Sputnik
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Why is ARM so cheap, and x86 so expensive?

Sat Aug 18, 2012 5:03 pm

I've recently been looking at small single-board computers that come with x86 processors, for a few reasons. One is I'd like a minimalistic computer that does everything my normal computer does (including running Windows-only software) except with cheaper running costs. I'd also like to run some old games on DOS/Windows 3.1 for fun.

I also think that if I bought a 'x86 version' of the Raspberry Pi for some relatives who don't do much other than superficial computing, and I could run some of their beloved programs on a computer that was twenty times smaller than their normal PC, it might encourage them to learn about what a computer actually needs, and maybe to eventually use the Raspberry Pi itself.

However, all the research I've done suggests that x86 single-board computers are prohibitively expensive. It's much, much cheaper to just get an out-of-date Intel motherboard on eBay. Some of the more prominent examples I could find are the recently announced Intel NUC, which is supposed to retail at $400, and the VIA Pico-ITX which is about $250.

I was more than a bit excited when I found out that VIA are manufacturing something called the APC (or Neo-ITX) for $49, but then I found out that it has an ARM processor! Gahh!!

What is going on? What makes x86 processors so expensive, and why is it impossible to find the x86 equivalent of a Raspberry Pi?

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Re: Why is ARM so cheap, and x86 so expensive?

Sat Aug 18, 2012 5:26 pm

In my personal opinion (which may or may not hold any factual truth) is that because things like Windows, current MacOS and Linux tend to use x86 hardware, then there is scope to artificially inflate the prices to profit on the need to supply the x86 architecture, so an ARM powered device like the Pi can be built for so little as not everyone can use it, but a similar device with an x86 CPU costs more because there would be demand for it, and for some, that means they get £$€ in their eyes...

Where there is a need or demand for something, there's always someone wanting to profit from it unfortunately... :(

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Re: Why is ARM so cheap, and x86 so expensive?

Sat Aug 18, 2012 5:37 pm

I don't think there's anything greedy here, infact I imagine the margin made on most chips is lower than for most things that get sold.

x86 chips are primarily designed for laptops and desktops and so they're always pushing the boundaries of technology and are designed to fit inside a laptop sized case at minimum. ARM tends to be used for set top boxes and mobiles and so needs to be smaller, cheaper and more efficient.

I'm sure if x86 had stopped development with pentium 2's or 3's then by now they'd be pretty cheap!
Last edited by robwriter on Sat Aug 18, 2012 5:44 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Why is ARM so cheap, and x86 so expensive?

Sat Aug 18, 2012 5:44 pm

It's a good question, and the sort of thing we talk about a lot here! And it's kind of hard to answer, but I'll do my best.

Back in the day, Intel went to a particular place in the market to provide people with what most would call a "computer" experience - a desktop machine. Since the 80s there've been cheap processors to stick in your washing machine or your car engine management system, but to get a desktop-like experience that consumers would recognise as such means you have to spend money on big chip area, cutting-edge process nodes, and exotic implementation techniques, often on a foundry that you own. It's all very pricey. What you're noticing with projects like Raspberry Pi is that the technology has moved on, so this isn't necessary any more for the a desktop-like device.

The problem for companies like Intel is that Moore's Law means that now you can deliver an acceptable desktop experience using what's effectively embedded hardware; the stuff that used to be the micro-controller, embedded (washing machine) end of the market. It's about the cost of the platform, not just the CPU. Embedded chips have typically been SoCs, not CPUs, so they integrate graphics, peripherals, and a processing element onto the same die; that has an impact on system cost. Intel have responded by releasing Atom devices like Medfield, which are effectively high-end SoC platforms - devices like Medfield are cost- and performance-comparable to, or sometimes better than, high-end ARM-based SoCs.

So there's nothing special about ARM - it's about where the two companies have come from within the wider industry, and now they're meeting in the middle, we discover they're not so different on price! In the next 5 years we get to find out whether ARM's model (licensing IP to large numbers of chip vendors and attacking the market across a broad front) will win against Intel's strategy, which is to be fully vertically integrated and to try to win through tight control of their own fabrication process.

You can distill this down to a single question: how good will 14 nanometre Atom be? I think we can be assured it'll be pretty darn good, but it'll be really interesting to see just how it turns out.

Edit for punctuation.
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Re: Why is ARM so cheap, and x86 so expensive?

Sat Aug 18, 2012 6:17 pm

Apart from that (Liz knows what she's talking about*)
X86 is used where people want a desktop PC, and they tend to want all the bells and whistles to go with it, so the peripheral stuff on the board gets bloated.
Arms and the like do just one thing. You don't expect to write Warren Piece on your washing machine.
Raspberry Pi is neither one nor 'tother. So you don't get the bells, and you don't get the whistles, but with a bit of hacking and spending of time and money you can have a bell or a whistle, or you could write that novel.

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Re: Why is ARM so cheap, and x86 so expensive?

Sat Aug 18, 2012 6:36 pm

Sputnik wrote: However, all the research I've done suggests that x86 single-board computers are prohibitively expensive. It's much, much cheaper to just get an out-of-date Intel motherboard on eBay. Some of the more prominent examples I could find are the recently announced Intel NUC, which is supposed to retail at $400, and the VIA Pico-ITX which is about $250.
Maybe they do not come in a cute form factor, but you should be able to build a complete normal computer for under 100 bucks.

AMD fusion boards like this one can be found for around 60 EUR: http://www.asus.com/Motherboards/AMD_CP ... rd/C60M1I/

Still need to add RAM (10 bucks for a gig?), an USB stick as storage, and a case.

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Re: Why is ARM so cheap, and x86 so expensive?

Sat Aug 18, 2012 9:34 pm

The Name of the Game is Multi-purpose versus Special-purpose.
x86; based machines are designed to be multi-purpose platforms that can be configured to do almost everything. That is why they have all those pretty little connectors all over them. PCIe, PCI, Mini PCIe, Memory, USB 2.0/3.0 all over, SATAII/III, eSATA, 1394 etc. You also get the ability to reconfigure memory and add a video card if the onboard video is not what you want. You can spend very little for a machine from Wal-mart or blow a ton on an Alienware. You can even build your own from scratch by buying all of the components. Specialty add-on cards are all over the place.

ARM; mostly designed to be Special purpose computing devices. They usually lack features and limit connectors to the purpose they were designed to fill. No add-on memory or cards. Usually no component connectors, but not always. This is changing over the last year or two. There are some ARM devices that have a lot of options like Trimslice. I have not seen any that have reconfigurable memory but it not impossible as I have seen ARM designs for off package memory like some models of Tegra2. But the processor you buy is the one you are stuck with. They are soldered down. This could change too, but I doubt it. ARM based stuff is designed mostly for mobile platforms. There is a lot of interest in ARM for server platforms. You cannot buy ARM components to build a system yourself. Not unless you are going to design it from the PCB up.

All those connectors on a x86 board add to the cost. You also have very high component counts on x86 based platforms and each of those cost. You also have a high chipset count, This is changing as Intel and AMD roll more and more of the chipsets into the processor package. Most of your high end x86 now incorporate video, memory and bus controllers as well as the processor into the processor package. Look at the difference between a wall wart ($5 to $25) and an average computer PSU ($35 to $350), more added cost.

Another factor that determines price is what are you willing to pay for it. A top line intel processor will sell for $1100. The next one down is $549 and after that $349. There really is not that much difference between them but if you want or need the best you will fork out the money for it. This is why Overclocking was born. Take that little bit slower processor and push it up to the expensive processor speeds. Why does a diesel, 4X4, full size pickup cost $60,000? Because there are people dumb enough to pay it. Same for PC's. Why does an Alienware Area51 cost $3500? before options? It sure is not the rather limited liquid cooling they have!
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Re: Why is ARM so cheap, and x86 so expensive?

Mon Aug 20, 2012 1:44 am

We're approaching the edge of yet-another technological canyon of a type that's been encountered before in computing history. The very earliest computers were hard-wired (by hand) to perform only a specific function, such as the bombes used at Bletchley Park to assist in analyzing, discovering and exploiting vulnerabilities in, and bulk-decrypting Morse code military and diplomatic messages that were encrypted using a variety of techniques and technologies. These ranged from truly-random one-time pads (that can still be impossible to break using the most capable high-performance computing systems on the planet) to moving-rotor machines such as the German Enigma, that the special-purpose bombes and Colossus system were developed to counter using machine-assisted, but, still somewhat manual processing. Special-purpose computers were also built to assist in calculating ballistics tables for military artillery and naval gunfire systems, and other domains.

After WW-II ended, computing efforts were expanded to more general scientific and business domains, since hand-built circuits cost millions of dollars in today's money for what was much less powerful than what's in any consumer device today. They required large teams of maintenance and operations technicians to keep them running, adding to their overall cost. The name of the game was to cram as much processing power into a system as possible and run data through it every moment of the day and night, year-round, in non-interactive batch mode. There were still special-purpose systems developed and operated, but, they were far outnumbered by the general-purpose systems because that's how the relative needs were distributed. By the 1960s, when the number of general-purpose computer manufacturers in the U.S. alone dropped from over 250 to less than 10, most computing development efforts were focused on doing as much as possible on centralized systems made ever more capable.

Minicomputers were developed to reduce the total cost of particular systems, even though their performance/cost ratios were well below those of the larger mainframes. The key was that, instead of only being able to lease part of a mainframe including the required staff hours, an organization could outright own, program, and operate a system to do whatever it wanted on their own budget and schedule. This was particularly attractive to scientific and engineering groups that already had technically-sophisticated people on their payrolls capable of performing computing system maintenance, programming, and operation.

When microcomputers first appeared, their performance/cost ratios were even worse than those for minicomputers (which were improving), but, again, the customer, now an individual, could afford the total cost of a system. Their demands weren't that great, anyway, with lightweight office productivity, games, hobby applications, etc., being their major usage domains.

Inevitably, as semiconductor and storage technology advanced in density and speed, the lines between the various computing strata began to blur, and capabilities increased while costs decreased exponentially across the board. Eventually, low-end mainframes, minicomputers, and high-end microprocessor-based servers morphed to occupy the same market, and high-end mainframes migrated up toward the high-performance computing domains (aka supercomputers). Desktop personal computers continued to improve in performance/cost to the point where they have largely been eclipsed by laptop systems for routine uses, and mobile devices are beginning to move up into low-end laptop and even desktop markets.

The problem for the manufacturers of higher-end microprocessors, such as Intel, is that they've developed products that exceed the performance needs of most individuals and even many smaller businesses. Many of the techniques that have been developed for high-end computing products can also be applied to most of the products in all other markets (e.g., steadily-improving circuit density that leads to GBs of RAM and flash memory even in the lowest-end mobile devices), including ARM.

One of the differences between the marketing of desktop/laptop systems and mobile products is that the mobile variety tends to be paid for as part of a services package, e.g., phone and data. A typical smartphone doesn't cost $199, its real price is around $2,600 when the average $100 per month, 24-month service contract is properly included, and many people continue to pay beyond the 24-month period which increases price and profits that much more. Of course, the cost of providing services is mixed in, but, since unlocked mobile devices are typically priced at $800, or more, we can assume that's somewhere above their actual cost.

So, the price differential between commercial product categories isn't as large as it might seem. The Pi is not representative of typical commercial systems because much of the cost that would need to be paid for in commercial systems has been eliminated by near-cost component prices (which are also a version behind current state-of-the-art in commercial products), volunteer engineering and marketing labor, and minimal packaging costs, with assistance from the very medium you're using to read this - the Internet. Additionally, relying on open-source software and further volunteer efforts to adapt what can't just be recompiled saves a huge amount of money.

You generally get what you pay for - the trick is to only pay as little as possible for what you get.
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Re: Why is ARM so cheap, and x86 so expensive?

Mon Aug 20, 2012 2:27 am

@Jim Manley:
The actual component cost of an iPhone4 (8GB) is around $192. With service contract and the subsidized price you are right in the average ballpark for the total cost of ownership. AT&T supposedly pays around $400 to $499 or so bulk price. So there is a bit of markup there by Apple.
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Re: Why is ARM so cheap, and x86 so expensive?

Mon Aug 20, 2012 2:59 am

You can get a motherboard with CPU and RAM with a low-end Intel Atom for something less than $100. For example, this guy: http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.a ... -_-NA-_-NA
Add some RAM, and a cut-rate hard disk, and a cut-rate case/power supply, and you have a Windows-capable x86 computer for less than $200.

Note that x86 is significantly more complex than ARM, and because there's high demand for it, Intel and the few licensees of the CPU instruction architecture can extract a premium -- there's a small oligopoly of companies that are effectively capable to build x86-compatible CPUs from a licensing point of view.

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Re: Why is ARM so cheap, and x86 so expensive?

Mon Aug 20, 2012 3:41 am

Lob0426 wrote:The actual component cost of an iPhone4 (8GB) is around $192.
Component costs are only a minority of the story and are usually the same for most manufacturers, although Apple has obviously monopolized the output of things like 9.4-inch touchscreens for iPads, etc., and likely gets a decent price break because of the volume approaching 100 million devices built through the past 2.5 years. Look how long it took to get just the Pi to an FCC/CE-compliant, volume-manufacturable state (fortunately, the final board hardware design passed on the first try, modulo the tweak to the HDMI port driver code).

Now, double the RAM, include 8 GB of flash RAM, add a WiFi transceiver, 3G cell transceiver, Bluetooth, touchscreen, etc., then shrink it down another order of magnitude beneath the size of the Pi, and then pass it through an FCC/CE certification lab - that's an extremely expensive, bleeding-edge, world-class integration challenge.

Finally, don't forget the cost of all of that iOS software that Apple has spent billions of dollars developing over the past 16 years (including a portion of the cost of OS X that it's based on). That's much more than the cost of the hardware components and the quite substantial integration costs described above. This kind of work isn't for chimps.
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Re: Why is ARM so cheap, and x86 so expensive?

Mon Aug 20, 2012 4:25 am

What would Intel charge for an X86 CPU chip were it not for AMD?

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Re: Why is ARM so cheap, and x86 so expensive?

Mon Aug 20, 2012 5:33 am

stevech wrote:What would Intel charge for an X86 CPU chip were it not for AMD?
Twice as much due to no competition at all.
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Re: Why is ARM so cheap, and x86 so expensive?

Tue Aug 21, 2012 5:28 pm

Also, Intel is committed to backwards compatibility. Their latest 64 bit processors will still run ancient code. That means large, complex chips capable of emulating every processor they've ever made. ARM? Screw you, get an older processor or update your code. Which means that they can produce teeny, energy-efficient, cheap processors.

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Re: Why is ARM so cheap, and x86 so expensive?

Tue Aug 21, 2012 7:12 pm

What most people seem to forget, is that ARM originally meant 'Acorn RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computer) Machine. i.e. didn't have the complexity of X86 CPU's (most of which is bloat), and was thus cheaper to produce.
It is a sad fact that software is 'bloated' to match want is available from today's intel CPU. Microsoft is a clear example of this phenomena. Who can truly say that Word 2011 is that much better than Word97, and was this so much better than Wordstar6? (remember that?)
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Re: Why is ARM so cheap, and x86 so expensive?

Tue Aug 21, 2012 7:54 pm

Cost of production does not realy come into it.

The cost of a chip is what the market will stand.

A chip as its most basic is a photo etching onto a slice of semiconducting silicon and the only difference is how much of the slice do you throw away due to errors.

Clean rooms and quality control reduce those factors.

A production line is not going to be significantly different in producing x86 over ARM but there are economies of scale and there are a large number of arm based phones out there.

I did hear one report saying there were now more phones than people. :shock:

Are mobile phones becoming the dominant life form on earth. :D
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Re: Why is ARM so cheap, and x86 so expensive?

Tue Aug 21, 2012 8:39 pm

Jim JKla wrote:Cost of production does not realy come into it.

The cost of a chip is what the market will stand.

A chip as its most basic is a photo etching onto a slice of semiconducting silicon and the only difference is how much of the slice do you throw away due to errors.

Clean rooms and quality control reduce those factors.

A production line is not going to be significantly different in producing x86 over ARM but there are economies of scale and there are a large number of arm based phones out there.

I did hear one report saying there were now more phones than people. :shock:

Are mobile phones becoming the dominant life form on earth. :D

Is that really true? I had the impression that Intel were always pushing the fabrication process to be smaller in order to create ever more powerful designs, and with that comes cost, both in the shortened life cycle of a production line and in lower yields (or more money to achieve the same yield).

I may be wrong, but whilst ARM is becoming a player, it's still some way off for proper desktops and laptops.

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Re: Why is ARM so cheap, and x86 so expensive?

Wed Aug 22, 2012 12:59 am

Not true in Arm space - cheaper is better. When you sell 10 million of a product, making a chip $0.50 cheaper saves the customer a LOT of money. So the cheaper you can make it the cheaper you can sell it and you can undercut competitors with either more features for the same price (better SoC integration), or a cheaper price.

Not so relevant in Desktop space though I think with a higher cost overall the processor cost is a smaller percentage.
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Re: Why is ARM so cheap, and x86 so expensive?

Wed Aug 22, 2012 6:18 am

Excluding the garage door opener, ARM microprocessors are in high end washing machines and Android handhelds. And lots in between.

I don't see Intel pursuing that space. They don't dominate in low end 8 bitter like 8051 variants and Atmel. (Microchip, well, PICs were fine in 1984).

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Re: Why is ARM so cheap, and x86 so expensive?

Wed Aug 22, 2012 6:26 am

The problem for Intel lies in the fact that Arm devices are in all those things, but are now pushing on to the desktop, Intel terretory - and they easily have enough grunt even now for the vast majority of home users (and many corporate), and are getting faster all the time. They just don't have Windows or X86 compatibility, but with Android and iOS people are getting used to not using Windows....and there is lots of Linux software that can replace Windows only software..
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Re: Why is ARM so cheap, and x86 so expensive?

Wed Aug 22, 2012 6:46 am

One of the cheapest Intel solutions I know of :

http://www.dabs.com/products/intel-d525 ... -7HC1.html

Most suppliers worth their salt will stock it, its a dual core atom, works fine with Ubuntu, gets seriously bogged down in the typical bloatware/spyware infested Windows scenario. (its slow). El cheapo BGA soldered processor so you're stuck with it.

ARM is seriously cheaper because even the most complex ARM chips are an order of magnitude (or two) simpler than the simplest modern X86 processors. They are widely made by a multitude of different companies under licence unlike X86 in which 2 companies pretty much own the market which probably has a bearing.
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Re: Why is ARM so cheap, and x86 so expensive?

Wed Aug 22, 2012 6:52 am

There's another factor here: Windows and the PC Specification.

If you have a cheap PC, then it's either an industrial embedded PC, for which you can charge high prices, or it is designed for the mass market. If it is designed for the mass market then you are throwing away 99% of your business if it does not run Windows. If it runs Windows then it needs most of the interfaces found on a modern motherboard. All those chips and sockets to implement VGA, North bridge, South bridge and whatever cost money. So your minimum price for a mass-market PC is quite high... until the Raspberry Pi.

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Re: Why is ARM so cheap, and x86 so expensive?

Wed Aug 22, 2012 6:53 am

One of the cheapest Intel solutions I know of :

http://www.dabs.com/products/intel-d525 ... -7HC1.html
You still need to add memory to that!

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Re: Why is ARM so cheap, and x86 so expensive?

Wed Aug 22, 2012 7:02 am

Do they do chips (fries) with that page not found? ;)
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Re: Why is ARM so cheap, and x86 so expensive?

Wed Aug 22, 2012 7:04 am

Gert van Loo wrote:
One of the cheapest Intel solutions I know of :

http://www.dabs.com/products/intel-d525 ... -7HC1.html
You still need to add memory to that!
256 MB would be pennies ;)
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