January 30, 2016, anysilicon
This is a high level article for those who are debating whether to use FPGAs or ASICs and need some technical and commercial insight to help ease the decision process. Both technologies, ASICs and FPGAs are absolutely fantastic and have great benefits but it’s up to you to figure out, based on your product which technology to use. In some cases there is a clear advantage to FPGAs and in other cases ASICs are in advantage.
In this article you find the main differences and comparisons in between the two technologies: FPGA vs ASIC. If you are still unsure about which path to choose, please contact our staff here.
FPGAs (Field Programmable Gate Arrays) are chips created originally in 1985 to perform only digital functions but today they have already both analog and mixed signal blocks. Customers like to use FPGA because they are easy to use, and cost effective reprogrammable devices. FPGA are known for their flexibility and their ability to be reprogrammed in the field. There is no need to have a full blown design flow and tooling, therefore the NRE investment is very low and as consequence time to market is fast.
The problem is that FPGAs are not fully customable, for example, one cannot add a specific analog block or integrate RF capability into an FPGA, those functionalities need to be implemented by external ICs, thus making the product larger in size and more costly.
ASICs (Application Specific Integrated Circuits) are specific chips (as the name suggest) used to implement both analog and digital functionalities in high volume or high performance. ASICs are full custom therefore they require higher development costs in order to design and implement (NRE). Moreover, unlike the FPGAs chips, they are not reprogrammable and therefore a change requires again NRE payment.
On the other side, however, ASICS are much denser, and one can integrate several different functionalities into one chip and therefore offer small size, low power and low cost solution.
(get here a higher resolution image)
Let’s take an example that shows the total cost of ASIC and FPGA technology including both NRE and production unit price.
ASIC NRE: $1.5M
ASIC Unit Cost: $4
FPGA NRE: $0
FPGA Unit Cost: $8
The graph clearly shows that after volume of 400K units, ASICs are starting to be more cost effective. Therefore, despite the fact that the ASIC project requires $1.5M in NRE, after 400K unit the ASIC is starting to return the investment, compared to an FPGA.
In conclusion, both ASIC and FPGA are technologies with different benefits, however their difference relies on costs, NRE, performance and flexibility. In general, we can say that for lower volumes’ designs, FPGA flexibility allows to save costs and obtain better results; while ASICs chips are more efficient and cost effective on high volume applications.