Google IO 2017 Coverage

What is a System on a Chip (SoC)?

In combing across Android blogs, you’ve probably heard the term SoC mentioned a couple of times. It stands for System on a Chip, which is basically the brains of your smartphone. An SoC can be in a lot of things — phones, tablets, wearables and more.w

Follow along below and we’ll show you how SoCs work, what they are and how they come together to operate your smartphone.

What is an SoC?

As we already talked about, SoC stands for System on a Chip. It acts as the brains of your smartphone, essentially. It’s basically a microchip or integrated circuit that contains all of the components of a computer. But in the scenario of smartphones, it does it on a much smaller scale since — obviously — you don’t have nearly as much room for hardware in a smartphone as you might in a computer case.

Your smartphones SoC literally includes everything found in a computer, but on a much smaller scale — this includes your computer processor, graphics processor, RAM, storage and more elements that you might not even find on a computer, such as your cellular radio and radio frequencies for connecting to carrier networks.

You can see an example of everything packed into a modern smartphone SoC below.

Image Credit: Anandtech

Processors and more processors

As you can see in the diagram above, there’s a lot going on in an SoC. Like we said, it’s the brain of your computer — it’s comprised of everything it takes to run your smartphone on top of all the extra accessories, like cameras, Bluetooth, Internet and so much more.

One of the most important aspects of the SoC are the processors. You have your main, central processing unit, but you also have a ton of other processors integrated as well. You’ve got an image processor for processing photos, an audio processor for processing audio signals and a graphics processor for handling visuals. That said, the main, central processor doesn’t do all the work, but it’s still a very important piece of hardware. All of these processors work together to help drive the quickness/performance of your phone.

One thing you might not know about processors in SoCs like this is that they’re mostly designed by ARM, a company that specializes in creating low-power solutions for smartphones and other devices. In most cases, a chip maker will license ARM’s CPU design and use it as is or license the instruction set and create their own chip. While some chip makers go with the former, many will opt to take the instruction sets and work from the ground up in hopes to make a better and more powerful processor.

When it comes to visual or graphical processing, a graphics processor is used instead of the main CPU. This is because graphical processors are designed in a way to outperform CPUs, all while running at a much lower “performance-per-Watt” ratio. So, when you load up a game or movie on your smartphone or tablet, just about everything you can visually see is being rendered by the graphics processor on the SoC.

That said, the audio and image processor are fairly self-explanatory, with the audio processor handling audio signals to take the load off the central CPU. The image processor also takes a load off of the CPU by handling video encoding, decoding and photo processing.

Other aspects

There’s a lot of other stuff packed in your smartphone, too. For example, you have your battery and camera module, too. It’s all connected to your SoC as well. The battery, of course, is the power supply for your smartphone, but it’s connected in a way that it can be charged from the micro-USB/USB Type-C port, which is also embedded on the SoC.

The SoC really is the “brains” of your smartphone — everything in your smartphone is connected to it in one way or another.

Engineering and SoCs

So, what we know so far, is that an SoC is essentially a bunch of computer components all on a single integrated circuit. But, what’s really impressive is the sheer size of an SoC. In your smartphone, the processor isn’t much smaller than a penny — at least as far as the more recent Snapdragon 835 and Snapdragon 820 are concerned — the circuit board itself is smaller than a graham cracker.

Intel has actually launched something even smaller than that, though. Called the Intel Curie, it’s a SoC designed for wearables that is around the size of a shirt button. Yes, that’s an entire computer that is the size of a shirt button — it’s packed with a good amount of technology, too. On top of the processor, RAM and everything it takes to run a wearable device, it also has a 6-axis accelerometer and gyroscope combo sensor for movement tracking and more.

The engineering that goes into SoCs are nothing short of amazing. These computers are getting smaller and more efficient, but at the same time, more powerful, too. More advances in the field over the next few years will be nothing short of amazing as smartphones and wearables get smaller, more efficient and more low profile.

Closing

Suffice to say, SoCs are very interesting technology. It’s quite an engineering feat to create a computer with such a small footprint. Not only that, but computers that are — technically — much more powerful than what was used to put a man on the moon. We’re even putting more powerful computers in smartwatches. It really is quite impressive!

We hoped we helped you understand just a little bit more about what an SoC is and how all of that works together so that we can use the smartphones that we’ve come to know and love today.


About the Author: Brad Ward

Brad is a tech enthusiast, writing and tinkering with all things technology since 2011. He currently bounces between the LG G3 and his beloved Moto X! His interests include reading, entrepreneurship, the gym, and of course, queso.


  • Sandra

    what they are and how they come together to operate your smartphone.