A traditional motherboard-based computer or electronic device will have a Central Processing Unit (CPU), a Graphics Processing Unit (GPU), a modem, a dedicated signal processor, peripherals, primary and secondary memory, and more – each as a separate component – while a SoC also has all of those same capabilities, but combined into one microchip. The only exception may be secondary memory, which is often added when embedded in a specific device. Advanced SoCs also include analog, digital, mixed-signal, and radio frequency (RF) signal processing capabilities, as well as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and near field communication (NFC) wireless networking.

What are System-on-a-Chip computers used for?

As a complete computer system on a single chip, a SoC can perform any number of complex, essential tasks quickly, efficiently, and even automatically, yet it has very small size and low weight and power (SWaP) requirements compared to a traditional computer. This makes SoC computers a popular choice, and often the only choice, for use in:

  • Aircraft avionics systems
  • Automobile communications, navigation, and entertainment panels
  • Automotive on-board diagnostics (OBD-II) scanners
  • C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) systems and devices
  • Defense electronics, including intelligent autonomous systems, high-bandwidth microwave transceivers, digital helmet-mounted displays, high voltage solid state transmitters, and more
  • Digital signage
  • Electronic gaming devices
  • Electronic Warfare (EW) systems, such as signal sensing, threat detection, processing and response systems, multi-spectral transmitters, cameras, guidance systems, attack signal emitters, electronic countermeasures, night vision and targeting systems, and more
  • Emergency notification devices and systems
  • Internet of Things (IoT) / smart home devices, like security cameras, thermostats, humidity alarms and controls, door locks, lighting systems, smoke detectors, kitchen appliances, and smart speaker home hub controls
  • Laptop and tablet computers
  • Machine learning-based cyber and data security technologies
  • Radiation-hardened (rad-hard) space satellite controls
  • Smart cell phones and smart watches
  • Smart TVs, routers, and modems
  • Wearable patient health monitors
  • Space vehicle controls, robotic devices, and systems
  • Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs or “drones”), Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs), and Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGV)

Specific-Purpose Alternatives

In addition to the multi-functional microprocessor System-on-a-Chip design described above, there are also SoCs that do not contain a processor core because they are custom built for a specific purpose in a specific system. These are called Application-Specific Integrated Circuits, or ASICs. There are also Application-Specific Standard Parts, or ASSPs, which work the same way, but serve a more general purpose vs. the custom design of ASICs. These are both technically System-on-a-Chip designs, but are usually considered separate from SoCs due to their more specific use.

Because they are tailored and fully-functional integrated circuits, SoCs tend to require higher initial investment than either motherboard-based systems, ASICs, or ASSPs. As packaging and interfacing advances continue, however, SoC-like power and size devices will emerge from new technology developments— at lower costs. Stepping into the future of microsystem implementation, reimagined multi-chiplet systems-in-package are giving SoCs competition. The definition of “chip” is beginning to blur especially as new options are becoming available.

This information page is provided as a service to our readers by BAE Systems, Inc., a U.S.-based world leader in aerospace, defense, power, and intelligence solutions. Learn more about us here.

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