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SOC vs CPU: Breaking Down the Differences and their Optimal Usage
Briana Watson

Since computers and other advances in technology have hit the market, the key to understanding a devices power and ability to compute and perform tasks has come down to its Central Processing Unit, or as its most commonly referred to, the CPU. A powerful CPU typically means a powerful device, with the capability to support a variety of functions to allow systems to operate as intended. While the CPU is ubiquitous in the world of embedded devices, the System-on-Chip (SOC) is often used for similar purposes. Because of this, many might wonder what exactly is so different between these two components and how they are used. In this blog we’ll explain what a CPU vs SOC is, and provide insight into the differences and applications you can commonly find each.

What is a CPU?

The CPU was first invented by a team of employees at Intel and then released in 1971, offering a new wave of possibilities for the future of technology.

Today, a CPU is considered to be the one of the most important components a computer system. It is a piece of hardware on a single, standalone chip that performs a multitude of functions within a computer system, such as: data processing, managing data storage and retrieval, and handling input/output procedures. A CPU consists of three major units, including the memory unit, the Control Unit (CU), and the Arithmetic Logic Unit (ALU). Many consider the CPU to be the ‘brain’ of a computer, as it contains all of the necessary information and circuitry to make the device perform computations and execute tasks as intended. It is generally part of larger system such as a motherboard where other components (like a separate GPU, memory, storage) are connected to it.

What is an SOC?

A newer addition to computer design is the development of the SOC. While SOCs also date back to the early 1970’s, with the latest advances in technology, this type of processor has been increasingly common in devices we use every day. This is due to its integrated circuitry design, which allows for a large amount of programming capabilities and components to be contained on a single chip. The compact design of an SOC includes the CPU, but also includes features such as RAM, storage, Graphics Processing Unit (GPU), and other peripherals, just to name a few.

As computers and other devices such as phones, smartwatches, and tablets have continued to shrink and the needs and expectations of the consumer has grown, the design of an SOC has become even more appealing to engineers as they work to create the next generation of computer technology.

Advantages and Disadvantages Between a CPU and SOC

Advantages of a CPU

Implementing a CPU in an embedded device comes with a multitude of advantages. With the evolution of dual and quad core units, the processing time is quick, efficient, and powerful, allowing for optimal device performance. Additionally, using a CPU allows for easy customization when designing a machine as it seamlessly integrates with other hardware, such as graphics cards. Simply put, the CPU is designed for general-purpose computing tasks that span a wide range of applications and workloads. All it needs are the instructions.

Disadvantages of a CPU

While a CPU offers multiple advantages in high-performance applications, there are also some drawbacks to be aware of when implementing it within specific systems. For one, a CPU requires more space to perform its required functions as it connects to other devices such as memory and peripherals separately. For smaller devices, using a CPU can quickly become impractical depending on how much it needs to do and how much space it needs to work. Another drawback is its higher power consumption compared to an SOC. CPUs are often optimized for its processing power and high-performance computing, which in turn uses more energy to execute.

Advantages of an SOC

An SOC is a versatile component that offers many advantages in embedded engineering design. For one, there is its size. The hardware takes up very little space which allows for the design of the surrounding device to be smaller than others before it. As mentioned earlier, this is a key point in the development of our technological devices: more performance capability in a smaller package. There is also a greater efficiency of power, as an SOC can replace several larger components leading to a decrease in power consumption.

Another benefit of an SOC is that they are often cheaper to produce, making it easier for anyone from engineers to hobbyists alike to use them in their own computer design process. Not only that, but the compact nature and reliability of an SOC makes it an ideal component to use in other products such as medical devices, automotive systems, and Internet of Things (IoT) devices.

Disadvantages of an SOC

SOCs have become the preferred hardware for smaller computers and wearable tech, as it solves the problem of ‘space’ that a CPU presents. However, it is not without its own shortcomings. Compared to a CPU, an SOC has reduced processing performance. For applications that require high-performance computing, an SOC is usually not the preferred choice, however they are often implemented where a balance between power efficiency and adequate performance is more crucial than maximum processing power.

Additionally, because an SOC chip houses all of the functions of the device, there is increased vulnerability in the system. Should one component fail, the entire chip may be affected which can raise several potential problems when using the device. An SOC also generally takes longer to reach marketability because it requires specialized tools and skills for its design. This requires more expertise and time to be spent on the hardware, which can potentially slow down operations.

Applications for SOC vs CPU

Deciding whether to use an SOC or CPU depends largely on the type of project being completed.

Mobile SOCs and Desktop CPUs

A CPU offers substantial computing power, which is necessary for desktop and laptop computers to operate at optimal speeds and performance. This is why CPUs are the preferred option for such applications. As technology has advanced, so too has the CPU to ensure that they’re working faster and stronger than ever before. Today, CPUs have expanded to dual and quad-core processors:

  • Single Core CPU: This is the original type of CPU. Having only a single core means that the CPU is only capable of processing one operation at a time. While revolutionary at its conception, this also means that this type of CPU is the slowest performing processor of them all.
  • Dual-Core CPU: The dual-core CPU, also known as a multi-core processor, was also introduced by Intel and allowed for a new evolution of computer technology that worked faster and did more than its predecessor. It contains a single integrated circuit with two cores that each have their own cache and controller, allowing for double the functionality and speed.
  • Quad-Core CPU: This type of CPU contains two dual-core processors with a single integrated circuit. As the name suggests, this CPU has four independent cores which allows for even more tasks to be performed simultaneously. As a result, the computer not only works faster but at a higher rate of performance.

Computers today have become increasingly mobile with consumers utilizing smartphones and wearables more than ever before. As a result, the days of computers taking over entire rooms are largely behind us and have instead been replaced by small rectangles that we can hold in our hands or carry in our bags. However, as these devices have shrunk in size, our expectations for what they can do has only continued to grow.

For these smaller devices, an SOC has become the preferred hardware as it houses the required components needed for performing tasks and calculations in a very compact space without jeopardizing computing power.

Looking Forward

At Total Phase, we pride ourselves at always improving our products so that they stay competitive in the continuously expanding field of technology and computer design. Our line of I2C and SPI host adapters, including our Promira Serial Platform offers various different I2C and SPI application programs depending on the need of our customers. This tool is considered our most advanced serial device and is an essential tool for engineers and their projects. We also offer protocol analyzers like our Beagle I2C/SPI Protocol Analyzer, which allows users to non-intrusively monitor I2C and SPI data on the bus. The stronger the performance of your device’s CPU or SOC and its ability to correctly operate as expected, the stronger the performance you’ll receive from these tools.

For any questions on how our tools can help debug or develop your embedded system, please email us at sales@totalphase.com.