Introduction to Smartphone SoCs

In the following series of posts, we’re going to be doing an Introduction to Smartphone SoCs series. This introduction to Smartphone SoCs series is designed to familiarize users with smartphone SoCs and why they’re very important.


How SoCs are made


Background

Once upon a time, you only had one device for one task. That was the way it was. This was the case when I was a child, all the way through to my teens and early to mid-20s. It’s only in the last 7 years that I have started seeing devices that are truly all in one.

If you wanted to play games, you had to get a purpose-built device designed to play games. In the 1990s, Sega Mega Drive 2 and Nintendo NES owners used to argue bitterly about whose system was superior. I had no console myself. My dad hated games with a passion, but a classmate of mine had a Sega Mega Drive 2. So I was on the Sega side.

Later on, the Sony Playstation One was basically the only console that was popular in my area without competition, at least before the PlayStation vs Xbox rivalry started.

If you wanted to watch movies, it was initially VHS tapes and VCR players. We later moved  on to Video CDs and VCD players and finally DVDs and DVD players became the defacto medium of choice. You wanted to play music? There were these little cassettes with side A and side B. Sometimes out of boredom, I used Bic pens to rewind them. Later on, there were iPods and iPod knockoffs.

Radio? You needed a Tape radio or those other small radios that became popular in the mid-2000s. You wanted to type a Word document, check mail, do PowerPoint or Excel…get a PC (Windows or Mac)

But now you can do all of these with one device. Your phone. This was unthinkable just a few years ago. Sometimes I look back and I marvel at how much the world has changed in my lifetime.

I remember when I could afford to buy my first PlayStation 1 and I would lie down waiting for electricity to come on. Now I have an emulator on my phone and can play whenever I choose.


Read: SYSTEM ON A CHIP (SOC)


Introduction to Smartphone SoCs

All of these advances are due mostly to the SoC or System on a Chip. Most people, myself included, call it a processor when trying to explain it to other people who aren’t as tech-savvy. But the word processor doesn’t give you a full idea of how revolutionary the SoC is.

The SoC is called a System on a Chip because that’s what it actually is. An entire system on one chip. That is on an SoC, several different CPUs carry out different functions but they all work together as a single unit.

On most SoCs today, you will find

1. CPUs or CPU cores
2. GPU
3. ISPs
4. APUs or NPUs
5. Display chip
6. Modems/radios
Etc.

These parts all work together to enable you to do a lot of things on your smartphone.


Read: CPU CORES IN SMARTPHONE SoCs


CPU cores

The CPU core is the main computing hub on your smartphone. This is the part of an SoC that lots of power users and gamers are interested in. This is because the power of the CPU cores determines the amount of processing load or tasks that a phone can handle.

Think of your phone as a house, the appliances as apps or tasks, and your CPU cores as the power generator. If you own a fridge and use several TVs, lights, fans, etc. Common sense should tell you that a small Tiger generator would be inadequate for your needs.

However, if you buy a bigger 4.5kVA Elepaq generator. It would have a lot more power and would handle tasks and appliances better.

This is why people need to know the type of users that they are. Most people don’t know the type of users that they are. This is very funny and annoying at the same time.

Someone messaged me recently and talked about whether the Helio P35-powered Vivo Y15S would be good for video recording. The answer is firmly no.

I understand that all fingers are not equal but many people do not know how to match their expectations and usage patterns to their budget.


Read: WHAT IS A GPU?


GPUs

After the CPU cores, you’ve got the GPUs. While CPUs tackle the data and processing aspects, the CPU forwards everything graphics to the GPU. These include video, apps, UI, games and so much more.

The CPU and GPU act together to process data as a single unit. Their strength or ability level will determine what videos you can watch or what apps or games you can play with your phone.

I told this story last year about a corp member in my vicinity who was using a Tecno Pop 2 but was obsessed with Snapchat. After handling my stock cam, she said she didn’t like Snapchat anymore. She would want to record videos on my device and transfer them to hers. But understanding the capability of her device, I would try to reduce the video quality to 720p.

She noticed and protested. So I set the quality back to 4K, went to buy a cold bottle of Coke and waited for the drama to begin. She recorded several videos each around 30s of time. I opened Xender for her to transfer and collected my phone back.

The next thing I heard was “Hey J, why is the video skipping?”

Me: 🤭🤫

The next thing I heard was “Oh crap! My phone is stuck! J, your video has gotten my phone stuck!” 😂😂😂😂. It took almost an hour to get the phone to come back on.

Tecno Pop 2 uses a weak CPU + GPU setup and those videos were too heavy for it to process. It couldn’t and crashed apparently.


Read: IMAGE SIGNAL PROCESSOR (ISP)


ISP + AI

Then there’s the ISP. The ISP refers to the Image Signal Processor. This is the part of the SoC that handles anything that is captured with the cameras.

So when you capture a picture or video, it goes to your ISP first for processing. The ISP also helps the GPU with the decoding and playback of video as well.

Most ISPs are paired with an AI unit known as a Neural Processing Unit (NPU) or AI processing unit (APU). Most phones are smart devices that are designed to carry out smart tasks such as seeing and recognizing things in their environment. Phones can also read and translate language as well.

The eyes of the phone are the camera. So, therefore, the AI has to be attached to the cameras to “see” and carry out its functions. This is why you can use Google Lens to recognize stuff or scan and copy text without having to write a single word.

I used to wow coworkers by miraculously typing documents with 70+ pages overnight. All I had to do was scan each page, copy the text, and paste it into Microsoft Word. Sometimes I could do 15 pages at a go and paste them into Word. The only work I had to do was edit the words that the AI misspelled.

The AI unit also helps the ISP edit/process pictures before they appear on your screen. Sometimes when photos look better on your phone than in real life, you may have to thank your AI unit for that.

The Display chip determines the resolution of the display that the SoC can support.


Why you should know the SoC of your phone


Network radios

The last area I’m going to look at is the network modems. The reason why Laptops and PCs can’t browse the net by themselves is that they lack a network modem or radio that is capable of connecting to a network. Our phones have no such problem. They can connect readily and easily to any network. So long as a SIM card and data are present

Besides the network radios, there are also radios for Bluetooth and WiFi as well.

So that’s a full introduction to Smartphone SoCs. I’ll be wrapping up at this juncture. Comments are highly welcome. If you want to learn more, please check out the next article, Introduction to Smartphone SoCs 2.


Thank you for reading to the end. As always, ensure to check out our links for more information and…