RISC-V vs. ARM processors: A quick comparison

Microprocessors are at the heart of many electronic devices. They are tiny computers in the simplest form. They generally do not rely on operating systems and handle simple tasks such as reading sensors, controlling LEDs and displays, and handling simple computations.

RISC-V and ARM are both instruction set architectures (ISA). However, where they differ, primarily, is that RISC-V is an open-source ISA, whereas ARM is a proprietary ISA. There has been a lot of excitement recently over the potential of RISC-V to outpace ARM in efficiency and functionality in modern computing applications. But not so fast. Let’s explore the advantages and disadvantages of both before we jump to any conclusions.

Historically, ARM has dominated the microprocessor market, from low-power devices to high-performance processors. This was mainly due to its licensing model, which allowed various companies to license IP and customize it for their own applications. Additionally, ARM has developed multiple processing families, such as the Cortex-A for high-performance applications, the Cortex-R for real-time applications, and the Cortex-M for energy efficiency applications − with each family becoming the unofficially recognized performance standard for various applications.

On the other hand, it was ARM’s proprietary modeling that inspired the RISC-V architecture. Researchers at Berkeley began the architecture as an open-source alternative to promote greater innovation in technology. It has since been embraced by many big tech companies such as Google and Nvidia.

To begin, ARM has well-established software and hardware that can help companies accelerate the development cycle. It also has an extensive line of choices with mature feature sets. On the other hand, RISC-V’s architecture offers flexibility and a level of customization that cannot be had with ARM devices. Taking into consideration raw performance, ARM will outperform any RISC-V processors. And although ARM continues to maintain its lead in performance, RISC-V has proven to offer higher computation densities. This means you will get a smaller chip for the same performance. This can prove advantageous in many applications, such as wearables like smart watches. It is worth noting that there is currently research and effort taking place to improve the performance of RISC-V processors, and how well their performance will stack up against ARM in the future will highly depend on the outcome of these efforts.

In addition, it is also important to consider power consumption. Indeed, in every application, power consumption needs to be taken into consideration as it can have battery life implications for low-power applications and thermal/mechanical implications for high-performance applications. ARM has made energy efficiency a key focus area throughout its time, dominating the market. They already offer options that focus on power efficiency and ease of use for low-power devices. Furthermore, they have options available with hardware floating point and DSP extensions that are suitable for higher-end applications such as cell phones.

There also happens to be a large array of power-saving features available. Some of these include dynamic voltage and frequency scaling, which allows the processor to decrease or increase the voltage and clocking of the chip depending on real-time requirements. RISC-V, on the other hand, allows for a smaller silicon footprint, which will give it a power consumption advantage. In addition, the fixed 32-bit instruction format and 16-bit compressed instruction extension can help lead to more power-efficient code implementation. Overall, while RISC-V offers the potential of a lower power-consuming device, it is not there yet. Work and time still have to be invested into RISC-V before it can begin to take market share from ARM.

In conclusion, RISC-V is gradually gaining traction in the industry. Currently, it works very well for small applications and can even offer an advantage when compared to its ARM counterpart. Its open-source architecture has attracted a growing number of large tech companies, and its ecosystem is expanding. However, ARM continues to dominate the market with a more mature and established product. It has a wide line of processors to support various applications. Additionally, its tools and hardware are stable, well-supported, and well-documented. The abundance of devices on the market also ensures it will be a trusted solution by companies for many years to come.