What do we mean by SoC or system on a chip?


A system on a chip, that is at times referred to as an SoC, is simply a merged circuit or an integrated circuit (IC) that uses one platform and joins the whole electronic or the entire computer system on it. Just as the name defines it, it joins the entire system in one chip.

In this article, we are going to discuss everything touching on the SoC and other related aspects that you need to know of.

With all that said, let's dive in and discuss more SoC!

What do we mean by the system on a chip or SoC?

As already described, an SoC, or system on a chip, is an integrated circuit that is also called monolithic integration. The name comes from the fact that it combines all the electronics on one platform.

At the moment, there is probably an SoC in your pocket. SoCs are used in mobile devices such as smartphones, tablet computers and other gadgets. That makes them widely used and therefore essential for many electronic devices.

What is an SoC System on Chip (2-min)

SoC system on a chip technology

So, what are the components that the SoC works to join or bring together into one single chip? Well, these components are not limited to:

  • Central processing unit
  • Input and output ports
  • Internal memory
  • Analog input and output blocks
  • And many others

Based on the type of the system minimized into the small-sized chip, it’s known to perform several types of functions which are not limited to:

  • Signal processing
  • Artificial intelligence
  • Wireless communication
  • And many others

Why SoC?

So, why do we need to use SoC? What are some benefits or simple advantages of using it?

Well, if you have been mind-boggling why we need SoC, then, here’s all that you need to know. The main reason that has fuelled the building of systems on a chip is the idea that we are simply trying to make tech work for the future.

In this case, we aim to consider achieving things such as minimizing energy wastes, reducing the spending or running costs, and also minimizing the space that is occupied by systems that are large. And to achieve all the above-described goals, an SoC is the only solution that has all of them fully catered for.

This is because SoC reduces or minimizes all multi-chip designs to one or a single chip or processor, so consumers consume less power than multi-chip designs. Again, single chips have also made it possible for people all over the globe to carry their devices wherever they want to go. The reason for that is that they are small and light, without having effects on the operation and other functionalities that are achieved in the multi-chip devices.

Single-chip devices are also commonly used on systems that are related to the Internet of Things (IoT), embedded systems that also have aboard our very smartphones, cars, and even kitchen appliances that we use in our homes.

Decades back, a system chip used to be more like an image or simply thoughts or ideas that seemed to be very complicated to attain. As for now, it has proved to be the world's best technology when it comes to integrating electronic parts.

Moreover, the adoption and use of SoC in today's world is limitless and priceless. These systems are commonly used in smartphones, cameras, tablets, and also in other wireless technology equipment.

You also need to know that one of the best examples of the system on a chip and even how it works is your smartphone! So, do you only use your smartphone to make calls and receive calls? I guess the answer is absolutely a big ‘no’ because there are tons of other operations that you always do using your smartphone, isn’t it?

Well, besides making calls and receiving calls, you also use your smartphone to browse the internet. Watch videos, listen to songs, take photos, and send text messages, among many others. Do you know that all that couldn’t be possible without the application of system on a chip technology? This is mainly because multiple components have to be reduced and integrated. These components are not limited to:

  • Graphics card
  • Internet support
  • Wireless connections
  • GPS
  • And many others

Through the use of an SoC, you are capable of taking all these components, having them into one single chip, shrinking all of them into a size that can comfortably fit into the palm of your hand. Finally, it is a perfectly functioning system that can perform all kinds of operations you want - and the best example is your smartphone.

Of late, SoC technology has been also in use in small size personal computers and also laptops. Goals of that are reducing the power consumption and also heightening the performance of the tablet or even your notebook through the use of a single chip to handle all kinds of aspects of the entire system.

Different types of SoC

There are several kinds of Systems on a Chip SoC devices across the globe as you read this article. These devices are also widely available in the market. Since there aren’t any standardized qualifications of what a system on a chip should pass or have to be called one, many vendors have used various approaches when building SoC systems and even when marketing them.

However, you are more likely to be told or stumble on SoCs that either use a microprocessor or microcontroller together with some other peripherals that have to be included to ensure that the system is complete. Below is a list of the different types of SoCs that you need to know of:

1. SoCs that use microprocessors

 Qualcomm’s Snapdragon-related products are considered to be one of the most popular examples of SoCs that use microprocessors. For instance, talk of the Snapdragon 855+ platform that runs a Qualcomm Kryo 485 CPU. You also need to know that it computes power comes along with a GPU (Graphics Processing Unit), an LTE modem, Wi-Fi 6 features, camera, USB-C option, and many others.

Besides that, you also need to know that the Snapdragon SoC is always popular in smartphones, tablets, and also in other smart devices. This is because they attain goals such as using less power or rather low power consumption, and are also capable of attaining very high computing power that is needed in the current world. They have also been a hot cake and point of interest among several engineers who strive on finding the best way possible of maximizing computer performance without doubling sizes but reducing them.

2. SoCs that use microcontrollers

People commonly confuse the term microcontroller and system on a chip. This is because microcontrollers are at some point defined as single-chip microcomputers. From the above description, you can simply see how close it is to the definition of the System on a chip. They sound more alike.

Differences of a microcontroller and a system on a chip

Well, have you ever thought of understanding the differences between a microcontroller and a system on a chip? Firstly, you need to know that the operations of a microcontroller are perceived to be limited as compared to those that can be carried out by a system on a chip.

For instance, when using a microcontroller, you can only use a few peripherals as compared to those that the system on a chip uses or is capable of using. You simply need to know that an SoC is capable of operating the entire operating system on a smartphone, while microcontrollers can only run one program.

Besides that, microcontrollers are widely used as components of SoCs.

Applications for ASIC (Application-Specific Integrated Circuit)

Just as you may know that SoCs are used to allow general-purpose computing for mobile phones, it’s also widely used for Application-Specific Integrated Circuit applications. As opposed to general-purpose computing, in the ASIC, the IC is mainly built to handle a given specific task.

All task-specific applications are very common in the embedded systems industry.

Research by Semico shows that the ASIC/SoC market is likely to grow at a healthy rate of 8.5% CAGR (Compound Annual Growth Rate) up to 2023. It shows the bright future of the industry.

SoC building blocks

Firstly, a system on a chip must always possess a processor as its core that simply defines its entire operations. At most times, an SoC usually has several processor cores. All these can be a microprocessor, a digital signal processor, or simply an application-specific instruction set processor and lastly a microcontroller.

Secondly, one need to ensure that the chip has the memories that enable it to carry out the computation. Here, it can have RAM, ROM, EEPROM, and even flash memory. From here, you should also need to know that it should have external interfaces that enable it to meet the industry-standard communication rules such as Ethernet, HDMI, and USB. It can also embrace wireless technology and have onboard protocols related to Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

It will also need to have a GPU or Graphical Processing Unit that allows it to visualize the interface. Besides all that mentioned, it may have components such as voltage regulators, clocks and timers, analog to digital converters and also digital to analog converters. Lastly, it includes phase lock loop control systems and oscillators.

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