System-on-Chip The system-on-chip: Today’s most important electrical engineering component

| Author/ Editor: Luke James / Erika Granath

Virtually every single electronic device in circulation today uses a system-on-chip (SoC). These are made up of both hardware and software components that add functionality to electronic devices and are one of the most critical components used in modern electronic design.

SoCs are much cheaper to design and utilize when compared to multi-chip systems
SoCs are much cheaper to design and utilize when compared to multi-chip systems
(Source: Public Domain / Unsplash)

The days of the central processing unit (CPU) being the primary component in a computer system are long gone. Today, the CPU is only a small part of the constantly growing equation that adds up to be a system-on-chip (SoC).

An SoC combines the power of the CPU with several other components that it needs to perform and execute its intended functions, and they are more common than you may think.

A brief history of the SoC

Since its inception in the 1970s and deployment in the world’s first digital watch – the Hamilton Pulsar wrist computer – the SoC has come a long way. As technology and electronic design advance by the day, more and more individual units are included in a standard SoC, and as a result, they are becoming increasingly complex.

An SoC is an integrated circuit that integrates all components of a computer or other electronic system together upon a single monolithic substrate that usually measures somewhere between the size of a thumbnail and a coin.

SoCs typically consist of a central processing unit, memory, input/output ports, and secondary storage, however, an SoC can accommodate various other components, such as volatile and non-volatile memory systems, I/O interface ASIC, and logic circuits can each be formed into units and then integrated on a single chip, too.

Today, SoCs are widely used in devices that require entire component assembles to be implemented at the chip level. Examples of these include embedded systems, most consumer electronics, and IoT devices.

Why SoC?

A major motivator behind the development of SoCs is the fact that as we move ahead into the future, the goal of all engineers, makers, and industry is to reduce energy waste, save on costs, and reduce the space occupied by large systems. With an SoC, all these goals can be achieved because, essentially, it shrinks down onto a single chip what would normally be a multichip design.

SoCs have made it possible for design engineers to create a huge range of highly portable devices without compromising on capability and functionality. Though system-on-chip was a mere buzzword a few decades ago, it has evolved into an integral part of electrical design.

How an SoC works

SoCs use one or more processor cores alongside reduced instruction set computer (RISC) architecture. The individual cores in an SoC contain microcontrollers or microprocessors that use less digital logic and can perform millions of instructions per second (MIPS). Many SoC processor cores use Advanced RISC Machine (ARM) architecture which is cost-effective, more power-efficient, and a lot quicker than other comparable chip architectures, including Intel’s own x86 CPU.

In general, a standard SoC can be broken down into the following building blocks:

  • A processor, or multiple thereof, that defines its functions.
  • Some form of memory such as RAM or ROM.
  • External interfaces such as USB, HDMI, Ethernet, and/or Wi-Fi.
  • A graphics processing unit (GPU).
  • An internal interface bus or a network to connect all the individual blocks.

Ultimately, the SoC’s intended function will determine which elements it incorporates.

Benefits of SoC-based design

SoC offers several benefits over traditional CPU and multi-chip solutions for electrical engineers and product manufacturers.

First of all, the integrated nature of an SoC’s hardware and software components on a single chip improves system reliability and device performance. This is because failure points are reduced and on-board connectivity can be better optimized.

SoCs also consume far less power than multi-chip systems. Many of today’s best integrated circuits maximize power efficiency using asynchronous symmetric multi-processing (aSMP). This allows a chip to only utilize the cores that are necessary to perform a given operation.

It is not only power consumption that is reduced. SoCs also use less physical space as they integrate multiple functions on a single chip, allowing them to be deployed on limited surface areas. This makes them perfect for use in the many portable and lightweight products of today.

Finally, SoCs are much cheaper to design and utilize when compared to multi-chip systems. They are fabricated using a metal-oxide-semiconductor process that is cheaper at volume, and the reduced assembly costs and cabling drives cost down further still.

Limitless potential applications

Thanks to the characteristics touched upon above, modern applications for SoCs are virtually limitless. As more and more new developments, products, and ground-breaking developments are revealed almost daily, the global SoC market is growing rapidly to meet the growing demand from design engineers and product manufacturers.

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