What is a System on Chip (SoC)?- A Basic Definition

The System on a Chip market is projected to grow to over $207 billion by 2023 according to a report released earlier this year. System on a Chip technology is found across all industries and is used in embedded systems as well as general purpose computing devices. However, despite its popularity, there is still ambiguity and confusion surrounding the term.

For example, questions like: “what’s the difference between a System on a Chip and microcontroller?” are not uncommon, even among professionals. Part of the reason for this confusion is the general way marketers use the term and the lack of a standardized set of characteristics for System on a Chip. Here, we’ll define System on a Chip, explain different use cases, and explore how you can analyze traffic from System on a Chip devices like smartphones.

What is an SoC (System on a Chip)?

Let’s start by answering the “what is System on Chip?” question and defining System on a Chip clearly.

A System on a Chip, or SoC, is a single integrated chip (IC) that includes the components normally found in a standard computer system. For example, on an SoC you may find a CPU (Central Processing Unit), RAM (Random Access Memory), storage, I/O (input/output) ports, and more. SoCs also generally strive for efficiency in terms of being small in size and low in power consumption.

While there is no single comprehensive list of System on Chip components that sets a bar for what is and is not an SoC, the litmus test should be: “does the system contain all the major components of a computer or electronic system on a single small low-power board?” If yes, it is fair to call the system an SoC.

SoCs break from the traditional approach to system architecture (e.g. with motherboards) where each component is discretely installed. This enables the creation of smaller and more efficient devices, driving innovation in the creation of netbooks, laptops, smartphones, and IoT (Internet of Things) devices.

Different Types of SoC

There are a variety of System on Chip SoC devices on the market today. As there are no standardized qualifications to what makes a system an SoC, we have seen different vendors take different approaches to SoC development and marketing. For example, in some cases, storage is available on the SoC, in others it is handled outside the system.

Generally, you will see SoCs either use a microprocessor or microcontroller along with the other peripherals that make the system complete. In this section, we’ll review some of the more common types of SoC.

SoCs that use Microprocessor

One of the most popular lines of SoCs with microprocessors is Qualcomm’s Snapdragon line of products. For example, the Snapdragon 855+ platform uses a Qualcomm Kryo 485 CPU. The compute power of the Kryo 485 is coupled with a GPU (Graphics Processing Unit), WiFi 6 features, an LTE modem, USB-C functionality, a camera, and more.

Snapdragon SoC processors are commonly found in mobile phones, tablets, and other smart devices. Because they enable low power consumption and high levels of computing power, they have gained popularity with engineers looking to maximize functionality with a limited footprint.

SoCs that Use Microcontroller

It is common for the terms microcontroller and System on a Chip to be confused. When you consider the fact microcontrollers are generally defined as single chip microcomputers, it is easy to see why. That sounds very similar to the definition of System on a Chip.

So what is the difference? The functionality of a microcontroller is a bit more limited. For example, the peripherals that can be used with a microcontroller are limited compared to a full SoC. Similarly, a microcontroller does not generally enable the same level of functionality as a System on a Chip. That is, while an SoC can run a full operating system on a smart device, microcontrollers alone generally run an individual program.

It is very common to find microcontrollers used as a component of SoCs. For example, Texas Instruments’ CC2540 is built around the 8051 microcontroller core. The CC2540 extends the functionality of the 8051 with in-system programmable flash, RAM, Bluetooth functionality, and more. SoCs like the CC2540 and others that use microcontrollers are a big part of what is driving growth in the world of embedded systems.

Applications for ASIC (Application-Specific Integrated Circuit)

While SoCs enable general purpose computing for mobile devices, it is also common to find them used for ASIC (Application-Specific Integrated Circuit) applications as well. With ASIC, the IC is designed to carry out a specific task as opposed to general purpose computing. These purpose built applications are quite common in the embedded systems industry.

Research published by Semico suggests the ASIC/SoC market will grow at a healthy 8.5% CAGR (Compound Annual Growth Rate) through 2023. What are the key drivers of the growth? IoT, Industrial IoT, and Artificial Intelligence (AI). These embedded System on Chip SoC technologies will revolutionize a number of industries in the years to come. For more on the potential of AI and embedded systems, check out The Future of AI and the Embedded System.

Common Uses of SoC

The potential use cases for SoC seem to be almost limitless, with applications ranging from IoT in healthcare to smart home technology. However, some of the most frequent applications for SoC  are smartphones, netbooks, tablets, and similar smart devices. These devices demonstrate the power of SoC to deliver significant general purpose computing functionality while reducing power consumption and space.

Here are a few popular examples of SoCs in modern smart devices:

  • Samsung Galaxy S10 5G- This powerful 5G Android phone uses the Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 SoC platform. Despite the small size of the Snapdragon, it is capable of enabling virtual reality experiences and streaming real-time 4K video.
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab S3- The popular S3 tablet was the first mobile media focused tablet to be powered by the Snapdragon 820. The Snapdragon 820 enabled fast connectivity, high-quality graphics, and efficient battery use for users of the tablet.
  • Intel NUCs based on Gemini Lake SoCs- A NUC (Next Unit of Computing) is a small PC from computing giant Intel. NUCs enable general purpose computing for home and small business users at a low cost. The NUC 7 PJYH and NUC 7 CJYH were based on Gemini Lake SoCs.
  • Fossil’s Smartwatch for Fitness- The Wear 3100 platform is a line of SoCs that has enabled the development of a variety of smartwatches.  Late last year, Fossil released their Fossil Sport Smartwatch which used the Wear 3100 platform. A number of other manufacturers also use the chip, enabling vendors other than Apple to compete in the smartwatch space.

How to Analyze Traffic From Smartphones Using SoC

As we have seen, smart devices are some of the most common applications of SoC technology today. This makes it important for engineers and QA testers in the industry to understand how to debug and analyze traffic from smartphones and similar devices that use SoC technology. The Beagle USB 480 Protocol Analyzer and Beagle USB 480 Power Protocol Analyzer are excellent tools for doing just that. By connecting to the communications bus of an SoC enabled smartphone, engineers can capture granular data down to the protocol level to enable better analysis of software and hardware.

Coupled with Total Phase Data Center Software, the Beagle USB 480 analyzer enables low-level protocol-level data to be translated into a class-level view in real time. Why is this important? Because with the raw protocol level view, understanding the information is difficult. Transforming it to class-level makes information human-readable and simpler to understand.  For an example of the benefits of real-time class-level USB analysis, check out this video.

In addition to real-time data analysis, the Beagle USB 480 analyzer enables you to capture USB data and save it to a file including ASCII data. For a step-by-step walkthrough on saving USB data to a file, check out this FAQ.

Interested in learning more?

In this piece, we answered the “what is system on chip?” question and explored some of the real-world applications of SoC technology and SoC in computer systems. We also explained how Total Phase protocol analyzers can enable embedded systems engineers and testers to debug and analyze SoC-based technologies like smartphones.

If you are not sure which Total Phase products are right for you, check out this USB Analyzer Product Guide. Alternatively, if you’d like to work with our team of experts and see a demonstration of Total Phase products in action, schedule a demo today!