Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) tenure within the computer hardware industry has proven to be an interesting one. Sure, they’ve always been a factor in both the GPU and CPU landscape, but until the release of their Zen 3 CPU lineup, they were seen as the underdogs, rather than a legitimate competitor to Intel and/or Nvidia.
Things changed in November 2020, when AMD released their next-gen line of CPUs, which they called “Zen 3.” While the most noticeable effect of this release was Intel being dethroned as the de facto king of the CPU market, the Zen 3 lineup allowed AMD to expand to an entirely new market; Consoles.
Reading that might raise some questions. After all, the two most dominant consoles; PlayStation and Xbox — are owned by Sony and Microsoft respectively; and neither have much of anything to do with AMD — at least on the surface. In truth, though, the PlayStation 5 (PS5) and Xbox Series X|S rely on AMD’s technology to function. So how did AMD, a company known for computer hardware, end up dominating the console market?
It has to do with a (slightly) different AMD product: Accelerated Processing Unit (APU). Now, while AMD coined the term “APU”, in reality, they’re just a CPU with an iGPU baked into them. That might sound impressive (and complicated), but it’s rather simple, and the technology behind it has been around for a while.
Without going into too much detail, most standard systems separate the Central Processing Unit (CPU) and Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) entirely. The GPU, as the name suggests, is in charge of processing a system’s graphics and throwing them up onto the monitor. On the other hand, the CPU is constantly running equations for different applications in order to keep the system functional.
And while “GPU” or “graphics card” probably brings to mind a hunk of PCB with its own cooling shroud and memory modules, the truth is a lot simpler. The cooling shroud and memory modules are just there to support a chip placed at the heart of all the delicate-looking electronic parts; this chip itself is the GPU.
AMD’s APUs (and by extension, Intel’s iGPUs) take advantage of the actual GPU’s small size to integrate it into a CPU. This results in a weaker, but smaller and more power-efficient GPU than a full-fledged graphics card.
Following the aforementioned release of the Zen 3 lineup, AMD released a new lineup of their APUs. And unlike previous iterations (from both Intel and AMD alike), these APUs offer both a potent CPU and a competent GPU, while costing significantly less than most CPU + GPU combos.
And while these next-generation APUs still lose to last-gen graphics cards in terms of pure performance, the onboard iGPU is powerful enough that people purchased them as a stand-in during the recent graphics card shortage. In contrast, Intel’s development of its own iGPUs has stagnated, leaving AMD with little to no competition in the APU market.
This exponential increase in computing power, along with the small size, and lower power consumption has led to Microsoft and Sony using an iteration of AMD’s APUs in their respective consoles.
For the sake of transparency, the APUs in both the PlayStation and Xbox use the previous generation’s “Zen 2” architecture, and they’ve been heavily modified. The point still stands, though, that AMD’s iGPU know-how is what’s allowed them to dominate the console market.
While the aforementioned Xbox Series X|S and PS5, make use of an AMD APU, the most interesting console to use one of these APUs is the recently released– and wildly popular — Steam Deck. It may lack the prestige of brands like Sony, Microsoft, and their respective consoles, but the Steam Deck is the first handheld console capable of running Steam games at an acceptable framerate. According to Glenn’s guide on the best SD card for Steam Deck, even the cheapest model is a tamed monster.
In comparison, the Nintendo Switch (which is the Deck’s main competitor) uses an Nvidia GPU, and its performance is already starting to be called into question. The Steam Deck might not be able to run AAA titles on Ultra at 60 FPS, but it’s the most powerful handheld console to date — and it’s powered by AMD.