Mobile SOC simplified: What is a System on a Chip (SOC)?

We commonly encounter this term when we shop for phones. But what does an SOC really mean? Do we need to consider this in buying mobile phones?

A system-on-a-chip or SOC is a chip provided to mobile phone manufacturers. This chip consists of different functionalities built-in. This enables electronic device manufacturers to complete a product without worrying too much about the individual components.

What exactly is system-on-a-chip (SOC)?

System-on-chip (SOC) is a chip which integrates a different functionalities in a single chip. Just like a Swiss Army Knife which contains a lot of utility functionalities in an item, an SOC carries a lot of capabilities on a single package. For example, if we look at the latest Snapdragon 835, we have the following functions built-in (non-exhaustive):

  • Cellular Modem (for mobile data connectivity)
  • Wi-Fi
  • Bluetooth
  • Location
  • Display
  • CPU (Central Processing Unit) or commonly known as processor
  • GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) or the one that drives your phone to run graphically intensive games

Why do we even build this system-on-a-chip (SOC) exactly?

Why? For cost effectiveness.  We all love to buy things that can do different functionalities at once. Just like when we consumers buy phones for multiple purposes, phone manufacturers also want to buy or use electronic components that can provide them multiple functionalities. If they can buy a single chip that can enable them to stop worrying about the things that powers the display, Wi-Fi and audio, why not use it? Why buy use separate electronic components if you can buy a single item which can do all do them for a much lower price than all the individual pieces combined?

In addition, another driving factor for building an SOC is the mobile phone size. With an SOC, you can fit multiple components into a single chip. Thereby theoretically decreasing the space required for creating a full pledge phone with a lot of different components.

Who are these system-on-a-chip (SOC) manufacturers?

In today’s world of mobile phones, there are 5 major manufacturers of mobile phone SOCs. They are:

  • Qualcomm
  • Samsung
  • Mediatek
  • Huawei
  • Apple
Mobile SOC manufacturer: Qualcomm

Mobile SOC manufacturer: Qualcomm

Qualcomm produces the Snapdragon variants. The most common SOCs in the planet. They are found in almost all of the phones worldwide covering both the high and mid-range phones such as:

  • Samsung Galaxy S series
  • Sony Xperia series
  • HTC One series
  • Motorola Z series
  • Nokia 6 and 5 series
Mobile SOC manufacturer: Samsung

Mobile SOC manufacturer: Samsung

Samsung on the other hand produces the Exynos variants. They recently appeared in some of Samsung’s high-end phones such as Samsung Galaxy S6 and S7 edge and some mid range phones such as J7 prime.

Mobile SOC manufacturer: Mediatek

Mobile SOC manufacturer: Mediatek

Mediatek produces the Helio and MT variants. These SOCs are commonly found on some high-end and low-end phones. Most of the time, phone manufacturers which opt to sell phones for a very low price uses a Mediatek SOC. Common examples are manufacturers such as Xiaomi, Coolpad, Oppo, Cherry Mobile, MyPhone, Micromax, Mito, and QMobile.

Huawei (HiSilicon) is responsible for the Kirin variant SOCs. These SOCs are exclusively found in their mobile phones such as the Huawei Mate and P series.

Apple, just like Huawei, produces their own SOCs for their own mobile phones. They manufacture the A series SOCs which are exclusively used in all Apple branded mobile phones.

Should I care in my phone’s SOC model?

In a sense, yes. SOCs, just like a Swiss Army Knife, is a combination of multiple functionalities into one package. With different packages available, some of the SOCs may have some effects on your phone’s functionalities.

For example, Snapdragon SOCs uses their homegrown GPU processor which currently is the best in the market. If you opt for an Exynos SOCs, you won’t get the benefit of using Qualcomm’s GPU to run your graphically intensive games. Another scenario is the cellular modems found in these SOCs. I personally noticed this when I was using Huawei’s Kirin SOCs . Compared to other phones which uses a different SOC, the Kirin SOC supports more radio bands (mobile signal types) and performs better compared to other SOCs when it comes to cellular mobile reception. In addition, some SOCs does not support additional cellular mobile standards (VoLTE) which puts you to a slower connection or no cellular connectivity at all.

In my opinion, besides considering the features of the camera, the looks of the phone and its battery size, it would be better if we consumers also pay attention to the SOCs present in the mobile phones. This will not only make us more familiar with the terms being used by tech people out there, but will also help us become a better and wiser buyers in the future.

Photo credits:

Featured image: System-on-a-chip (SOC): Samsung Exynos. Photo courtesy by Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Other images: Qualcomm, Samsung, Mediatek – taken from respective websites

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