What's the difference between a CPU and a GPU?

Q:

What's the difference between a CPU and a GPU?

A:

Despite having similar acronyms, a CPU and a GPU are quite different. The biggest difference between a CPU and a GPU has to do with the central role that a CPU plays within any computing system.

The central processing unit, or CPU, is the essential logic circuitry that data passes through in a hardware system. Often referred to as a processor or “chip,” the CPU is the heart of the electronic system. The electrical passage through the CPU determines input-output activities.

By contrast, the graphics processing unit or GPU is a specialized type of electronic circuit that is made specifically for image and video display. The GPU is made to enhance the use of frame buffers for display purposes in devices like computers, mobile phones and gaming consoles. The graphics processing unit can be installed as a slot card component, or be resident on the device motherboard.

Both of these types of circuits handle data. But only one of them is essential to all computing systems. The use of a CPU or CPU resources has become very abstracted as enterprise systems and other hardware architectures move from a hardware-defined resident model to a model based on cloud computing and network virtualization. In a virtualized system, a CPU is a resource allocation rather than an actual physical processor in a specific hardware piece.

In addition to traditional CPUs and GPUs, engineers have started to use a process called general purpose computing for GPUs, which involves using a GPU for not just graphics, but other computations and tasks that would have normally been handled by a CPU. This type of parallel processing helps to facilitate different kinds of high-powered results in modern hardware, and has become popular for both computers and mobile device platforms.

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Written by Justin Stoltzfus
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Justin Stoltzfus is a freelance writer for various Web and print publications. His work has appeared in online magazines including Preservation Online, a project of the National Historic Trust, and many other venues.
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