What is an NPU? Neural Processing Unit explained.

Neural Processing Units are chips designed to accelerate AI tasks faster and more efficiently than CPUs and GPUs.

Windows PC with NPU
Windows PC with NPU / Image: DALL-E

UPDATED 6/25/2024: In computing, NPU stands for “Neural Processing Unit,” a piece of hardware that speeds up AI tasks better than a GPU and CPU. As the world rapidly advances AI, the need for an NPU on computers will become necessary.

In this guide, I’ll explain what you need to know about NPUs, breaking down their function, necessity, and integration into the Windows ecosystem.

What’s a Neural Processing Unit (NPU)?

An NPU is a specialized hardware accelerator for artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) tasks, and its performance is measured in TOPS.

TOPS stands for Tera Operations Per Second, and it essentially describes how many trillion mathematical operations an NPU can perform in a single second.

The difference between a traditional Central Processing Unit (CPU) and a Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) is that an NPU is optimized to handle the complex computations required by deep learning algorithms, making it incredibly efficient at processing AI tasks such as natural language processing, image analysis, and more.

It’s important to note that the NPU is usually integrated into the CPU. For example, the latest AMD Ryzen 8040, Qualcomm Snapdragon X Elite, and Intel Core Ultra processors combine with an NPU.

The importance of NPUs arises from the growing demand for AI applications, from voice recognition in virtual assistants to real-time language translation and facial recognition. These applications require new computational power to process and learn from vast amounts of data. Here’s where NPUs shine—they can execute these AI algorithms faster and more efficiently than their CPU and GPU counterparts.

Initially, NPUs found their niche in smartphones, enhancing features like camera functionality, battery life, and security. However, as AI applications become more prevalent, NPUs are quickly expanding into new domains, including personal computers and laptops.

These are some Windows 11 devices with NPU hardware built-in:

  • Microsoft Surface Pro 10.
  • Microsoft Surface Laptop 6.
  • Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme Gen 5.
  • Dell Latitude 7350 Detachable.
  • Dell Precision 3000 and 5000 Series mobile workstations.
  • Dell Precision 3280 CFF (Compact Form Factor).

Moving forward, the chip will be found on most devices, such as those from Acer, ASUS, Dynabook, Fujitsu, HP, LG, NEC, Panasonic, Samsung, and VAIO. Microsoft is expected to bring the AI chip to all its Surface devices. You can check if your computer includes an NPU with these instructions.

Does your computer need an NPU?

The answer depends on how you use your computer. The current generations of CPUs and GPUs provide plenty of power for everyday tasks for average users. However, for those delving into AI-intensive apps, such as video editing, 3D modeling, or software development focused on AI, integrating an NPU could significantly boost performance and efficiency.

The CPU, GPU, and NPU are vital components of a computer’s overall operation. However, the NPU can complete short and repetitive AI operations faster. In other words, the NPU can take some of the work off from the GPU and CPU so that the other chips can handle other traditional rendering tasks.

When the operating system has to complete an AI task, it will look at the system components and resources and decide whether the NPU or GPU is better for the job.

It’s important to note that while NPUs are not required to run Windows 11 or higher releases, some features may not be available if the Neural Processing Unit is not part of the system in the future.

How does an NPU fit in the Windows ecosystem?

Microsoft wants to dominate the AI market, so it recognizes the need for NPUs to accelerate AI on Windows 11 and future releases of the operating system. This move is part of a broader trend towards more personalized and intelligent computing experiences. For users, this means faster and more efficient AI-based apps, enhanced security features, and, potentially, longer battery life for laptops.

However, the adoption of NPUs in computers is still in its early stages. As the technology matures and becomes more widespread, I expect NPUs to play a more prominent role in the platform, offering enhanced capabilities for developers and end-users.

As we look to the future, NPUs could redefine what we expect from our computers. With their ability to process AI tasks more efficiently, they offer a glimpse into a new era of computing—faster, more intuitive, and more aligned with our needs.

For now, whether your computer needs an NPU depends on your specific use cases. However, as AI continues to weave into our daily computing tasks, the NPU may soon become an essential component, much like the CPU and GPU before it.

Update June 25, 2024: This page has been updated to ensure accuracy and include the latest information.

About the author

Mauro Huculak is a Windows How-To Expert who started Pureinfotech in 2010 as an independent online publication. He has also been a Windows Central contributor for nearly a decade. Mauro has over 15 years of experience writing comprehensive guides and creating professional videos about Windows and software, including Android and Linux. Before becoming a technology writer, he was an IT administrator for seven years. In total, Mauro has over 21 years of combined experience in technology. Throughout his career, he achieved different professional certifications from Microsoft (MSCA), Cisco (CCNP), VMware (VCP), and CompTIA (A+ and Network+), and he has been recognized as a Microsoft MVP for many years. You can follow him on X (Twitter), YouTube, LinkedIn and About.me. Email him at [email protected].