When buying a smartphone or a tablet, we often talk about their processing power and whether they offer single, dual or multiple core capabilities. And while we do focus on the processor most of the time, you’ll have to know that things aren’t as simple as that. Instead of just simple processors, we have Systems on a Chip (SoC) inside these devices that offer more complex functionality.
What is a System on Chip?
Since smartphones and tablets are basically smaller computers, they require pretty much the same components we see in desktops and laptops in order to offer us all the amazing things they can do (apps, music and video playing, 3D gaming support, advanced wireless features, etc).
But smartphones and tablets do not offer the same amount of internal space as desktops and laptops for the various components needed such as the logic board, the processor, the RAM, the graphics card, and others. That means these internal parts need to be as small as possible, so that device manufacturers can use the remaining space to fit the device with a long-lasting battery life.
Thanks to the wonders of miniaturization, SoC manufacturers, like Qualcomm, Nvidia or Texas Instruments, can place some of those components on a single chip, the System on a Chip that powers your smartphone.
What’s inside of an SoC?
Now that we know what a SoC is, let’s take a quick look at the components that can be found inside it. So, in order to better understand how a SoC works, you should have a general picture of what goes inside it:
- CPU – the central processing unit, whether it’s single- or multiple-core, this is what makes everything possible on your smartphone. Most processors found inside the SoCs will be based on ARM technology.
- Memory – just like in a computer, memory is required to perform the various tasks smartphone and tablets are capable of, and therefore SoCs come with various memory architectures on board
- GPU – the graphic processing unit is also an important component on the SoC, and it’s responsible for handling those complex 3D games on the smartphone or tablets. As you can expect, there are various GPU architectures available out there.
- Northbridge – this is a component that handles communications between the CPU and other components of the SoC including the southbridge
- Southbrige – a second chipset usually found on computers that handles various I/O functions. In some cases, the southbridge can be found on the SoC
- Cellular radios – some SoCs also come with certain modems on board that are needed by mobile operators, like the embedded LTE modem on board responsible for 4G LTE connectivity
- Other radios – some SoCs may also have other components responsible for other types of connectivity, including Wi-Fi, GPS/GLONASS or Bluetooth.
ARM vs x86 CPU Architecture
What’s important to remember is that ARM is still the preferred choice by SoC manufacturers, as the architecture ensures high performance at low power, which is what customers are unconsciously interested in.
The Intel 8086 CPU launched in 1978 was a 16-bit microprocessor that was followed by several successors whose names also ended in “86.” Thus, the x86 term was coined. Today the x86 architecture also includes 32-bit CPUs, which can be found in various computers that you may be using on a daily basis. The disadvantage of x86 architecture in mobile SoC is that they’re not as power efficient as ARM-based CPU. Only Intel currently develops an x86-based SoC for mobile devices, the Atom Medfield platform.
The SoCs uses various GPU technologies coming from various companies. You’ll see GeForce, Adreno, ARM Mali, or PowerVR get mentioned a few times so here’s what these names mean:
- GeForce – produced by NVIDIA, these are the ultra-low power graphics cards found on Tegra 3 SoC
- Adreno – produced by Qualcomm, the Adreno GPUs are part of the Snapdragon SoC made by the same company. Some Adreno GPUs can also be used on future Microsoft Windows 8 devices.
- ARM Mali – as you may have guessed, Mali GPUs are designed by ARM and they’re currently used on various SoC designs including Exynos and NovaThor
- PowerVR – PowerVR is a leading GPU designers, whose GPUs are found on various SoCs including Medfield, NovaThor (future designs), OMAP, and even Apple Ax.
Which one is the best for you?
The obvious question you may have is, which of the SoCs above is best for me?
In case you’re buying one of the last-gen Android tablets and smartphones available out there, which will surely pack one of the SoCs mentioned above, then you’re likely to get a similar performance across the board. Sure, every SoC manufacturer will defend its own brand with words like “power efficiency,” “high performance,” “3D graphics,” “full HD video,” but all these competing platforms will offer overall enjoyable user experiences with few differences between them. The fact remains that you shouldn’t buy a new device after looking only at SoC capabilities, but you should consider more factors like display technology, wireless connectivity, camera performance, and storage, in order to make a more informed purchase.