We hear the terms CPU, GPU, and APU thrown around a lot in the PC gaming world. While most of us know that CPU stands for “central processing unit” and GPU stands for “graphical processing unit”, the actual usage of the nomenclature is extremely confusing.
Although the term ‘APU’ has been floating around for awhile, it was only with the release of AMD’s Zen architecture with the Ryzen chips that we started hearing ‘APU’ being thrown around a lot.
In this article, we will make clear what the real definitions of a CPU, GPU, and APU are, and also compare them in the context of what is best for gaming applications. Take a look at our guide for the 15 most common questions for new PC builders for more information like this.
Simple Definition of a CPU:
Boiled down to the minimum, a the CPU is the microprocessor designed for sequential general purpose computing.
Simple Definition of a GPU:
In contrast to the CPU being a versatile microprocessor designed to do many different tasks, the GPU is specialized to optimize graphical performance.
Graphics Card vs. GPU
While the term GPU and graphics card are used interchangeably, they are not the same thing. The term “GPU” only describes the physical microprocessor that does the graphical calculations, while the “graphics card” describes the entire construction of the PCB, VRAM, cooling solution, and the GPU.
Your EVGA RTX 2070 or Sapphire RX 3060 are better described as “graphics cards” not GPUs.
On the other hand, the actual GPU chip inside your graphics card or APU/CPU is the real “GPU”.
Simple Definition of a APU:
An Accelerated Processing Unit or APU combines both a GPU and CPU into one chip.
Wait! Don’t most so-called CPUs these days have integrated graphics?
Yes. Most low to mid range consumer CPUs have integrated graphics, which is basically a GPU right beside the CPU.
So any processor with both a CPU and a GPU is technically an APU, meaning that most Intel and AMD “CPUs” are actually APUs.
However, Intel just calls everything it makes a CPU.
APU vs. GPU for Gaming
We all know that CPUs suck for gaming compared to GPUs, but what about AMD APUs?
Compared to an actual discrete graphics card, an APU cannot compete.
The GPU in the APU doesn’t have it’s own memory, nor does it has it’s own cooler — it has to share cooling with the CPU.
Most GPU’s and an increasing number of APU’s can be overclocked.
While you can run E-Sports and Fortnite pretty decently on 1080P with the latest AMD Ryzen APUs, don’t expect your APU to hold up when playing graphically intense titles.
For example, the Vega 8 graphics on the Ryzen 3 2200G APU is weaker than even the GT 1030, a graphics card that costs around $70. The Vega 11 graphics on the Ryzen 5 2400G is only slightly stronger than the GT 1030.
I hope this short post has cleared up some of the confusion behind the terminologies of the CPU, GPU, and APU.