What Is an SoC? A Basic Definition

Apple A12 SoC Credit: Henriok/Wikimedia CommonsApple A12 SoC Credit: Henriok/Wikimedia Commons

SoC stands for system on a chip. This is a chip/integrated circuit that holds many components of a computer—usually the CPU (via a microprocessor or microcontroller), memory, input/output (I/O) ports and secondary storage—on a single substrate, such as silicon. Having all of these components on one substrate means SoCs use less power and take up less space than their multi-chip counterparts. SoCs are becoming increasingly popular with the growth of Internet of Things and edge and mobile computing. Take, for example, Intel’s September 2018 acquisition of SoC firm Silicon Engineering Group and older acquisitions of Altera and others.


Common examples of offerings leveraging an SoC are Raspberry Pi computers, Arduino boards and STEM kits. SoCs are often used in STEM kits because they are easy to use, and, therefore, helpful in teaching STEM. You can also find SoCs in smartphones and tablets.

SoC on a Raspberry Pi 3 Credit: Florian Knodt/Wikimedia CommonsSoC on a Raspberry Pi 3 Credit: Florian Knodt/Wikimedia CommonsBroadly speaking, there are three different types of SoCs:

  • SoCs that use a microcontroller (a chip with the CPU, RAM, ROM and potentially other components). Example: Arduino boards
  • SoCs that use a microprocessor (a chip with a CPU only). Examples: SoCs for smartphones, like Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 845 (also used for virtual reality headsets) and the Apple A12 Bionic SoC used in the iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max and iPhone XR. Rasperry Pi and Intel SoC FPGAs.
  • SoCs for specific applications, which may or may not use a microprocessor or microcontroller. This is known as an ASIC (application-specific integrated circuit).

This article is part of the Tom's Hardware Glossary.

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