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Systems-on-a-chip (SoCs) are a complex blend of core processors and the peripherals normally found on an external printed-circuit board (PCB), which are integrated into a single chip or package. Modern SoCs contain a processor, memory, digital I/O block, power-management block, and even a radio. A few years ago, the integration of RF electronics in the form factor and price point enabled by SoCs was unattainable. As compact RF electronics are increasingly backed by powerful processors, however, RF devices like smart watches, glasses, sensors, phones, computers, and test equipment are hitting the market at a rapid rate (see figure).

Smart personal electronic devices (PEDs), smart media, and wireless backhaul are leading the consumer and industrial markets in driving SoC performance. The companies developing smart-PED SoCs are working hard to combine the highest core and video-processing capability to service advanced radio features, such as LTE-A and WiGig. Their goal is to deliver a power-efficient and compact supercomputer with ultra-fast connectivity. Qualcomm, Samsung, MediaTek, Apple, AMD, and Nvidia are all competing to produce high-end SoCs with the latest technology. These technologies include integrated graphics processing units (GPUs) and multicore central processing units (CPUs) to handle the advanced features of modern, smart PEDs. To succeed, they must optimize the graphics capability for high-resolution video/gaming, enable advanced radio functions, increase multi-tasking capability, and offer a smooth user interface (UI) while consuming minimal power. These goals are pushing the companies to add processor cores, integrate memory, and drop to lower processing nodes. The main driving forces for these developments are gaming as well as high-resolution video streaming, which powers other SoC markets as well.

SoCs Bring High-End RF Devices From Lab To Sofa, Fig. 1

For developing smart-media devices, such as set-top boxes and automobile telematics, engineers are designing cost-effective media-streaming devices. Such devices can drive very-high-resolution, massive displays while enhancing the consumer experience using satellite and wireless connectivity. Entropic, Marvell, Broadcom, and STMicroelectronics offer SoCs for multimedia devices like set-top boxes. To lend automobiles a better multimedia experience, Renasas, STMicroelectronics, CSR, NEC, and Freescale offer infotainment and telematics SoCs. Like the smart-PED SoCs, telematics SoC solutions require high-performance CPUs and GPUs to meet the media display demands. Yet they also require sophisticated radio electronics to enable advanced position systems and more robust radio interfaces, which enhance connectivity reliability.

The need for high data rates for the multimedia, consumer, and commercial markets adds to the burden of modern communications systems while increasing the need for backhaul solutions. To satisfy wireless-backhaul and infrastructure needs, SoCs are being developed to drive as much throughput as possible. In doing so, they can hopefully meet the demands of the data-hungry consumer and business user. PMC-Sierra, Broadcom, Blu Wireless, and Infineon offer solutions for wireless-backhaul SoCs for mobile and satellite communications—some to 60 GHz. With digital sampling rates of wireless-communications technologies like WiGig hitting 2.64 GHz, even high-end SoC CPUs aren’t capable of meeting the necessary speeds. Wireless-backhaul engineers must therefore develop parallel processing methods and optimized parallel topologies to account for these high sampling rates using integrated SoC solutions.

Companies like Blu Wireless offer intellectual-property (IP) licensing on such topologies for this market. Other possibilities for solving this complex processing problem could be Nvidia’s Tegra K1 SoC, which offers its CUDA GPU computing—previously only desktop-capable—in a power- and space-efficient SoC package. Technologies that allow high-speed parallelization could help to satisfy the processing demands of high-frequency operation or advanced communications standards, such as carrier aggregation with LTE-A. Although there are many high-end SoC solutions, some companies offer RF SoCs with low-profile, customizable, or power-efficient radio capability.

RF SoC manufacturers like CEL, Broadcom, Anaren, Nordic, and Texas Instruments offer SoCs for low-profile and high-efficiency Bluetooth and ZigBee devices, which target the wearable device market. These designs must maintain a low-power system in a small footprint while offering highly sensitive receivers. Manufacturers also must provide easy-to-program design assistance for designers with minimal RF experience.

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