System-on-chips, as their name implies, contain nearly all the necessary functional circuit blocks for a full system on a single chip. Generally, you will find the following components on any SoC:
- A processor with multiple cores in the form of a microcontroller, microprocessor, digital signal processor, or application-specific instruction set processor.
- Memory capabilities such as RAM, ROM, FLASH, EEPROM, and/or cache memory.
- External interfaces for wired communication protocols such as HDMI, USB, FireWire, USART, SPI, I²C, or Ethernet.
- Wireless capabilities such as WiFi or Bluetooth and other radio frequency capabilities.
- A Graphical Processing Unit (GPU) for accelerating specific tasks.
- Voltage regulators, phase lock loop (PLL) control systems, built-in oscillators, timers, and analog-to-digital (ADC) converters.
- Intrachip communication subsystems for connecting individual circuit blocks, such as Interface busses or newer intercommunication networks known as networks-on-chip (NoC).
- Digital, analog, and mixed-signal processing circuit blocks for any sensors, actuators, data collection, and data analysis.
- SoC capabilities powering the next generation.
Generally, engineers want to reduce energy waste, save on spending, and further miniaturize devices. With system-on-chip technology, this is possible through advanced integration methods on a single IC.
These compact and versatile chips have powered the rise of smartphones, allowing for incredible power in a small form factor. Similarly, due to their compact and power-efficient qualities, manufacturers are incorporating SoCs into new IoT devices, embedded systems, and even automobiles.
Furthermore, we’ve also seen a shift in SoC technology used in personal computers and laptops to further reduce power consumption and improve performance. Less circuit real estate generally results in less heat generation, less power consumption, and a lower cost of production. This has allowed more efficient device design for heat distribution, minimal latency, and accelerated data transmission.
Because SoCs are highly specialized, they are often applied in individualized tasks. Custom SoCs are now being developed for specific applications such as enhancing machine learning, advanced AI capabilities, and high-performance computing with faster data processing. SoCs can perform multiple calculations as a distributed operation (rather than the limited parallelism offered by traditional CPUs) to further accelerate calculations. For this reason, many companies are now investing in their own development of custom SoCs to support their advanced data and signal processing needs.