A chipset is a collection of microchips designed to work together to perform specific functions. They can be found in computers, smartphones, wireless networking equipment, and many other types of electronic devices. A chipset is often specially designed to work with a particular component, such as a central processing unit (CPU). These microcips perform many different functions depending on the device they are used in.
While a computer CPU is designed to be capable of handling many different types of calculations, a chipset is usually designed for very specific functions. These unique collections of circuits often work behind the scenes to manage the many complex components found inside modern electronics. In a personal computer (PC), for example, a chipset controls interactions between a CPU, memory, and other parts of the computer. This close-knit relationship means that chipsets are often optimized for a particular set of hardware.
The number of microchips in a typical PC chipset has come down as technology has evolved. While early chipsets had as many as five chips, modern chipsets often contain only two: a northbridge that manages memory and is directly connected to the CPU, and a southbridge connected to the northbridge that handles other components. Some more recent motherboards have replaced the northbridge/southbridge set up with a single microchip, although the single chip is still referred to as a chipset.
A chipset can also provide special functionality for some devices. Inside a smartphone, it may provide Global Positioning System (GPS) capability. The wireless chipset inside a WiFi® networking device controls the radio that broadcasts data to other WiFi® devices. An audio version, whether part of a sound card or built into a PC motherboard, converts digital signals into analog sound.
The complexity and unique requirements of these chips make their design and manufacture a highly specialized field, with only a handful of companies taking on the challenge. These few companies sell their designs to many different hardware vendors. This means that competing hardware from different manufacturers might be powered by the same set of microchips. This has advantages for end users as the same chipset drivers can sometimes be utilized across different hardware.
Chipsets can be found in many other electronics as well. A printer or scanner may contain a specially designed one to control its internal hardware. Home theater equipment like Blu-ray Disc™ players contain chipsets that enable video and audio playback. Even seemingly simple products like computer cables and adapters might have chipsets inside them.