What Makes a GPU Different From a CPU?

June 9, 2016, 11:43 a.m.

Better graphics requires a better graphics card. This much is intuitive to most people. But asking what makes a GPU different from a standard CPU is almost a trick question, because at their most fundamental level they're the same damn thing.

Both pieces of hardware perform the same kind of task: they get a problem-in the form of 0s and 1s-and solve it at incredible speeds. The real difference between a CPU and GPU is in the architecture, as described by the number of cores each has, each of which allows a new math problem to be solved simultaneously. Simply put, GPUs have far more cores than CPUs. The top of the line Mac Pro, for instance, has a six-core processor while the NVidia GTX 980 graphics card has over 2000.

But more cores isn't always better. To simplify quite a bit, think of a GPU as a factory and a CPU as Steven Hawking. Factory workers, each represented by a core, can complete lots of easy, similar tasks with incredible efficiency-tasks like geometry and shading. On the other hand Mr. Hawking, while incredibly smart and only occasionally baffled , is just one man. His skill set is better used on singular, complex problems like artificial intelligence.

While working in similar ways, any truly demanding game is going to require both a smart CPU and a powerful GPU. Suddenly not being about to run Dark Souls on a five-year-old Macbook is not all that surprising.