Technology is advancing at an exponential pace. This speed has made devices like smartphones, laptops, tablets, wearables more powerful but incredibly compact at the same time. From the era of using feature phones that struggled to achieve color displays, to a time when mixed reality headsets are approaching opening up the everyday metaverse, the processing capacity of devices, especially smartphones and laptops It has changed manifold, but has evolved manifold.
Speaking of smartphones and laptops, nowadays we see companies launching new and upgraded devices almost every six months – each claiming to be faster, smarter and more efficient than the previous one. While this trend continues, there is a fundamental difference between how the computational capabilities of these devices are described. When talking about smartphones, computational skills are often spoken of in the context of ‘system-on-chip or an SoC’. On the other hand, when talking about laptops and PCs, what is used is a ‘processor’. While these terms are often used interchangeably, especially when talking about smartphones, they are not the same. That said, what is true for a processor is also true for a SoC. But an SoC is much more than what a processor is and what it provides.
All this may sound strange to you. So, here is a handy guide that will help you understand the difference between a processor and a SoC and how one differs from the other.
What is Processor?
A processor or CPU (Central Processing Unit) is the brain of any device. It sits on a motherboard and performs four steps – receiving, decoding, executing and storing data or information based on a pre-defined set of instructions. CPUs go through this process every time you use your device to perform a task and they are capable of handling hundreds of tasks in parallel. There is a clever way that the CPU handles each and every task assigned to you – by using cores.
Now, cores are the parts of the CPU that can process instructions independently. This means that a processor with five cores can handle five different sets of instructions to execute five different tasks while an octa-core processor can do the same for eight tasks. In the early days, CPUs had a single core, which is why they were incredibly slow. However, modern processors come with multi-cores, which enables them to handle multiple tasks simultaneously.
One of the simplest examples of processors would be the Intel Core i9 processor, capable of delivering up to 16 cores, or the Intel Pentium Gold Processor 8500, which comes with a total of five cores. Both these processors are used in PCs and laptops and while the former is capable of handling a maximum of 16 tasks at a time, the latter is capable of handling a maximum of five tasks at a time.
An example of a mobile processor would be ARM’s Cortex X2, which is used in the MediaTek Dimensity 9000 SoC. We will get to that part later.
It is worth noting that mobile processors and desktop processors cannot be used interchangeably due to many factors including the size and form factor of the device, computational requirements, and the nature of the tasks to be performed on each device.
What is an SOC?
An SoC or a chipset is a more complex machine whose CPU, which we just talked about, is a small albeit important part. An SoC, often used when talking about a smartphone, is a small chip that contains several components that perform different functions. An SoC consists of a processor, a GPU or a graphics processor, memory, USB controllers, power management circuits, and wireless radios. Simply put, it is a mini system in itself.
An example of a system-on-chip would be MediaTek’s Dimensity 9000 or the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888, both of which are used in premium smartphones currently available in the market. The Dimensity 9000 includes three different processors in different numbers, making it an octa-core SoC. This includes one Arm Cortex-X2 processor clocked at 3.05GHz, three Arm Cortex-A710 processors clocked at up to 2.85GHz, and four Arm Cortex-A510 processors clocked at up to 1.8GHz.
How is a processor different from a SoC?
At this point it is easy to understand the difference between a processor and a system-on-chip. A processor comes with a bunch of other components such as a WiFi modem, a graphics processor and memory among other things to make up an SoC.
Interestingly, even though a SoC is slightly larger than a CPU, it packs more components and in doing so it also packs more functions for the end user depending on the nature of the device. Its compact nature has also made it possible to make smartphones that are almost as good as laptops and PCs. This has also made it possible to make bigger batteries.
In addition, an SoC consumes a significantly smaller amount of power than a processor due to its higher level of integration and fewer wiring. A processor, on the other hand, requires longer wiring and more sophisticated integration to work with the other components available on the device.
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