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A SoC is not (just) a CPU: clarifying the differences between the two concepts

We often engage in technological debates without taking into account that the terms we use can be the source of some confusion, and it is always good to return to the principles and clearly establish what certain terms we use very often mean.

This is the case of the terms SoC and CPU , which some readers may consider as equivalent when they are not at all even if they are strongly related.

The SoC goes beyond what a “simple” CPU goes

And we say “simple” with the best of intentions, because the CPU (Central Processing Unit) is undoubtedly the most important component of a device with computing capacity. It is the processor, although it would be more appropriate to say that it is the general purpose processor.

That last meaning is important because although there are chips dedicated to very specific areas (the GPU or Graphics Processing Unit is intended for graphic processes, for example), the CPU can basically do everything .

It is a component that in fact stands out for its versatility. He is not especially good at anything specific – that is why he helps chips dedicated to all kinds of scenarios such as graphics, sound or connectivity – but he is the great conductor of that orchestra that “plays” on our computer. In fact, he is more a kind of orchestra man: he is able to play all the instruments, but other components of the orchestra can do better than him.

The CPU is therefore the key chip to perform many of the operations and calculations that we need on a day-to-day basis, but in turn it is that team leader who “delegates” certain tasks thanks to the operating system and applications and leaves them in specialized chip hands. The difference with a SoC, as we will see, is important.

SoC brings together in a single chip what others do in several

In conventional computers and in devices where space is not so restricted, it is normal to be able to take advantage of this room for maneuver to be able to integrate chips according to needs.

Almost all these chips are part of the motherboard or components and cards that we connect to that motherboard , and so we have the processor or CPU, the dedicated graphics card, the audio chip and the cable or wireless connectivity.

Precisely what characterizes a SoC (System on a Chip) is the fact that all these components and agglutinate in a single chip . It’s like having an ultra-compact motherboard with a good number of chips of all kinds integrated into it.

Thus, in a SoC several of the fundamental components of a computer are integrated , such as the CPU, an integrated graphics processor (IGP, different and especially less powerful than the dedicated graphics card GPUs), memory, input ports, a modem, a DSP or security chips.

These are key SoC mobile devices because their degree of integration allows us to have all these functions in a truly compact “package” . The surprise is that although SoCs have much less room for maneuver than that offered by a motherboard for laptops or PCs, their capacity is amazing.

The SoCs have emerged spectacularly with the mobile revolution and with the designs of ARM and developments of manufacturers such as Qualcomm, MediaTek, Apple, Samsung or Huawei, which have taken much advantage of this concept to achieve “processors” that really are a lot more than that.

The Snapdragon 855 or the recently presented Apple A13, for example, are a good example of this type of concept : they include a CPU -with cores based on the various Cortex-AXX of ARM in many cases-, but also neuronal motors for the field of artificial intelligence, graphics chips (such as Mali), modems for 4G / LTE connectivity or digital signal processors (DSP), among many other components.

And that despite having exceptional efficiency that makes them as we said ideal for mobile devices but also in other products such as consoles : the next Xbox and PlayStation will appear in 2020 will do so with AMD SoCs known as AMD Flute and AMD Gonzalo.

To a certain extent we could say that the modern Intel and AMD CPUs are SoCs: Intel processors have been offering integrated graphics with the Intel HD Graphics platform for years. The same goes for AMD and its APUs (Accelerated Processing Unit) that also add a GPU to the CPU that is the true protagonist of these designs.

These chips allow users to have desktops and laptops (in them this type of SoCs are the norm, in fact) that have adequate graphics capabilities without having to resort to the extra cost, complexity and consumption required by a dedicated graphics.

But as we say, it is important to differentiate to understand that a SoC is a very different chip than a CPU. In fact, the SoC is more complex because it integrates (among other things) a CPU, which remains the fundamental pillar of any computing device and is ultimately responsible for its performance in all types of fields.

Kim Hostler
I studied Communication Sciences because as a child I always wanted to be an announcer and make drawings for advertising campaigns. Life took me down another path and now I am a Communicator who has worked for Nokia, and Motorola. Where now instead of drawing, I take pictures, and instead of talking about my passion.
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