Covid gave the world a good smacking, the world responded by shutting themselves indoors and purchasing a ton of computing power. Thus began the silicon shortage, or so the internet would have you believe.
I’m not here to argue over the cause for the world’s current chip shortage. Scalpers, Covid, automobiles with computer chips becoming more popular, an increase in online education, et cetera, and et cetera scalpers, I’m sure, all had a hand in pushing the current prices of graphics processing units to where they are today. But that’s all completely irrelevant for the point of this article.
Today, let’s talk about the APU, and how it can be the saving grace for people who want or need to build working computers for reasonable prices.
What’s an APU?
An APU, or accelerated processing unit, is the term assigned to CPU’s (central processing units) with integrated graphics. In short, an APU is a CPU with the GPU built right into it. Simple, right? Good.
APU’s retain the same quality of their CPU counterparts, but never stray into the realm of ‘high-performance’ because the GPU power of integrated graphics is somewhat limited. That is to say, an APU isn’t going to go full-out in CPU performance because it would be bottle necked by the integrated graphics available to it.
Right now, the best integrated graphics on the market is Vega-11, which comes with AMD’s best Ryzen APU’s. If that sounds complicated or you have no clue what these words mean, worry not. Vega-11 is just the name for an integrated graphics solution. Ryzen is a just a name for a series of CPU’s and APU’s. You don’t need to know what they mean, you just need to know that Vega-11 is the latest and greatest in integrated graphics, and compared to a standalone GPU’s performance, Vega-11 isn’t anything to write home about.
This leads back full circle. If Vega-11, the best integrated graphics available, isn’t too amazing (not bad, but not great,) then AMD can’t make high-end APU’s because an amazing CPU wouldn’t pair well with a mediocre GPU. It’s like taking a nice salmon fillet and covering it in ketchup, the fuck you doin’?
This means that when you look for an APU, you’re looking for, at best, a mid-tiered piece of computer hardware. You’re not trying to stream at 4k resolutions, you’re not trying to use video editing software or 3D model a new house for a client, and you’re not trying to build a PC that’s high end. You’re mediocre, and your hardware is mediocre. And that’s usually fine.
I say usually because in a usual market, things are usual. But things are not usual, as I pointed out above. The market is wicked and wily, and standalone GPU’s are priced at premium, usually being marked up 300%-400% of their normal value. Now, most PC parts are marked up in some fashion because of this, but the CPU / APU really has gotten the softest hit in that regard. So, then, where does that leave an our fellow APU’s? Not Mediocre, but grandiose, hotman.
Let’s take a look at the going price for the Ryzen 5 3400G (a Ryzen APU of decent quality), and compare its price to its equal standalone components that you’d pay for if you were either APU-phobic or looking to buy a pre-built PC.
Vega-11 graphics, which the 3400G comes with, is roughly equivalent in performance to the GT 1030, which is a standalone graphics card released in 2017 that runs for about $130. The closest equivalent standalone CPU you can get in relation to the 3400G is the Ryzen 5 2600, which runs for about $180 at the time of writing this article. Collectively, we have a price of $310 for two components that give equal (give or take some minute differences here and there) performance to a product that costs $220. That’s just under $100 off a product that’s easier to install, order on its own, and provides nearly identical performance to its given counterparts.
There’s no one explanation for why this price difference exists, but I’d guess with no research whatsoever that the discrepancy between the APU and the CPU / GPU combo comes down to simple demand. Gamers often say that APU’s aren’t great for performance, and so that trickles down to a decreased population willing to buy APU’s for their PC, even in the face of a $100 tax.
The Role of the APU in Today’s Market?
It’s a cheap product that can give entry-level to mid-tiered performance. It’s priced at a discount simply because gamers have a negative stigma towards the term “APU”. It’s an APU, and it’s really that simple.
The role the APU plays today is the same one it played years ago: a cheap and effective CPU / GPU for the all purpose PC. The only difference today is that it comes with a 30% discount to its peers.