What is a System on Chip (SoC)?

A system on a chip, also known as an SoC, is essentially an integrated circuit or an IC that takes a single platform and integrates an entire electronic or computer system onto it. It is, exactly as its name suggests, an entire system on a single chip. The components that an SoC generally looks to incorporate within itself include a central processing unit, input and output ports, internal memory, as well as analog input and output blocks among other things. Depending on the kind of system that has been reduced to the size of a chip, it can perform a variety of functions including signal processing, wireless communication, artificial intelligence and more.


Why SoC?


One of the main motivators behind the creation of systems on a chip is the fact that moving ahead into the future, our primary goal is to reduce energy waste, save up on spending costs, as well as reduce the space occupied by large systems. With an SoC, you achieve all of those goals as you essentially size down what is normally multichip designs onto a single processor that uses much less power than before. These chips have made it possible for us to create a plethora of portable devices that we can conveniently carry anywhere and everywhere with us without ever having to compromise on the capability and functionality of the gadgets. As such, they are frequently used in systems pertaining to the Internet of Things, embedded systems, as well as our own smartphones, cars and more.


Where a system on a chip used to be nothing more than a buzzword just a couple of decades ago, it has now become an integral part of the world of technology and electronics in modern times. The application of SoCs in the practical world are practically limitless and priceless. They are used in most, if not all, portable tech such as smartphones, cameras, tablets, and other wireless technologies. Your smartphone is a good example of how a system on chip works. When you use your cell phone, you do not only use it to make and receive calls- you also use it to browse the internet, view videos, listen to audio, take photos, play games, text message, and whatnot. None of this would be possible without having multiple components such as a graphics card, internet support, wireless connections, GPS, and many other elements. An SoC allows you to take all of these components, put them on a single chip, shrink it down to a size that can fit in the palm of your hand, and carry it around as a living and breathing system in your phone.


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Recently, SoC technology is also being used in smaller sized Personal Computers and laptops to reduce power consumption and improve the performance of the tablet or notebook by using a singular chip to manage all the various aspects of the system.




SoC Building Blocks


To begin with, a system on chip must have a processor at its core which will define its functions. Normally, an SoC has multiple processor cores. It can be a microcontroller, a microprocessor, a digital signal processor, or an application specific instruction set processor.


Secondly, the chip must have its memories which will allow it to perform computation. It may have RAM, ROM, EEPROM, or even a flash memory.


The next thing an SoC must possess are external interfaces which will help it comply with industry standard communication protocols such as USB, Ethernet, and HDMI. It can also incorporate wireless technology and involve protocols pertaining to WiFi and Bluetooth.


It will also need a GPU or a Graphical Processing Unit in order to help visualize the interface.


Additionally,  a SoC may have includes voltage regulators, phase lock loop control systems and oscillators, clocks and timers, analog to digital and digital to analog converters, etc.


Internal interface bus or a network to connect all the individual blocks


Ultimately, the elements incorporate in an SoC corresponds to the function it is supposed to perform.


Advantages of System on a Chip (SoC)


  • Integration of multiple components onto a single chip reduces space requirements in electronic devices.
  • Power efficiency is significantly improved through the replacement of large components and circuits with SoCs.
  • SoCs offer a more cost-effective solution compared to using multiple separate chips.
  • Internal high-speed processor and memory result in faster execution of tasks in SoC designs.
  • Improved performance and efficiency are achieved through the integration of various functionalities on a single chip.
  • SoCs simplify system designs by reducing the complexity associated with multiple separate components.
  • Faster time to market is facilitated by the streamlined design process enabled by SoCs.
  • Greater security at both the firmware and hardware levels is achieved through the integrated design of SoCs.
  • SoCs offer faster system development by pre-integrating processor and interconnect IP with relevant system components.


Disadvantages of System on a Chip (SoC)


  • Designing and developing an SoC may incur higher initial costs compared to other solutions.
  • SoCs may have limitations in terms of customization and flexibility compared to other solutions like SiP.
  • Debugging and testing SoCs can be more challenging due to the integration of multiple components on a single chip.
  • Upgrading individual components on an SoC may be more difficult compared to modular solutions.
  • The complexity of SoC designs may require specialized expertise for development and maintenance.


SoC Vs CPU  


Gone are the days where the CPU used to be the primary and most significant part of the entire computing system. Now, the CPU is only part of the equation that ultimately adds up to being a system on chip. An SoC combines the power of the CPU with several other components that it needs to perform and execute its functions.


The reason why SoCs are increasingly being preferred over simple CPU systems is because despite being almost the same side in regards to the motherboard, an SoC packs twice the power and capability. The CPU will still rely on several other external hardware whereas an SoC has space for all you want to add on its negligible chip. Compared to CPUs, SoCs also use shorter wiring and subsequently expends less power, making it much more efficient and energy smart. The only problem that you can argue against the SoC is the fact that compared to a CPU system, it is rather upgrading and repairing. Where you can easily replace and use new components such as a RAM or a GPU with a CPU, doing so is much more complicated a process with an SoC. In fact, it is near impossible to make changes to a system on chip once it has been manufactured, meaning if it is damaged or needs to be updated, you are better off making a new one rather than even attempting to repair or upgrade it.


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