Updated: Apr 24
What is a System on a Chip?
Since smartphones and tablets are basically smaller computers, they require pretty much the same components we see in desktops and laptops in order to offer us all the amazing things they can do (apps, music and video playing, 3D gaming support, advanced wireless features, etc).
A system on a chip, or SoC, is a complete computer system on a chip. They are small, self-contained, energy efficient and have low heat output. A SoC potentially includes all the core capabilities of a server such as software, a microprocessor, graphics processing unit, networking chips, memory and data storage. The following are potential applications of the technology.
Thanks to the wonders of miniaturization, SoC manufacturers, like Qualcomm, Nvidia or Texas Instruments, can place some of those components on a single chip, the System on a Chip that powers your beloved smartphone.
What’s inside of a SoC?
Now that we know what a SoC is, let’s take a quick look at the components that can be found inside it. Mind you, not all the following parts are built in all the different SoCs that we’re going to show you later on, but in order to better understand how a SoC works, you should have a general picture of what goes inside it:
CPU – The central processing unit, whether it’s single- or multiple-core, this is what makes everything possible on your smartphone.
Most processors found inside the SoCs that we’re going to look at will be based on ARM technology, but more on that later
Memory – just like in a computer, memory is required to perform the various tasks smartphone and tablets are capable of, and therefore SoCs come with various memory architectures on board
GPU – the graphic processing unit is also an important component on the SoC, and it’s responsible for handling those complex 3D games on the smartphone or tablets. As you can expect, there are various GPU architectures available out there, and we’re going to further detail them in what follows
Northbridge – this is a component that handles communications between the CPU and other components of the SoC including the southbridge
Southbrige – a second chipset usually found on computers that handles various I/O functions. In some cases the southbridge can be found on the SoC
Cellular radios – some SoCs also come with certain modems on board that are needed by mobile operators. Such is the case with the Snapdragon S4 from Qualcomm, which has an embedded LTE modem on board responsible for 4G LTE connectivity
Other radios – some SoCs may also have other components responsible for other types of connectivity, including Wi-Fi, GPS/GLONASS or Bluetooth. Again, the S4 is a good example in this regard.