SiFive’s new RISC-V chip challenges decades-old computer designs

sifive new riscv chip challenges decadesold
SiFive; Illustration by Stephen Shankland/CNET

It’s really hard to attract a new family of chips when companies like Intel and Qualcomm ship their products by the millions, but SiFive has a faster new design that he hopes will carve a niche. The startup announced its Performance P650 design on Thursday, which comes with a 50% speed boost over the P550 that arrived in June.

SiFive is one of the most prominent members of RISC-V International, an alliance that is jointly developing a family of processors using the new RISC-V architecture. That competes with Intel and AMD’s x86 architecture that dominates PCs and the Arm architecture used by Qualcomm, Samsung, Apple, MediaTek and others to power all smartphones. However, unlike x86 and Arm, RISC-V is free to use. It’s a fresh start that its proponents believe will be more economical and efficient.

SiFive does not make chips. Instead, it licenses its designs to others to modify them for their own purposes, an approach that serves Arm well. With performance comparable to Arm’s two-year-old mid-range Cortex A77 design, the P650 won’t be removing Qualcomm or other Arm designs from smartphones anytime soon. Customers can begin design evaluation in the first quarter of 2022, SiFive said.

But if SiFive succeeds with its longer-term plans for better speed, battery life and cost, you could be getting a SiFive phone in a few years.

“By 2023, you will probably see the first mobile phone with RISC-V,” said SiFive chief executive Patrick Little in an October interview. “I think we have an excellent opportunity on the phone.”

RISC-V Summit for RISC-V Chip Fans

SiFive announced its chip shortly before the RISC-V summit begins Monday. That’s a collection of the ever-growing collection of RISC-V chip fans. Google’s Titan M2 security chip is a RISC-V design. Apple is also exploring its RISC-V options.

The RISC-V designs embody a relatively modern chip design approach called “reduced Instructions Set Computing” (RISC), and indeed the RISC-V project started with a celebrity who co-created RISC, David Patterson. Arm chips are also RISC designs. Software controls Intel x86 chips with the older CISC, or complex instruction set computer technology, but deeper down, even Intel chips use RISC technology.

An Intel chip called Horse Creek uses SiFive’s P550. But Intel’s bid to acquire SiFive failed, Bloomberg reported.

Another RISC-V startup is AI chipmaker Tenstorrent, whose chief technology officer is Jim Keller, a chip guru who has held positions at Intel, AMD and Tesla. Esperanto Technologies has unveiled an AI chip design with more than 1,000 RISC-V processing cores.

Other RISC-V companies include AI chipmaker GreenWaves Technologies, low-power chipmaker Micro Magic and Chinese cloud computing giant Alibaba, which has released an open-source RISC-V chip design that anyone can use.

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