Since personal computers started showing up in home offices and workplaces, a lot has changed. Every year, computers get smaller, lighter, and more powerful.
Since the introduction of portable computers, manufacturers have also raced to increase battery life while not impacting performance. Apple’s leap forward with the introduction of its in-house system on a chip (SoC) series—the Apple M1—has brought generational advancements in efficiency and performance to Apple’s latest range of Macs. As other companies, like AMD and Intel, follow suit and incorporate similar technology into their own product lines, modern computers as a whole will significantly change.
While happy with the improving specs, most users don’t actually look inside to see what manufacturers are doing to make these enhancements. However, in order to predict the next shift in desktop computer technology, it’s useful to look deeper into the Apple Silicon architecture and see what’s powering these new M1 Macs.
What powers a system on a chip? How does it compare to traditional computer hardware? What are the benefits realized from adopting this tightly integrated system architecture in desktop devices?
This knowledge will give you more insight into performance, compatibility issues, and how to ensure that you get the right computer and accessories for your needs. In this article, we’ll explore the exciting world of SoCs and discuss what it means for the future of desktop computers.
Computer Chips and Components
To explore how SoCs transform the way computers are built, we need to think back to when most desktop computers were formed of separate, modular components. Back in the days when most personal computers were made for desktop use, many people referred to the computer tower that was often set on the floor as the CPU. While that descriptor was helpful, it only described one piece of what was happening in the box.
You can still see these many components if you look inside a full-sized PC. These components were traditionally modular, with specialized computer chips designed to complete a specific task or function in the computer. Combined with the main printed circuit board (PCB) known as the motherboard, these components share data and compute tasks to create a functioning PC.
Now that computers have gotten smaller and more portable—in the form of mini-PCs, laptops, and tablets—these components are often soldered together onto a smaller motherboard. That’s not the case with an SoC, as we will explore later.
Before that, let’s explore all the traditional computer chips and components commonly found in computers.
CPU: The CPU or central processing unit is, in many ways, the “brain” of the computer. The CPU handles all the bulk of calculations and processes needed to make a computer work.
You may be familiar with some of the brand names of these chips. Intel markets their i5 and i7 chips, while AMD is promoting their new Ryzen 7 series. However, the CPU needs different components to handle other functions of the PC.
GPU: The graphics processing unit, or GPU, is a specific type of processor that was originally designed to accelerate the rendering of graphics and video. Nowadays, developers have found other uses for its processing power, including large calculations like cryptocurrency mining and deep learning.
Both the GPU and CPU are responsible for completing calculations—so what’s the difference? In general, the CPU handles many fast calculations. It’s useful for processes where latency is an issue—as its cores focus on completing tasks quickly. On the other hand, the GPU completes its calculations in a highly parallel structure. This means it’s more efficient at processing large chunks of data.
RAM: Random access memory or RAM is where your computer stores any data that your computer needs to access quickly. This is where the instructions we previously mentioned are kept until they’re sent to the CPU.
The RAM stores all the active data and programs that are currently open on your system. Think your Google Chrome tabs, the game that’s running in the background, or that Word document you’ve got open.
RAM is a volatile storage device–meaning that once your computer is powered off, all the data on it is lost. That’s why a non-volatile storage device is needed—namely a hard drive or SSD—to save the stuff you need to keep.
ROM: ROM, or read-only memory, serves a different purpose than RAM. ROM stores the computer’s “firmware.” This is a low-level piece of software that tells your machine how to function on a very basic level (for example, without the help of an OS or APIs).
The most well-known type of firmware stored on the ROM is the system BIOS (basic input-output system) which holds all the information a computer needs to start up before loading the operating system into RAM. However, nowadays, as BIOS settings need to be saved, it’s now stored in a serial FLASH chip on the motherboard.
Northbridge and Southbridge Chipsets: To combine several individual microchips on a computer’s motherboard, engineers developed chipsets. A chipset is basically a collection of chips. Putting them all together allows the computer to perform faster by making connections shorter and denser. These chips perform tasks like connecting the CPU to needed memory and connecting to hard drives, keyboards, printers, and other peripherals.
Advantages and Disadvantages of SoCs
You have likely experienced the work of an SoC if you use a smartphone or tablet. Initially designed for applications where size and power consumption are critical, an SoC integrates the functions of many of the necessary computing components in one small chip. These include the CPU, GPU, and memory (RAM). All of it is permanently affixed to the device’s motherboard.
While SoCs started as a solution to increasing computing power inside a tiny space, their use is expanding to larger devices like laptops and desktop computers. Of course, you don’t have any choice about using SoCs if you want a device like a smartphone. However, as these chips appear in larger formats, consumers wonder what advantages they hold and what disadvantages may make them steer away from this new technology.
Advantages of SoCs
The most notable advantage of the SoC is size. This makes them the perfect technology to run today’s smaller and thinner devices. But that is just the beginning. SoCs also consume less power than a collection of separate components. For mobile devices, this means smaller batteries can deliver a longer operating time. The lower power consumption even makes a difference in larger desktop configurations. While the size and battery life may not be as much of an issue, lower power consumption also reduces temperature, making it easier to keep everything cool for peak performance.
SoCs also offer advantages for devices of any size or form factor. Whether in a phone, laptop, or desktop, they provide better performance overall due to strategic component placement. Where there is significant space between components on a traditional motherboard, integrating needed components on the same chip means that integrated processes happen faster. Performance is also enhanced by a unified memory architecture that can streamline different components reading and writing to memory.
This integrated design creates a more secure environment since the hardware and firmware are designed together. Finally, they cost less to produce than traditional components when produced at scale.
This is especially the case when one manufacturer—like Apple, for example—creates most of the other components in the device. Apple has been able to internalize most of its supply chain, driving down the cost-per-unit of its Mac products. They no longer need to use off-the-shelf components from other companies like Intel or AMD.
While SoCs have many advantages for modern devices, they come with some disadvantages that need to be considered. One of the most noteworthy disadvantages is that service, repair, and upgrades can be more difficult due to their integrated design and manufacture.
The components are so tightly packed and permanently affixed to the chip that you cannot repair or replace a single part. The other disadvantage that has limited complete adoption of SoCs is the higher cost of the initial design, development, and engineering.
The cost of production gains of SoCs does come at another disadvantage: customization. It’s very difficult to swap out components of an entirely integrated chip. If a user wanted to, for example, have more RAM or use a more powerful GPU, an entirely different SoC would have to be made just for that use. There’s absolutely no modularity when dealing with SoCs.
(Image credit: Pantera4321, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
How Did Apple’s M1 Chip Change the Game for SoCs?
SoCs are quickly expanding their role beyond exclusively mobile devices. While other brands have previously attempted to integrate SoCs into the PC market, Apple has been the first to see the wide success of the SoC in the modern personal computer. Apple is now manufacturing its own SoCs based on the architecture developed by UK-based chip designer ARM Holdings.
This represents a massive shift for a brand known for high-performance laptops and desktops. Their M1 SoC is now available in MacBooks and Apple’s small-form-factor desktops.
Apple has even more ambitious plans for the future of SoCs. They are continuing to double the performance and capability of their machines by unveiling new, more powerful chips. Apple claims their latest iteration—the M1 Ultra—is twice as fast as the M1 Max. While this isn’t the case in practice, it does show that Apple is serious about pushing the limits of their ARM technology.
What’s most impressive about Apple’s implementation of the technology is that their M1 line is breaking performance records while still being incredibly power-efficient. Apple claims their new M1 Ultra can outperform a 16-core PC desktop while consuming only 60W.
What Does That Mean for the Future of Laptops?
Given Apple’s tendency to be on the cutting edge of computer innovation, it seems likely that other computer manufacturers will begin to offer more robust SoC options. The only thing slowing this progression is the high cost of the initial engineering.
However, the other major players in the industry aren’t ignoring this paradigm shift. Intel is already manufacturing SoCs to be used in laptop computers and standalone devices like digital displays. As more manufacturers move to SoCs, more people will take advantage of increased performance, better heat management, improved battery life, and improved security.
AMD, not to be outdone, is also developing high-performance SoCs. With their G-Series processors, they are pushing the graphics and multimedia capabilities of SoC technology, focusing on 4K hardware video decode support and immersive display configurations. It’s important to remember that AMD’s APUs (accelerated processing units) were the first to combine a decent CPU with a GPU capable of playing games. Will AMD be the first to create a high-performance gaming SoC?
The SmartDesk Connect
While powerful and progressive, Apple’s M1 Macs do not come without limitations. Namely, the original M1 can only support one external monitor natively. While this has been addressed in later iterations, the lack of a dedicated GPU in SoC-powered machines means that driving multiple 4K displays can be difficult for them.
Even though SoC technology is advancing and newer laptops will be built around AMD SoCs or future Intel chips to include more powerful GPUs, we still need a multiple-monitor solution for SoC-based devices that works today.
That’s where an advanced laptop docking station like the SmartDesk Connect comes in. Whereas a dedicated GPU would traditionally be required to power three 4K UHD monitors, the SmartDesk Connect can achieve this by taking full advantage of the M1 chip’s integrated graphics capabilities. It also gives you more ports to connect your peripherals—which is particularly useful given the modest number of USB ports on modern laptops like the MacBook Air.
If you are considering purchasing a SmartDesk Connect and plan on using it with an M1-based Apple Macbook, you will want to choose the “D” version of the product. Purchase yours today to stay ahead of the curve and make the most of this latest development in chip technology.