What's the Difference?

ARM and RISC-V are both instruction set architectures (ISAs) used in the design of computer processors. ARM, developed by ARM Holdings, is a widely adopted and established ISA used in various devices, including smartphones, tablets, and embedded systems. It offers a wide range of processor options and has a strong ecosystem with extensive software and tool support. On the other hand, RISC-V is an open-source ISA that is gaining popularity due to its simplicity, modularity, and flexibility. It allows for customization and innovation, making it suitable for a wide range of applications, from low-power embedded devices to high-performance computing. While ARM has a long history and a vast market presence, RISC-V's open nature and potential for customization make it an attractive option for those seeking more control and flexibility in their processor designs.


Instruction Set ArchitectureComplex Instruction Set Computing (CISC)Reduced Instruction Set Computing (RISC)
Open SourceNoYes
Number of Registers16-3232
Instruction EncodingVariable-length encodingFixed-length encoding
Addressing ModesWide range of addressing modesLimited addressing modes
Branch InstructionsConditional and unconditional branch instructionsConditional branch instructions only
Memory ModelHarvard architectureVon Neumann architecture
EndianessBoth little-endian and big-endianLittle-endian
PerformanceHigh performanceCompetitive performance

Further Detail


ARM and RISC-V are two popular instruction set architectures (ISAs) used in the design of microprocessors. While ARM has been dominating the market for several years, RISC-V has gained significant attention and adoption in recent times due to its open-source nature. In this article, we will compare the attributes of ARM and RISC-V, exploring their differences and similarities.

History and Background

ARM, which stands for Advanced RISC Machines, was initially developed by Acorn Computers in the 1980s. It was designed to be a low-power, reduced instruction set computing (RISC) architecture suitable for embedded systems. Over the years, ARM has evolved and become one of the most widely used ISAs, powering billions of devices worldwide, including smartphones, tablets, and IoT devices.

RISC-V, on the other hand, is a relatively new ISA that emerged from the University of California, Berkeley in 2010. It was developed as an open-source alternative to proprietary ISAs, aiming to provide a free and extensible architecture for a wide range of applications. RISC-V has gained significant traction in academia and industry, with companies like SiFive and Western Digital actively promoting its adoption.

Instruction Set Architecture

Both ARM and RISC-V are RISC architectures, which means they have a simplified instruction set with a small number of instructions that can be executed in a single clock cycle. However, there are some differences in their instruction sets.

ARM uses a fixed-length instruction encoding, with most instructions being 32 bits long. It supports both 32-bit and 64-bit instruction sets, with the latter being more prevalent in modern ARM processors. ARM instructions are generally more compact, allowing for efficient code density.

RISC-V, on the other hand, uses a variable-length instruction encoding, with instructions ranging from 16 to 32 bits. It supports various instruction set variants, including RV32I (32-bit), RV64I (64-bit), and RV128I (128-bit). RISC-V instructions are designed to be simple and orthogonal, making it easier to decode and execute them efficiently.

Design Philosophy

ARM and RISC-V have different design philosophies that influence their architectures and implementations.

ARM focuses on providing a balance between performance and power efficiency. It achieves this through features like pipelining, out-of-order execution, and advanced branch prediction. ARM processors are known for their excellent performance in mobile devices, where power consumption is a critical factor.

RISC-V, on the other hand, emphasizes simplicity, modularity, and extensibility. It provides a minimalistic base ISA and allows for optional extensions to be added as needed. This flexibility makes RISC-V suitable for a wide range of applications, from low-power embedded systems to high-performance computing.

Industry Adoption

ARM has a long history of industry adoption and is widely used in various sectors. Its dominance in the mobile market is particularly notable, with most smartphones and tablets powered by ARM-based processors. ARM also has a strong presence in the embedded systems, automotive, and IoT industries.

RISC-V, although relatively new, has been gaining momentum in recent years. Its open-source nature and extensibility have attracted many companies and organizations. RISC-V is being used in a variety of applications, including microcontrollers, edge computing devices, and even supercomputers. The RISC-V Foundation, a non-profit organization, promotes the development and adoption of RISC-V.

Toolchain and Ecosystem

ARM has a well-established toolchain and ecosystem, with a wide range of development tools, compilers, debuggers, and operating systems available. The ARM architecture is supported by major software vendors, making it easy to develop software for ARM-based systems. Additionally, ARM processors are compatible with various operating systems, including Android, Linux, and Windows.

RISC-V, being an open-source architecture, also has a growing toolchain and ecosystem. Several compilers, such as GCC and LLVM, support RISC-V, enabling software development for RISC-V-based systems. The RISC-V ecosystem is expanding rapidly, with the development of libraries, operating systems, and development boards specifically designed for RISC-V.

Cost and Licensing

ARM processors are typically licensed from ARM Holdings, a company that designs and licenses the ARM architecture. The licensing fees for ARM cores can be significant, especially for custom designs or high-performance cores. However, ARM also offers some low-cost or royalty-free licenses for certain applications, such as microcontrollers.

RISC-V, on the other hand, is an open-source architecture, which means it can be used freely without any licensing fees. This makes RISC-V an attractive option for startups, academia, and hobbyists who want to develop custom processors or experiment with new ideas without incurring licensing costs.


ARM and RISC-V are both popular ISAs with their own strengths and characteristics. ARM has a long history of industry adoption, offering a balance between performance and power efficiency. On the other hand, RISC-V provides an open-source, extensible architecture that is gaining traction in various sectors. The choice between ARM and RISC-V depends on the specific requirements of the application, the available ecosystem, and the licensing considerations. As both architectures continue to evolve, it will be interesting to see how they shape the future of computing.

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