System on a Chip (SoC) – Advantages and disadvantages explained

Over the past ten years, as integrated circuits have become increasingly complex and expensive, the semiconductor industry began to embrace impressive new design and reusable methodologies to manage the increased complexity inherent in large chips and keep pace with the levels of integration available.

One such emerging trend is System-on-Chip (SoC) technology, making it possible to fabricate a whole system on a single chip. SoC comes with predesigned and pre-verified blocks, often called intellectual property (IP) blocks, IP cores, or virtual components, obtained from internal sources or third parties and combined on a single chip.

SoC allows semiconductor manufacturers to build smaller and simpler systems embedded in a single chip, resulting in a reduction of cost and increased efficiency of a particular system as opposed to its equivalent board-level system, built with standard parts and additional components.

For example, a computer fabricated on a single chip includes a microprocessor, memory, and various peripherals for running Windows and Linux. It empowers many powerful hardware accelerators for motion video processing, display control, and many hardware peripherals such as camera interface, TFT 24-bit LCD controller, power management, etc.

Therefore, system on chip is becoming increasingly popular in the field of robotics, telecommunications and networking (mobile phones, portable navigation devices), multimedia (DVD players and video games), and consumer electronics products (HDTV, set-top boxes, and iPods).

The quick conversions of board-level designs to system chips add significant value since the SoC solutions are always smaller and usually lower power and mobile. Obviously, the other driving forces are productivity and profit. These systems can provide the speedup of custom hardware without development cost for ApplicationSpecific Integrated Circuits (ASICs).

In SoC, the design components such as CPU, peripherals, and memory blocks are quickly integrated to interconnect architecture, and the hardware and software components are efficiently co-simulated. This solves functional verification, timing convergence, time to market, and cost bottlenecks and achieves an overall design productivity goal. An SoC product is designed with the concept of an embedded system capable of being implemented on a single chip, thereby producing a system that can be placed in any environment, a smaller, faster, and more efficient system.

Let’s now briefly compare the advantages and disadvantages of both board-level systems and system on chip designs.

Board-level systems

Advantages

  • Board-level systems are easy to use and have verified hardware with adaptability to apply modifications to the board.
  • The design of single-level systems is essentially faster compared to the SoC.
  • Board-level debugging has a distinct advantage of visibility. When a particular board-level anomaly arises, the developer can physically modify the board by cutting traces, lifting pins, and adding wires.
  • It enables individual devices to be replaced or upgraded. If a particular device goes wrong, it’s relatively easy to replace.
  • It presents visibility to signals from the various components. The signals that travel from device to device are visible to analysis tools such as oscilloscopes, logic analyzers, etc.

Disadvantages

  • Higher design and engineering costs when it comes to products of high capacity category.
  • Lack of flexibility to implement a lot of customizations.
  • Board-level systems with separate DSP and CPU often require different toolchains to support each device. Furthermore, the delineation of these devices makes CPU-DSP interaction problems challenging to resolve.
  • Having a board with several discrete components can cause problems during the latter part of the support stage.
  • As individual components become scarce or unavailable, finding replacement parts can be tough. This can result in software modifications to support the new “replacement” part.

System on a Chip (SoC)

Advantages

  • SoC basically has smaller footprint and space requirements since all the components are on the same chip and internally connected.
  • A smaller size means it is lightweight.
  • Higher performance and flexibility due to increased amount of circuits on the chip
  • Application-specific SoCs can be cost-efficient.
  • Greater system reliability and lower power requirements
  • SoC provides greater design security at hardware and firmware levels.
  • SoC provides faster execution due to high-speed processors and memory.
  • Drastic reduction in the overall cycle time of the system and superior performance levels

Disadvantages

  • The initial cost of design and development is very high. If the number of SoCs is small, the cost per SoC will be very high.
  • With this kind of highly integrated devices, you can’t simply replace a particular device; you must replace the entire SoC. Even a single transistor or system damage may prove to be very costly.
  • Integrating all systems on a single-chip increases complexity. The biggest complexity involved in SoC designs is how to fit a tremendous amount of logic into a single chip.
  • It is not suitable for power-intensive applications.
  • Visibility into the SoC is limited.
  • Testability issues and time-to-market pressures.

The advantages and disadvantages clearly indicate why System-On-Chip technology is the most sought after by many industries. By integrating multiple chips on a single chip and producing an all-in-one electronics product, companies expect to reap large manufacturing benefits, especially for markets where price and device size are of critical importance.

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