Technology is advancing at an exponential pace. This pace has made devices such as smartphones, laptops, tablets, wearables, more powerful yet incredibly compact at the same time. From an era of using feature phones that were struggling to get coloured displays to a time when mixed reality headset are inching closer to unleashing the metaverse everyday, processing capabilities of devices, particularly smartphones and laptops has changed, rather evolved, by manifolds. Also Read - Microsoft lays off employees from customer-focused R&D projects: Report
Speaking of smartphones and laptops, now-a-days we are seeing companies launching new and upgraded devices almost every six months — each claiming to be faster, smarter and more efficient that the previous one. While this trend lives on, there is a fundamental difference between the way computational capabilities of these devices are described. When talking about smartphones, computational prowess is often talked in terms of a ‘System-on-Chip or an SoC’. On the other hand, when talking about laptops and PCs, the that is used is a ‘processor’. While these terms are often used interchangeably, especially when talking about a smartphone, they are not the same. That said, most of what is true for a processor is also true for an SoC. But an SoC is so much more than what a processor is and what it offers. Also Read - Oppo Watch 3 might be the first smartwatch to come the new Snapdragon W5 Gen 1
All of that might sound gibberish to you. So, here is an easy guide that will help you understand the difference between a processor and an SoC and how one is different from the other. Also Read - Qualcomm launches Snapdragon W5 Gen 1, W5+ Gen 1 platforms for smartwatches, fitness trackers: Check specs, availability
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 — fetch, decode, execute, and store data or the information that is given to it based on a pre-determined 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 task parallelly. There is a clever way CPUs handle every task that you assign to it — using cores.
Now, cores are parts of the CPU that can independently process instructions. This means a processor with five cores can handle five different sets of instructions for executing five different tasks while an octa-core processor can do the same for eight tasks. During early days, CPUs had one one core, which is why they were incredibly slow. However, modern processors come with multi-cores, which enables them to handle multiple tasks at once.
One of simplest examples of a processor would be Intel Core i9 processor, which is capable of delivering up to 16 cores or the Intel Pentium Gold processor 8500, which comes with a total of five cores. Both of these processors are used in PCs and laptop and while the former is capable of handling a maximum of 16 tasks at a time, latter is capable of handling up to five tasks at a time.
An example of a mobile processor would be ARM’s Cortex X2, which is used in MediaTek Dimensity 9000 SoC. We’ll get to that part later.
It is worth noting that mobile processors and desktop processors cannot be used interchangeably owing to a host of factors including size and form factor of the device, computational requirements and nature of tasks that are performed on each device.
What is a SoC?
An SoC or a chipset is a more complex machine of which CPU, which we just talked about, is a small albeit important part. An SoC, the one that is often used while talking about smartphones, is a small chip that houses a host of components that perform various tasks. An SoC includes a processor, a GPU or a graphics processor, memory, USB controller, power management circuits, and wireless radios. To put it simply, its a mini system in itself.
An example of a system-on-chip would be MediaTek’s Dimensity 9000 or Qualcomm Snapdragon 888, both of which are used in premium smartphones available in the market right now. Dimensity 9000 includes three different processors in different numbers, which make it an octa-core SoC. It includes one of Arm Cortex-X2 processor clocking at 3.05GHz, three of Arm Cortex-A710 processors clocking at a speed of up to 2.85GHz and four of Arm Cortex-A510 processors clocking a speed of up to 1.8GHz.
How is a processor different from an SoC?
The differences between a processor and a system-on-chip are easy to understand at this point. A processor comes together with a bunch of other components such as a WiFi modem, a graphics processor and memory among other things to form an SoC.
Interestingly, even though an SoC is slightly bigger 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 device. It’s compact nature has also made it possible to have smartphones that are almost as good as laptops and PCs. It has also made it possible to have bigger batterties.
Also, an SoC consumes significantly less amount of power when compared to a processor owing to its high level of integration and shorter wiring. A processor, on the other hand, needs longer wiring and more sophisticated integration to work with other components available on a device.