.

Fast Data Computation

Computers perform better than human beings due to unmatched fast mathematical data calculation. Of course, that’s the basis of using computers.  

Although GPUs also do a great job processing the graphics, they still rely on the CPU to complete processes.  

Basic Computer Functionality

All other hardware peripherals look up to the CPU to complete all tasks. Otherwise, without the processor, all the hardware would be worthless. Whether inputting or outputting data, the processor is actively involved.

The processor decides when to input data and when it’s time to send back the results.

A Dynamic Circuit

Just like many other electronics, modern processors have millions of tiny transistors that act as switches. These small switches’ configuration is controlled by other processor components depending on the data fed into it either by other active applications or a computer user.

These tiny switches then form compound dynamic circuits like a printed circuit board (PCB) used in many electronic devices. The processor is thus able to copy and function like these electronics.

Advantages of an APU

Although APUs are not as powerful as standalone CPUs or GPUs, they come with several advantages that any gamer or computer user would want to consider.

Below we look at some of the benefits of using an APU on your computer.

Power-efficient

Discrete GPUs consume more power and memory, the reason you’ll find them with separate power supply and storage.

On the other hand, APUs share most system resources like memory and power supply. Hence, they’re able to balance the amount of energy required to power other processes without burdening the system.

Cost-effective

One key reason why APUs were introduced was to cater to low-budget gamers with light gaming requirements.

Since acquiring a separate GPU to pair up with a CPU, which is equally expensive, proved to be a challenge to many people, AMD deemed it wise to combine the two components and find a middle ground for gamers of all budget ranges.

Multi-purpose

In the same way, you’ll browse web pages, listen to music, chat on skype using a CPU, and APU offers the same benefits and more. Apart from running all these parallel programs, APUs offer a better gaming experience than CPUs.

Compact

Most entry-level gamers use laptops or tablets. APU chips are small to give a better balance of CPU/GPU combination in your tiny machines.

Additionally, they are inbuilt hardware that remains safe without the risk of damage or loss, unlike a dedicated graphics card or discrete GPUs that you can detach at will.

Rendering

CPUs will render images at a low speed but produce excellent results. Rendering may run to hours or even days. The final output is an image with defined frames and less noise.

Image rendering is equally possible in APUs and with a little higher speed compared to CPUs.

CPU vs APU: Which is Better for Gaming?

One way to crack the debate between APUs and CPUs in gaming performance is to think of each of them as independent units.

An APU is technically two processing units integrated into one hardware to form a team devoted to meeting one goal. They share resources that include system memory and power.

On the other hand, a CPU is a standalone unit that complements GPU’s processes. That said, an APU will perform better in gaming than a CPU on its own.

However, most gamers in real-life scenarios will pair a CPU and a GPU. Paring a mid-range CPU and GPU will offer a better gaming experience than in an APU.

While it is true that APUs will not give avid gamers the experience they get from pairing CPUs and discrete GPUs, entry-level gamers on low budgets will do just fine with an APU processor as they look forward to upgrading in the future. 

Perhaps they are less knowledgeable on other gaming needs that require more power.

However, that does not restrict you to APUs if you have the cash to get a discrete GPU. GPUs are an excellent option for other mid-range and intensive gaming needs compared to APUs.

APU vs CPU + GPU Pairing

As much as APUs come with more benefits, CPU and GPU specs should not escape your attention when selecting a rig.

The most important consideration is determining what you intend to do with any piece of tech hardware or software you buy. For example, do you have a new laptop for school homework that you’d want to use for occasional gaming?

In that case, you want to save a few more bucks and get at least an APU for your machine.

If you’re a staunch gamer looking to play some advanced AAA games, then an APU will not work well for you, neither will an integrated GPU (iGPU). You’ll probably need a dedicated GPU with advanced specifications like more RAM.

You can always upgrade in the future if you need more power. Remember that you’ll need to upgrade both the RAM and the graphics cards for optimized performance.

Photo credit: PartitionWizard.com

Suppose you can afford an external GPU, the better. External GPUs have added advantages like independent cooling systems, more memory, and a separate power supply.

In case you’re getting a GPU/CPU combination, go for one with higher frequency and more cores in its chip. 

A processor that supports multi-threading technology would even be better. Keep in mind that the higher the clock speed, the more functions your processor will execute per second.

The most crucial advice for starters who don’t know much about gaming or are on a tight budget is that your best bet should be an APU. Modern APUs have room for future upgrades in case your gaming needs grow.

Bottom Line

APUs are a middle ground for entry gamers who can’t afford high-end gaming GPUs. Although not as famous as CPU and GPU processing units, APUs will serve you well if you’re looking to run several programs while still enjoying your light gaming needs.

If you’re into mid-range or intensive gaming, then you should consider investing in a discrete GPU alongside a mid-range CPU since APUs will not give you the experience you’re looking for. Their limited performance restricts operations you can do even after overclocking.

People Also Ask

There is a lot of confusion on PC terms, particularly on processing units. GPU, APU, and CPU have very close working relations; hence, many people find it difficult to distinguish these components from each other.

Here are some common questions about these processing units we frequently get from users and those aspiring to build new computers.

Will APU Replace GPU?

Among the key areas, AMD focused on building APUs to have a single, compact, and efficient processing package of both CPU and GPU. Otherwise, there is no new improvement on the embedded GPU.

While GPUs are made for specialized tasks- graphics processing tasks, APUs are multi-taskers designed to share the system’s memory. In that case, APUs can only work with GPUs but will not replace them.

How Much RAM Does APU Use?

APUs depend on the system memory for all their operations. The higher the memory available, the faster your system will be. The system will allocate memory to your APU depending on the available RAM. There is a limit of memory you can assign.

In case you’re building your PC, especially for gaming, 8GB should suffice.

Does an APU Need a Graphics Card?

APUs come with an embedded graphics card. However, the performance of the inbuilt graphics card is limited. So, if you’re looking to run some intensive gaming programs, you may upgrade your systems with a dedicated GPU to enhance performance.

Are APUs Worth It?

APUs are CPUs with integrated graphics cards. Although they will not perform as fast as a CPU when combined with a dedicated GPU, they are an excellent option for entry-level gamers on a tight budget.

Additionally, APUs are compact, which makes them ideal for laptop users. They are also easy to upgrade, making them a worthy choice for light gamers looking to advance in the future.

Can an APU Work With a GPU?

APUs come with their embedded GPUs that work in harmony by sharing the system’s memory. 

However, when they were first made, APUs could not accommodate any external (discrete) GPUs since their motherboard sockets were different from the mainstream gaming processor.

Today, APUs are flexible and can work with any GPU, thanks to their new AM4 motherboards compatible with all GPUs.

Austin

When the tech company I worked for restructured and I ended up jobless, I decided to put the wealth of knowledge and management skills to use somewhere new. I’d checked out a few buyer’s guides on the site in the past and reached out to the previous owner. A few months later, here we are. Now, I get to be behind the scenes, helping people find the best tech.