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
AMD recently released their 4th generation Ryzen APUs: the Ryzen 3 5300G, the Ryzen 5 5600G, and the Ryzen 7 5700G.
However, the downside right now is that with the current issues in the global supply chain, the cost of AMD’s new APUs are far beyond what is reasonable. In past generations of their APU, you could get the Ryzen 3 3200G and the Ryzen 3 2200G for under $100. And, at that price they made a ton of sense.
With the current shortages, AMD’s Ryzen 3 5300G costs well over $200. In my opinion, that is a hard price to justify for integrated graphics.
It should be noted, though, that with the supply shortage right now, building your own PC and choosing your own parts is fairly unreasonable as you can buy a prebuilt gaming PC for the same price as the individual graphics card it comes with.
Where CPUs Make More Sense Than APUs
Typically, 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.
If prices reflected the normal market, right now in our $500 gaming PC build, we’d recommend an Intel Core i3-10100F processor and a GTX 1650 Super graphics card. The i3-10100F paired with the GTX 1650 Super would blow the similarly-priced APU out of the water in gaming performance.
So, again, there 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, in a normal market, an APU does 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 a budget prebuilt gaming PC), 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.