For many years, the central processing unit (CPU) has served as the beating heart of millions of PCs all over the world. The CPU is best understood as the brain of the machine, but while it’s primed for carrying out most computer instructions, there are areas in which the CPU can be relatively weak. And that’s why we’ve often seen the CPU paired with a familiar counterpart known as the graphics processing unit (GPU). Functioning as parallel-processing engines, today’s GPUs are equipped with multiple mini cores that work on instructions simultaneously – making them well-suited to compute-intensive tasks such as 3D graphics and video transcoding.
Best of both worlds
Having both a CPU and GPU in a system provides the best of both worlds, and the evolution of modern-day technology has brought us to a place where both the CPU and GPU live together in harmony as part of a single processor. Intel continues to refer to these multi-function processors as CPUs – an acronym that has become almost synonymous with the company – but AMD takes a different approach by marketing the unification of both CPU and GPU with a new three-letter acronym: APU.
This new slice of tech lingo stands for Accelerated Processing Unit and is used to describe a computer processor that combines general-purpose x86 cores (the CPU side of things) with numerous programmable vector processing engines, on a single die (the GPU side of things).
For AMD, the APU represents a significant milestone; it is the amalgamation of the company’s x86 processor technology and Radeon graphics technology - the latter sourced via the 2006 acquisition of ATI Technologies.
While others have lashed a CPU and a basic graphics unit together in a single package, AMD is confident that its expertise in GPU development will enable the APU to enhance the end-user’s PC experience, reduce power consumption, and offer a superior visual graphics experience at mainstream system price points.
Pricing, of course, is key. By combining the CPU and GPU on to a single silicon die, the APU is cheaper to produce and considerably more efficient, making it an effective mainstream solution. And, by consolidating multiple processors into a single chip, the APU enables system integrators to develop new forms of ultra-thin, compact computers that continue to offer a rich multimedia experience.
AMD, the innovator
AMD is the innovator in this field, having announced APUs at the start of 2011. It is a testament to AMD's vision of modern computing that Intel's latest processors also devote a large portion of their die for graphics duties; something that AMD foresaw many years ago. AMD, too, appreciates that software applications need to be run on the best processor in the APU, be it CPU or GPU. The parallel power of the GPU is, as we have noted, ideally suited for multimedia operations.
Rather than rely on proprietary technology that needs to be licensed from a single company, AMD is committed into helping develop the GPU software ecosystem through open standards. One such standard is OpenCL, which is a method by which developers can tap into the power of the AMD graphics. There are now countless popular applications that take advantage of OpenCL acceleration, which can only be good for the industry as a whole.