A system on a chip or system on chip (SoC) is an integrated circuit (also known as a “chip”) that integrates all components of a computer or other electronic system. These components typically (but not always) include a central processing unit (CPU), memory, input/output ports and secondary storage – all on a single substrate or microchip, the size of a coin.
It may contain digital, analog, mixed-signal, and often radio frequency signal processing functions, depending on the application. As they are integrated on a single substrate, SoCs consume much less power and take up much less area than multi-chip designs with equivalent functionality. Because of this, SoCs are very common in the mobile computing (such as in Smartphones) and edge computing markets. Systems on chip are commonly used in embedded systems and the Internet of Things.
Systems on Chip are in contrast to the common traditional motherboard-based PC architecture, which separates components based on function and connects them through a central interfacing circuit board.
Whereas a motherboard houses and connects detachable or replaceable components, SoCs integrate all of these components into a single integrated circuit, as if all these functions were built into the motherboard. An SoC will typically integrate a CPU, graphics and memory interfaces, hard-disk and USB connectivity, random-access and read-only memories and secondary storage on a single circuit die, whereas a motherboard would connect these modules as discrete components or expansion cards.
More tightly integrated computer system designs improve performance and reduce power consumption as well as semiconductor die area needed for an equivalent design composed of discrete modules, at the cost of reduced replaceability of components.
By definition, SoC designs are fully or nearly fully integrated across different component modules. For these reasons, there has been a general trend towards tighter integration of components in the computer hardware industry, in part due to the influence of SoCs and lessons learned from the mobile and embedded computing markets. Systems-on-Chip can be viewed as part of a larger trend towards embedded computing and hardware acceleration.
A SoC integrates a microcontroller or microprocessor with advanced peripherals like graphics processing unit (GPU), Wi-Fi module, or one or more coprocessors. Similar to how a microcontroller integrates a microprocessor with peripheral circuits and memory, an SoC can be seen as integrating a microcontroller with even more advanced peripherals. For an overview of integrating system components, see system integration.