SoC vs. CPU – The battle for the future of computing

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It is after being at the top for more than 50 years; the CPU has got some competition from an upstart that is called the SoC. It was for decades that one could go into a shop and very confidently could pick up a computer based on the CPU but now, everywhere from smart phones to tablets and also in some laptops, we find SoCs. But this is not a matter of concern as SoCs and CPUs are actually very similar and almost all that we know about CPU can also be applied to SoC. Now the question is what a CPU is. The answer lies in that in spite of so much stress on the CPU performance and technology, it is actually a very fast calculator. It obtains data from the memory and performs some type of arithmetic or logical operation on the acquired data. The more complex or the more expensive the CPU is the more data it can process and the faster is the computer. A CPU is not a personal computer, a framework of other silicon chips are needed for that. It should include a memory so as to grasp the data, an audio chip to interpret and intensify music, a graphics processor to draw pictures and other small components which have vital tasks to play.

The next is what a SoC is. The full name of which is system on a chip integrates almost all the elements into one single silicon chip. A SoC along with CPU contains a graphics processor, USB controller, memory, wireless radios and power management circuits. A CPU cannot work without dozens of chips, it is possible to make complete computers with only one single SoC. Now let us find out the difference between a CPU and a SoC. The first advantage is the size of the SoC. A SoC is just a bit large as compared to a CPU and contains much more functionality. If one uses a CPU, it is hard to build a computer which is smaller than 10 cm squared due to the number of chips that are required to squeeze in. While on the other hand, by making use of a SoC, one can put complete computers into tablets and smart phones and still can have plenty of room for batteries.

Due to high level of integration and much shorter wiring, SoC makes use of less power. This is a plus point when it comes to mobile computing. So cutting down the number of chips is also indicative that it is much cheaper to make a computer using a SoC. However, the disadvantage of a SoC is complete lack of flexibility. With the PC one can put in a new GPU, CPU or RAM at any point of time but the same cannot be done for a smart phone. So in the future, one might be able to buy a SoC which can be slot in but as everything is integrated it will be expensive and wasteful if more RAM is added to it.

So SoCs are the next step after CPUs. It seems as if the SoCs will consume the CPUs which are already seen with Intel’s Ivy Bridge and AMD’s Llano CPUs, which integrate PCI Expresses, memory controller and a graphics processor into the same chip. The market for general purpose CPUs will always be there. Wearable devices and mobile are the future of computers and so are the SoCs. So this is what is gathered so far.

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