AMD Single-chip SOC Processor

Is a single-chip SOC processor right for your embedded project?

David Beck, Symmetry Electronics

AUGUST 12, 2013

Today’s embedded solutions are driving higher performance applications in smaller form factors, from sophisticated industrial control and automation applications that require complex processing algorithms to digital signage applications that require high-performance graphics processing. These applications often require low power consumption and support for open standards in order to provide the highest levels of design flexibility. To enable these applications, developers need embedded processing platforms that deliver advanced performance while helping to reduce time-to-market and development costs. 

New highly integrated system-on-chip (SOC) processors are available that feature a high-performance x86 multicore processor, a discrete-class graphics processing unit (GPU), an I/O controller, and error-correction code (ECC) memory support for high reliability – all on a single die. With increased chip-level integration, developers can achieve new levels of processing efficiency, while retaining a low power design and a significant footprint reduction to reduce manufacturing costs and minimize design complexity. 

This article will describe the benefits, technology, and target markets for single-chip SOCs so developers can make informed decisions about whether this type of solution is right for their next embedded design projects.

Alternative solutions

Typical processing SOCs are comprised of one or more microcontroller or DSP cores, memory blocks, timing sources, peripherals, external interfaces, analog interfaces, voltage regulators, and power management circuits. The processor is usually powerful enough to run a Windows, Linux, Android, or RTOS operating system. 

Traditionally, SOC processor architectures have not been widely utilized for graphics-intensive applications. For these applications, developers typically design a system whereby CPUs and GPUs are separate processing elements, and therefore they usually do not work together efficiently. Each has a separate memory space, requiring an application to copy data from the CPU to GPU and then back again. Additional chips are required to make a complete system.

The accelerated processing unit (APU), pioneered by AMD, is comprised of a low power CPU and a discrete-class GPU with a companion I/O unit in a two-chip architecture (Figure 1). The APU was the first step toward the realization of a new generation of SOC processors. APUs enable a large amount complex data processing more efficiently than either a CPU or GPU alone, but in a larger footprint than a single-chip SOC.

Figure 1: New generations of embedded SoCs targeting graphics incorporate a low power microprocessor with a dedicated graphics processor unit and a companion I/O acceleration unit. 


Heterogeneous computing

Single-chip SOCs, like their APU predecessors, enable “heterogeneous computing”, which refers to systems comprised of multiple processor types, typically CPUs and GPUs, and usually on the same silicon die. There are numerous advantages to heterogeneous computing but most importantly, heterogeneous computing enables each processor element to perform efficiently at what it does best, and to work cooperatively. With heterogeneous computing the processors share memory space so there is no need for them to copy data back and forth.

Using its high-performance vector processing capabilities, the onboard GPU is free to perform parallel operations on very large sets of data at much lower power consumption than a CPU could. Meanwhile, the onboard CPU handles scalar processing tasks that support general-purpose functions such as running the operating system. Heterogeneous computing via an integrated single-chip SOC results in dramatic performance increases per watt as compared to ad hoc CPU+GPU chipsets. Figure 1, a block diagram of the AMD G-Series single-chip SOC, illustrates components found on these solutions.

Target applications for SOCs

Digital signage systems are optimized to provide immersive HD visual experiences across multiple displays for a wide range of environments such as supermarkets, shopping centers, and transportation hubs. These systems require the high-speed delivery of HD multimedia content, typically in a small form factor design. Low power consumption is critical for these types of systems, as it helps designers alleviate thermal dissipation challenges within the system.

Thin clients rely heavily upon HD video and graphics, and are dependent upon improved data transfer rates in order to create enhanced Internet experiences. Industrial control and automation systems, from headless control systems to complex display systems and human-machine interfaces, also depend upon high-performance, low-power processor architectures. Industrial control and automation applications typically require software to be supported across a broad spectrum of devices. The single-chip SOC is an attractive option for this application domain due to its support for open standards such as the Open Computing Language (OpenCL).

Another key enabler for heterogeneous computing is a system’s ability to operate in multivendor environments. OpenCL, which enables parallel programming of GPUs, CPUs, and other processors, provides a uniform programming environment for developers to write efficient, portable code across different hardware and software platforms. With OpenCL, programmers can preserve their expensive source-code investments, re-using code across platforms. 

High-definition graphics

In order to provide visually stunning graphics for a broad range of applications, GPUs often include hardware acceleration capabilities. The Unified Video Decoder, which is included in advanced GPUs from AMD, decodes H.264, VC-1, and MPEG-4 video formats natively at the processor level. AMD’s Video Codec Engine, included in the AMD G-Series SOC’s integrated GPU, encodes videos using H.264 compression with full, custom hardware acceleration. Dedicated hardware acceleration engines for video decode and encode are particularly beneficial for multimedia-intensive applications such as digital gaming and digital signage.

Standard API support is also an important consideration for HD video applications, as it enables developers to expand their software development options. The OpenGL API (the latest version is OpenGL 4.3) enables 2D and 3D graphics and is often used for digital gaming applications. The DirectX API (the latest version is DirectX 11.1), enables support for multimedia-related tasks within Microsoft platforms, delivers 2D and 3D rendering, GPU compute, and even power efficiency, and is especially useful for games and video, among other application areas. 

Electronic gaming systems, which often feature vibrant 3D graphics displayed across multiple monitors, can benefit from the significant performance boost enabled with video- and graphics-optimized SOC processors. SOC processors that feature DirectX support with a scalable, x86-based architecture can help system designers meet aggressive performance targets.

Small footprint

With higher integration (including the I/O controller), the single-chip SOC occupies less real estate than comparably-performing CPU+GPU chipsets. As mentioned earlier, a single-chip SOC can save more than 30% space compared to a two-chip solution, requiring fewer board layers. The performance-per-watt profiles provided by SOCs can also enable developers to eliminate mechanical fans from their designs in many cases. With fewer moving parts, there is less risk of failure and a significant reduction in noise. 

The small footprint of a single-chip SOC makes it ideal for numerous application areas, improving not only power consumption but also price/performance. The small footprint and power savings also make single-chip SOCs ideal candidates for smaller single-board computer (SBC) and computer-on-module (COM) designs, including PC/104, Pico-ITX, Q-Seven, nanoEXTexpress, and Mobile ITX.


Single-chip SOC solutions, such as AMD Embedded G-Series SOCs, are smaller in size, offer dramatic performance improvements, and are more energy efficient than most CPU+GPU chipsets. With a high level of integration, SOC processors can save designers valuable time and cost while helping them achieve advanced system capabilities.

David Beck is director of technical marketing, Symmetry Electronics.







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