I never thought I’d see the day when I’d actually want an integrated graphics solution.
When I began in PC Gaming, graphics chips appeared in two forms; a competent GPU on a discrete card with a thermal solution that can charitably be described as “quaint” by modern standards, and a chip snuck in under the even more anaemic heatsink that served what was then known as the Northbridge Chipset on the motherboard. The latter was usually an underpowered, under-supported and often-abandoned excuse for a gaming GPU. Integrated graphics meant trouble.
You can imagine my puzzlement when AMD bought ATi back in October of 2006. Even though Intel’s Core 2 CPUs had launched just three months before, it seemed odd that AMD would acquire graphics expertise to help them compete in the CPU business. CPUs are basically monolithic cores that are designed to complete single, complex tasks as fast as possible; examples would be encryption, word processing and many of an Operating System’s vital tasks.
Fast forward to 2011, we see the first of AMD’s new Accelerated Processing Units, or APUs: Llano. The APU vision was a computing landscape where the CPU and GPU were on the same package, and effectively one and the same, and they could shunt data within the same program seamlessly between the CPU cores and GPU cores. The CPU cores handled the complex operations while the many, much simpler but specialised tasks could be taken on by the GPU.
Sadly, without much support from software, APUs remain little more than CPUs with a GPU in the same package. AMD’s ageing K10 architecture was a real millstone around the neck of the APU right up to Bristol Ridge, making the concept unappealing to programmers. After all, suppose your program was being designed for everyday use by all kinds of computing demographics; as AMD only held 20% of the CPU market share back in early 2017, do you really want to go to the trouble of implementing radical new code that only, according to 2012 figures, 75% of those users, or 15% in total, will ever use?
Things are changing fast, though. In just three months, AMD raked back more than 10% of the CPU market share on launching Ryzen, the biggest gain ever seen in history. Ryzen not only reached it’s target of a 40% increase in IPC over it’s predecessor, but crushed it, achieving 52%. While Ryzen is still a little deficient compared to Intel’s CPUs when it comes to single-threaded performance, multi-threaded performance presents a serious threat to the Intel hegemony.
I have been a long time believer in the APU concept. Hell, the laptop I’m typing this post on has an AMD A10-4600m inside, and I have owned two APU-powered PCs besides. With this in mind, you can imagine how much I am salivating over the announcement of Ryzen-based APUs, the Ryzen 5 2400G and Ryzen 3 2200G; Quad Core, the former with SMT for another four threads, and GPUs with 704 and 512 Cores respectively, all wrapped up in a cool 65W TDP. With these Ryzen-based APUs launching early this year, it’s not too hard to see many people finding a cheap, competent, power-efficient yet gaming-capable PC in 2018. Not to mention some truly tiny machines along those lines.
Unsurprisingly, Intel has taken notice and has made a rather surprising move. Enter Kaby Lake G, a line-up of mobile Intel CPUs with AMD graphics chips onboard, the latter made by the same division that produced the graphics for the Xbox One and PS4. The flagship model, the i7-8809G, packs four 8th-Gen Intel CPU Cores with Hyperthreading, along with a staggering 1536 GPU Cores. That’s with a TDP of 100W, and including 4GB of HBM memory, and reports suggest that the combo can beat an i7-7700HQ and a full-fat Nvidia GTX 1060. Astonishing.
The latter example is perhaps more significant here. It’s a tacit admission by the CPU giant that the APU concept is one worth taking seriously, if only with the focus being on gaming performance at present. As more users are wooed by these products, and their user base grows, it only follows that programmers that originally spurned the idea of GPU acceleration in traditionally CPU-dominated programs will rethink their stance.
The rise of APUs also has the potential to shake up the way PCs are built as well. The PC market is an odd anomaly in today’s society, in which the machines have stubbornly stuck to the ATX form factor while just about everything else has shrunk; mp3 players, laptops and mobile phones have gotten thinner and lighter, and yet we all seem to have PCs which look ridiculously cavernous inside with the only expansion card being the graphics card!
So is this the age of the APU? I think so. There will still be room for discrete GPUs at the medium and high ends of the market, as long as their TDP can be measured in hundreds of watts, anyway. But for anyone else, maybe it’s time to consign the pitiful, DDR3-equipped low-end cards to the museum, and not a moment too soon.