What is system-on-a-chip?

You might have observed that electronic devices around you are getting smaller without compromising on their functionality. It’s quite astonishing, isn’t it? Well, this phenomenon is made possible by a remarkable technology called “System-on-a-Chip” (SoC). In this article, TechSparks will delve into the intricacies of SoC chip and explain how it enables the miniaturization and increased efficiency of electronic devices. But before we begin, we recommend watching a video on YouTube to get a better understanding of this topic. Let’s dive in!

Table of Contents

What is System on Chip?

SoC, short for System on a Chip, is a term commonly used to describe a fully electronic system. Essentially an SoC System on Chip is an integrated circuit. As its name suggests: a system all on one chip.  This compact and efficient solution offers superior performance and reduced power consumption compared to traditional circuits assembled using separate components.

As you can imagine, since it is a system, it must be composed of multiple individuals to be called a system, right? So the focus of the SoC is on the whole. Engineers employ various manufacturing techniques to integrate a range of components onto a single semiconductor chip, including input/output interfaces, microprocessors, memory, and other peripheral functions. This approach aligns with the old Chinese saying, “Although the sparrow is small, all the organs are complete,” perfectly capturing the essence of an SoC chip.

Why SoC Technology

The early development of electronics laid the foundation for future trends such as miniaturization and integration. It’s safe to say that everyone appreciates lightweight devices with multifunctionality. In the 1970s, electronic engineers began envisioning the idea of integrating multiple components into a single chip. As semiconductor production methods improved and the demand for portable electronics grew, SoC system on chip technology rapidly evolved. Today, SoC chips offer enhanced performance and energy efficiency while becoming increasingly smaller, driving innovation in various industries.

In the competitive landscape of the electronics manufacturing industry, future product planning necessitates reduced losses and compact system designs to thrive. This is where SoC proves invaluable for manufacturers in achieving these objectives.

From brick phone to smartphone

A prime example of a successful SoC application is the ubiquitous smartphone that we use in our daily lives. In the 1980s, people relied on bulky devices referred to as “brick phones,” resembling the size and weight of a brick. While such devices may be a thing of the past for the younger generation, they still make occasional appearances in movies. However, the modern-day smartphone, which is smaller than a centimeter, serves as an all-in-one communication tool with the ability to make calls, send messages, browse the web, and perform multimedia functions. Achieving this level of functionality would have been almost unimaginable without the integration provided by a system-on-a-chip.

Even if not compared to the electronic applications of the distant past, SoC offers numerous advantages over multi-chip designs with equivalent functionality. SoC is defined as having all functional modules integrated on a single chip and therefore may not be as good as multi-chip designs in terms of system upgrades. However, in terms of performance, closer proximity between modules within the SoC tends to be more electrically efficient, allowing for faster communication. More importantly, more functionality can be achieved with just one chip, which tends to be more fundamentally beneficial in manufacturing at scale. System-on-a-chip technology is necessary and is becoming a general trend in the future of electronic hardware, both for users and manufacturers of electronic devices.

System-on-Chip Application Examples

The potential of system on chip SoC is virtually limitless. From consumer electronics to aerospace, it can meet most of the electronic needs we can imagine. TechSparks presents a selection of SoC application cases that showcase its versatility:

  • Healthcare: ECG machines, blood pressure monitors, pulse oximeters, CT scanners, MRI equipment, electronic medical record systems, and smart bracelets.
  • Internet of Things (IoT): Air quality monitors, water quality monitors, noise monitors, smart alarms, warehouse management systems, traffic data analysis systems, and smart city facilities.
  • Home appliances: TVs, set-top boxes, speakers, smart refrigerators, smart washing machines, smart air conditioners, and other home appliances.
  • Automotive: Infotainment systems (IVI), electronic control units (ECUs), battery management systems, motor control, charging control, and GPS systems.
  • Mobile devices: Smartphones, computers, game consoles, e-readers, handheld navigation devices, and mobile payment terminals.

SoC vs CPU

SoC vs CPU​
ComponentsIntegrated CPU, I/O controllers, memory, GPU, cache, and peripheralsStandalone processing unit
IntegrationDefined as an integration of multiple componentsNormally have a standalone chip
FunctionalitySupports different tasks like graphics, processing, audio, and moreFocused on executing instructions and calculations
Power ConsumptionRequires more modules to achieve functionality, often with higher power consumptionDesigned with an efficient instruction set and sequential execution to reduce the amount of operations
PerformanceEfficient performance for multimedia operation and multitaskingOptimized for computational tasks
CustomizationHighly customizableLimited options
ApplicationsTablets, Smartphones, Gaming Consoles, IoT Devices, and Embedded SystemsDesktops, Servers, Laptops, and Devices Requiring High Processing Power
GraphicsIntegrated GPU for handling graphics processingRequires a separate GPU for graphics-intensive tasks
MemoryIntegrated memory on the same chipMemory is separate from the CPU
PeripheralsIntegrated I/O controllers and peripheralsPeripheral devices connected externally
System ComplexityHigh level of complexity due to the integration of multiple componentsSimpler design with a singular focus on processing

Types of System on Chip

  • ASIC (Application-Specific Integrated Circuit): Specialized system-on-chip that is custom-designed to fulfill specific functions for particular projects. 
  • Multi-Core: To enhance processing power and boost overall performance, SoC chips incorporate multiple processing cores on a single chip. This allows for parallel processing capabilities, making them well-suited for demanding computing tasks, server applications, and multimedia processing that require intensive computational capabilities.
  • Mixed-Signal: Designs combine analog and digital components on a single chip, enabling the creation of products such as data converters for analog and digital signals, audio/video codecs, and sensor interfaces.
  • Network-on-Chip: NoC is a prevalent type of system-on-chip designed for complex network systems. It provides efficient interconnections between components, ensuring smooth data transmission and communication within the network.
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