FPGA or ASIC: What’s Better?
When it comes to circuit design in a VLSI environment, engineers sometimes need to decide between FPGA and ASIC. They are types of integrated circuit (IC) chips with each boasting its own strengths and weaknesses. In the end, choosing between the two largely depends on the specific application.
With the goal of making the right choice, here is a high-level comparison of FPGA and ASIC. Understanding the positive and negative aspects of both helps determine which type fits your own project needs. Ultimately, it’s critical to get this choice correct before the real engineering work begins.
A Closer Look at FPGA Chip Technology
FPGA stands for field-programmable gate array, with the keyword being “programmable.” Engineers reprogram these chips in the field, which provides significant flexibility in product design. They are also easy-to-use and cost-effective, making it easier to bring FPGA projects to the marketplace.
However, FPGA lacks the full customization of other IC technologies, including ASIC. This includes adding analog or RF functionality to a design. Extra chips needed to be included, making the final product larger and more expensive.
A Closer Look at ASIC Chip Technology
Application-specific integrated circuits, better known as ASIC, offer some significant advantages over FPGA. They allow for a denser design, leading to smaller products consuming less power. However, their fully custom nature requires a longer and more costly development time. They also provide no firmware re-programmability, which means any product changes require a costly reengineering effort.
Choosing Between FPGA and ASIC Depends on Your Project
Ultimately, the choice between FPGA and ASIC directly relates to the needs of the project. If your end-product needs to be re-programmed in the field, obviously FPGA becomes the right choice. While ASIC supports software-based updates, its hardware design is generally static. One exception to this rule is using an ASIC IP core which supports the embedding of FPGA functionality.
FPGA also offers superiority for lower-budget projects, as ASIC requires much more upfront engineering design work. However, smaller, low-power product designs benefit from an ASIC approach, as noted earlier. The chip technology is also better-suited for high-performance products running at extreme speeds.
ASIC is also the right choice for products that include both analog and digital functionality. While we mentioned FPGA is more cost-effective, that advantage disappears for products manufactured at a high-volume – specifically more than 400,000 units.
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