On the fence on whether you should get an APU or a CPU? In this post, we highlight the differences between APUs and CPUs and discuss where each option makes the most sense.
Whether you’re building a new PC, or you’re looking for a pre-built gaming computer, the processor you choose will play a significant role in determining your system’s performance. And, if you’re a gamer who is working with a tight budget, you’ll need to decide whether an APU or a CPU is best for your needs.
In this post, we’ll approach the debate of an APU vs a CPU by listing each processor style’s pros and cons, as well as go over the scenarios where each type of processor make sense.
What are APUs and CPUs? (& GPUs)
Before we discuss the differences between APUs and CPUs, it’s first important to understand what a CPU is and what a GPU is.
What is a CPU?
A CPU (or central processing unit) is responsible for processing data on your computer. A computer’s software sends instructions that need to be carried out (or processed) to the CPU, and the CPU then executes those instructions.
What is a GPU?
The GPU (or graphics processing unit) is similar to a CPU, in that it is a processing unit that processes information sent to it by the software and applications on your computer. However, a GPU’s sole function is to handle graphics-related content that your computer needs.
Nowadays, most modern games rely more on the GPU than they do on the CPU. And, therefore, the GPU will have a more significant impact on your in-game experience.
However, stand-alone graphics cards are expensive and, for some budget-oriented gamers, aren’t an option.
In these cases, gamers who can’t afford a stand-alone graphics cards must rely on the integrated graphics on their processor.
What are Integrated Graphics?
While stand-alone graphics cards are better at handling the processing of graphics-related content, most modern CPUs can process graphics-related content through integrated graphics (or iGPU: integrated graphics processing unit).
Essentially, what this means is that on the CPU, there is a built-in graphics processor as well.
So, just because you can’t afford a dedicated graphics card, or a computer that has a dedicated graphics card, that doesn’t mean that you can’t play games on a computer that doesn’t have a graphics card.
However, integrated graphics, on average, aren’t nearly as powerful as dedicated graphics cards. And, as a result, the integrated graphics on your CPU might not be able to handle more demanding games. And, typically, with integrated graphics, you won’t be able to play your favorite games on as high of graphics settings (depending on the game) as you would if you had a dedicated graphics card.
What is An APU?
So, now we finally get to what an APU (accelerated processing unit) is. An “APU” is AMD’s brand name for a type of processor they have created that features better-than-average integrated graphics processing.
The difference between an APU and other CPUs that have integrated graphics is that, since AMD manufactures both CPUs and GPUs, they have been able to leverage their GPU architecture to create processors with more powerful integrated graphics.
And, rather than calling them CPUs, AMD decided to brand their own processors with integrated-graphics as APUs.
APUs vs. CPUs: Which Chips Perform Better for Gaming
There are two ways to approach the APU vs. CPU debated regarding gaming performance.
The most straight-forward way is to isolate the two and see which performs better in games. And, in that case, an APU, on its own, will typically outperform a CPU, on its own, in gaming.
However, this isn’t a realistic scenario, as most gamers pair their CPUs with a dedicated graphics card. And, if you pair a decent CPU with a mid-range graphics card, it will always outperform an APU in games.
Why Even Consider an APU in a Gaming PC?
While an APU will never be the ideal setup for a mid-range or high-end gaming computer, they do offer entry-level graphics processing with entry-level (or slightly higher) central processing power.
From a cost standpoint, you can kill two birds with one stone with an APU. Because, you get both a budget processor and a budget GPU all in one.
So, the real question then becomes, at what price point does it make sense to choose an APU over a budget processor and budget standalone graphics card combination?
Some Past Problems With APUs (for Gaming)
In the past, there weren’t a whole lot of price points where APUs made sense. The problem was that AMD didn’t price their APUs favorably enough to take on common budget CPU/dedicated graphics card combos.
Also, as past AMD APUs used different motherboard sockets than their mainstream gaming processors, you couldn’t upgrade your APU to a mainstream CPU down the road.
And, because you couldn’t upgrade past APUs to higher-end CPUs, they weren’t as viable of an option as budget-friendly CPUs that you could upgrade to a higher-end CPU down the road (without having to change motherboards).
AMD’s new Ryzen APUs solve that problem, though, as they do utilize the same AM4 socket as the more mainstream Ryzen CPUs.
Where APUs Currently Make Sense
And, while in the past AMD’s pre-Ryzen APUs’ price-to-performance ratio made them hard sells for gamers, with the upgraded performance of these new APUs, there are a few instances and budget ranges where they do make sense.
As far as PC builds go, I currently use the 2nd generation Ryzen 3 2200G (it’s only ~$80!) in our $300 gaming PC build. There really is no way to fit a new CPU and dedicated graphics card into a $300 build unless you buy used parts. And, while the Ryzen 3 2200G isn’t going to allow you to max out today’s most demanding games on a budget 1080P monitor, it will at least allow you to play games like Fortnite, Rocket League, League of Legends, Dota 2, etc. with no problems.
In my $400 PC build, I do opt for a CPU/GPU combo that will outperform either the older Ryzen 5 2400G or the newer Ryzen 5 3400G. However, there is a case to be made for opting for something like the Ryzen 5 3400G instead, and sacrificing some performance now so that you have an easier upgrade path in the future.
The RX 560 in our $400 build will give you decent performance, but it won’t allow you to max out more demanding games. So, you will need to upgrade it in the future if you want to do so. And, that means you’ll have to eat the cost of the RX 560. (You could try and sell it on Craigslist or eBay to recoup some of the losses, though.)
On the other hand, while the Ryzen 5 3400G won’t give you as much in-game performance as the RX 560 will right now, you can upgrade to a higher-end standalone graphics card in the future and you won’t have to eat the cost of a cheaper graphics card that you were just using as a placeholder.
Where CPUs Make More Sense Than APUs
Unfortunately, though, once you get into having a ~$500 budget or higher, it makes more sense to go with a budget-friendly CPU and a mid-range graphics card.
Right now, in our $500 gaming PC build, we recommend an AMD Ryzen 5 2600 processor and an AMD RX 580 graphics card. The Ryzen 5 2600 paired with the RX 580 will blow the Ryzen 5 3400G out of the water in any scenario, be it in gaming, or CPU-heavy tasks.
So, again, there isn’t aren’t a lot of price points where AMD’s APUs make sense. However, the ranges where these new APUs do make sense are what I call “critical” ranges because there are a lot of gamers out there who are working with a tight budget and who just need an entry-level system that will allow them to at least be able to play their favorite games.
And, for those gamers, an APU makes sense.
Who Wins in the Battle of APUs vs. CPUs?
The answer to that question depends on the specific circumstances at hand. In my opinion, for the majority of cases, users will want to choose a CPU and dedicated graphics card combo over an APU.
However, if you don’t have a ton of money to spend on a new gaming computer (whether to build one, or buy one pre-built), then there are certain scenarios where an APU might make sense for you.
Ultimately, while APUs will never be an ideal option for gamers, they can serve as a nice entry-level option to tide you over until you can afford a more powerful CPU and dedicated graphics card combo.