I mean compared to ICs (ASICs) with similar complexity, speed etc. Let's compare Ethernet switches to Kintex FPGAs (note that the most expensive switch from the list is circa as expensive as the cheapest Kintex):

  • FPGAs are well structured ICs (like RAMs). They can be scaled and developed easily.
  • The design tools (Vivado, Quartus, etc.) are expensive too, so I think the price of an FPGA is the price of the IC (and development) itself excluding the cost of support and the tools. (Some non-FPGA vendors give free tools whose development cost includes the IC price.)

Are FPGAs produced in lower quantities than other ICs? Or is there any technological harness?

  • 5
    \$\begingroup\$ I think someone have made Ph.D. thesis in business science on the subject. It is not tech question, it is more business question involving tech comparison of apples with oranges. The main rule is - development tools (products) are always more expensive than consumer products - for various reasons, from revenue/cost estimation, and market demand, and availability of competing (functional) products. \$\endgroup\$
    – Anonymous
    Nov 7, 2018 at 11:53
  • 8
    \$\begingroup\$ Have you ever looked into a high end FPGA and all the features it offers? It is far from trivial to make it all work well together and anticipate the possible interactions. A similarily complex ASIC is also expensive as hell in the same numbers, the point where ASICs become cheaper is when are sold in the many millions. And your comparison is quite unfair because ethernet switches generally do not contain nearly as much complexity as an FPGA with all the PLL and signal conditioning and thousands of GPIO pins. \$\endgroup\$
    – PlasmaHH
    Nov 7, 2018 at 11:58
  • 8
    \$\begingroup\$ I don't get the comparison. Fpga cost anywhere between 80 cents and 50000$ - depending on size and features. Ethernet switches start at 20 Dollar and go up at least to severl hundred thousand dollar, ahain depending on size and features. \$\endgroup\$
    – asdfex
    Nov 7, 2018 at 13:22
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ As someone that works with both FPGAs and ethernet switches: why are those your two datapoints? \$\endgroup\$
    – DonFusili
    Nov 7, 2018 at 13:33
  • 7
    \$\begingroup\$ Sorry to be harsh but: "A chip that can do everything is more expensive than a chip that can do only 1 thing". How's that even a question? \$\endgroup\$
    – Agent_L
    Nov 8, 2018 at 9:23

7 Answers 7


FPGA chips include both logic and programmable connections between logic elements, while ASICs include only the logic.

You'd be amazed at how much chip area is devoted to the "connection fabric" in an FPGA — it's easily 90% or more of the chip. This means that FPGAs use at least 10× the chip area of an equivalent ASIC, and chip area is expensive!

It costs a certain amount to do all of the processing on a given silicon wafer, no matter how many individual chips are on it. Therefore, to a first approximation, the chip cost is directly proportional to its area. However, there are several factors that make it worse than that. First, larger chips mean that there are fewer usable sites on the wafer to begin with — wafers are round, chips are square, and a lot of area is lost around the edges. And defect densities tend to be constant across the wafer, which means that the probability of getting a chip without a defect (i.e., "yield") goes down with chip size.

  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ Certainly an ASIC will need some level of internal connection. I think you mean the FPGA has a bunch of connectivity, wires and accompanying switches, going to places that you don't necessarily need, whereas ASICs are built with only the ones you need. \$\endgroup\$
    – user71659
    Nov 8, 2018 at 1:03
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ FPGAs probably require more test time, and test time isn't cheap either. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 8, 2018 at 3:37
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ @awjlogan Not with modern huge wafers - AFAIK they use a "step and repeat" process. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 8, 2018 at 10:24
  • 5
    \$\begingroup\$ @HarrySvensson: From the Jargon File definition for nanoacre: "A unit (about 2 mm square) of real estate on a VLSI chip. The term gets its giggle value from the fact that VLSI nanoacres have costs in the same range as real acres once one figures in design and fabrication-setup costs." This has been true for a very long time. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dave Tweed
    Nov 8, 2018 at 11:51
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ All said and done the actual physical die coming out of a fab is really not that expensive, it always bothers me that a big IC tends to cost a fraction of the package they are being put in. Where area becomes really expensive is in yield. A wafer has defects, and ICs that are 100 to a wafer would be 10 times more likely to fail due to a defect than ICs that are 1000 to a wafer. Not to mention the extra expenses of testing and engineering that goes into them. An FPGA can be reticle-limited, that is the maximum size allowed by the technology, at >25mmx25mm while a common IC will be just ~4mm^2. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 8, 2018 at 21:00

Another key driver of cost is verification.

FPGAs need to be individually tested before sale. This is partly to ensure that all of the thousands to several million routing interconnects and logic cells are functional. The verification however also involves characterisation and speed grade binning - determining how fast the silicon can operate and that the speed and propagation delays of all the many interconnects and cells are suitably matched to the timing models for its grade.

For ASIC designs, testing is typically simpler - a yes-no does the design perform as expected. As such the time required for verification is likely far less, and thus cheaper to perform.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ ASICs are usually tested with a scan chain. I see no reason why this wouldn’t be possible for FPGAs. There are also ASICs which are individually calibrated and tested at different temperatures and they still sell for a couple of dollars. \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael
    Nov 8, 2018 at 12:48
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ With an ASIC, correct operation is already defined - with an FPGA, you need it operating correctly REGARDLESS of how that is (user) defined.... \$\endgroup\$ Nov 8, 2018 at 20:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ ASICS and other chips are all tested and, often, binned for speed. I would accept this as a valid argument if anyone could produce even rough numbers for how long an FPGA needs to sit on a test bench compared to other types of chips. My intuition is that, even if longer tests are needed, the rest of the manufacturing process is probably dominant in terms of contributions to production costs. To maintain throughput they may need a larger testing line to offset the longer individual test times, but it's such a small part of the produciton process that I remain sceptical... \$\endgroup\$
    – J...
    Nov 12, 2018 at 14:13
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @rackandboneman Correct operation for an FPGA is also defined. They can test every logic element and interconnection separately. What you're saying would be like saying that CPUs can't be tested because they need to operate correctly regardless of what software runs on them. \$\endgroup\$
    – user253751
    Jan 14, 2019 at 2:33

There is one (more) important point which is usually overlooked, process technology.

FPGAs that have high market share are manufactured with cutting edge technology. To be more specific, Kintex-7 FPGAs have TSMC 28nm process and their shipment started in 2011[1]. TSMC had started mass production of 28nm in the same year[2].

[1] Xilinx ships first 28nm Kintex-7 FPGAs (By Clive Maxfield, 03.21.11)

[2] Chang said: "Our 28-nm entered volume production last year and contributed 2 percent of 4Q11's wafer revenue."

I don't know the process of the ethernet switches, but most of the ASIC design companies don't follow the cutting edge technology. It doesn't make sense for foundries as well.

The following chart shows TSMC's revenue by technology (1Q18). Even in 2018, 39% of the revenue comes from technologies older than 28nm. If we think about the number of chips, it is not hard to imagine that more than half of ASICs are today manufactured with technologies older than 7-year-old Kintex-7.

TSMC revenue by technology

As a conclusion, process technology is one of the factors that make FPGAs more expensive. I don't claim it is a dominant factor, but significant enough to be considered.

  • \$\begingroup\$ what process is Artix-7 created? \$\endgroup\$
    – iBug
    Nov 8, 2018 at 14:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ @iBug The same with Kintex-7. \$\endgroup\$
    – user154136
    Nov 8, 2018 at 14:24

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that this is by far dominated by simple supply and demand. Ethernet switches are mass produced with huge economies of scale and sell at discounts over chips that are not so widely used. FPGAs, I'd say, are not nearly so widely deployed as ethernet switches and so they cost more because the development and infrastructure costs are spread over fewer customers.

This isn't about process or die size or anything like that. Consider the Xilinx Virtex-7 (only because I could more readily find data for it) and let's compare to a few contemporaries :

  • Virtex7 (2011), 28nm, ~6.8 billion transistors, $2500USD (popular models) to $35,000USD (higher end models)
  • NVIDIA Kepler GK110 (2012), 28nm, ~7.1 billion transistors, Tesla K20 cards ~$3200USD at launch (chip price some smaller fraction of that)
  • XBoxOne SOC (2013), 28nm, ~5 billion transistors, $499 USD for whole XBox at launch
  • Xeon E5-2699 v3 [18 core] (2014), 22nm, ~5.6 billion transistors, ~$4500USD

So overall the Virtex FPGA seems reasonably priced (more popular models) compared to other silicon of a similar transistor count, generation, and sales volume. The XBox SOC sticks out as something which was widely deployed in a consumer device and the cost is likewise much lower.

NVIDIA's compute GK110 was much less widely deployed than similar consumer chips that ended up in gaming cards and was similarly more expensive, even given the architectural similarities and the fact that the chips were made in the same factory.

As for the Virtex chips, there isn't a 10x difference in the complexity of the $2500 chips vs the $35000 chips - the latter are simply much less popular and, with lower sales volumes, the cost per unit is necessarily higher.

The market is full of this. Anything you can sell a hundred million of you can always make cheaper than something you will maybe sell a hundred thousand of.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't think you can trust the $35,000 price from digikey or wherever to be an accurate representation of actual quantity pricing. Probably closer to $5k...at launch... \$\endgroup\$
    – ks0ze
    Nov 9, 2018 at 3:33
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure how true this is, but I was lead to believe that consoles such as the Xbox are typically sold at either a loss or at cost, and the difference is recouped through game sales. \$\endgroup\$
    – Élie
    Nov 9, 2018 at 4:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ks0ze, very few customers buy $35k chips in really large quantities (10k/month or more, say). And last time I needed to buy from Xilinx, they claimed to only sell through distribution (whether this is actually true when buying 1000s of units I don't know). \$\endgroup\$
    – The Photon
    Nov 9, 2018 at 4:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ That said, you certainly can call the distributor and negotiate a better price if you want more than a few 100 parts. \$\endgroup\$
    – The Photon
    Nov 9, 2018 at 4:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ks0ze That is the actual book price from Xilinx. If you want just a few, that's what you'll probably have to pay. Xilinx are hard cases with prices, but you can bargain down if you're buying a lot, yes. I don't think that tells us anything except that FPGAs aren't bought and sold in large enough quantities to have a highly stable price structure. Consider bulk discount margins you'd get on high volume products like Intel CPUs, for example. Maybe a few percent, but that price isn't moving a lot. Same with ethernet switches and XBoxes, which is the point of this whole answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – J...
    Nov 9, 2018 at 10:27

Short answer: because they can be.

FPGA's did not always exist. For them to be practical, in that they could be used to prototype logic for later production as ASICs, they had to be much larger and faster than the logic that would replace them---but they paid for themselves by being programmable. The life cycle of a product that started as FPGA before moving into ASIC was much quicker and cheaper than one that did not. FPGA marketeers were well aware of this, and charged accordingly.

I once worked on a product whose ASIC was anticipated to cost in the $100/each range, and we looked into prototyping on FPGA to shake out the bugs and features in the design, along with providing early customer demos at reduced operational speed. It would have taken at least three of the biggest hottest FPGA's available at the time, at some $2,000 each, to perhaps fit the logic. (Disregarding inter-package considerations, which were considerable. We decided against doing FPGA as the significant additional work to partition into multiple FPGA's would have delayed the actual product release. The costs for a handful of ultra-expensive FPGA boards would have been acceptable, but the delays were not.)

Cheaper/smaller FPGA's might be used for lower-volume productions of modest-sized designs, where an ASIC was never considered due to their substantial (and ever-increasing) NRE costs. These would be much further from the bleeding edge, and much less costly, but still have to be larger and faster than a base ASIC would need to be in order to make up for the radically decreased space and speed efficiency of FPGA logic. Again, the marketeers would definitely be doing their homework and pricing accordingly.

Any piece price for an FPGA that is more expensive than the base silicon costs given the die size and process are due to the above marketing factors. Welcome to capitalism! (Of course, FPGA dies are larger, and on more expensive [faster] processes than would otherwise be necessary. This is inherent. Think of FPGA's as an analog of those snap-circuit educational kits. Much larger and more expensive than a dedicated circuit, but highly flexible.)

Yield is also an issue, as FPGA's are terribly inefficient in terms of logic utilization for their size. It all has to 100% work or there would be 'programs' for them that could not run. At one time Xilinx had a program where, once you had a production design locked down, you could provide them with the configuration and test vectors and they would fit them onto yield failure dies, packaging the ones that passed and charging substantially less than the thousands of dollars each for perfect dies. Of course, the "FP" part of the name no longer applied, as there was no guarantee that any change to the program could run on any particular unit. I do not know if this is still offered by anybody, my guess would be not.


One peculiarity of FPGA pricing is that have seen an assembled board including a FPGA plus memory, clocks and power supply cost less than what distributors are listing.

As an example ALINX SoM ACKU5 FPGA Evaluation Boards & Kits on the Xilinx website has a price of $660.00 and the description contains:

ALINX SoM ACKU5P based on the AMD Kintex UltraScale+ XCKU5P-2FFVB676I, composed of FPGA + 2GB DDR4, 32bit + 64MB QSPI Flash, including all the basic components of hardware.

If I click the "Buy from Partner" link on the above Xilinx web page the price is £540.00 (which I think includes VAT).

Whereas if search for just the XCKU5P-2FFVB676I FPGA on some reputably UK distributors get higher prices than for the complete board:

  1. DigiKey XCKU5P-2FFVB676I : Unit Price without VAT: £2,690.17000
  2. Farnell AMD XILINX XCKU5P-2FFVB676I : Price (ex VAT) £2,825.00
  3. Mouser XCKU5P-2FFVB676I : £2,824.97 (ex VAT)

The above prices are all for a quantity of one.

I'm not sure what causes the discrepancy in price between an assembled board and just the FPGA. The XCKU5P-2FFVB676I is supported by the free version of Vivado, so selling such a an assembled board at below cost price wouldn't allow Xilinx to necessarily get an additional income from software development tool licences.


Are they? Just checked at Mouser, a small Lattice ICE40 is exactly EUR 2 @25pcs. The cheapest SoC FPGA (with a hard Cortex M3 core) from QuickLogic is below EUR 6. If you need something bigger, MachXO, Igloo2, SmartFusion2 are quite affordable, too. I'd say, these are ompetitive prices. Same ballpark as microcontrollers with similar performance.

On the other hand, they also list a Xilinx Virtex7 device for EUR 19k! I guess these are produced and used in very low volume, in very special industrial or military applications (or in research projects), where these prices are not unusual and perhaps not significant considering the cost of the whole system. They sell it for EUR 19k because there is demand for that chip at this price. It's certainly not as complex and does not require the same high tech foundries as the Apple M3, the most recent x86 processors from Intel and AMD, and the NVIDIA GPUs and so on.


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