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RISC: Is Simpler Better?

Nike + iPod Sport Kit, 2006

This shoe insert uses a Microchip Technology 8-bit RISC microcontroller to analyze a runner’s performance.

RISC: Is Simpler Better?

As microprocessor instruction sets grew more complex, it was proposed that sequences of simpler instructions could perform the same functions faster with smaller chips.

IBM developed a Reduced Instruction Set Computer (RISC) in 1980. But the approach was widely adopted only after the U.S. government funded university research programs and workstation vendors developed their own RISC chips. In 1991, IBM, Motorola, and Apple allied to produce the PowerPC.

None of the RISC suppliers were able to prevail in the PC market, but the approach thrived in microcontroller and specialized applications.

Berkeley RISC I die photograph

The RISC I, U.C. Berkeley’s first implementation of a RISC processor in 1982, contained 44,420 transistors made with a 5 micron NMOS process. The 77 mm² chip ran at 1 MHz.

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ARM 1 microprocessor

Inspired by the success of the Berkeley RISC project, Steve Furber and Sophie Wilson of Acorn Computers Ltd. designed the ARM 1 microprocessor in 1985. This would form the basis of the ARM architecture, one of the most successful computer architectures of all time.

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SPARC RISC CPU, TI, circa 1998

The SPARC (Scalable Processor Architecture) RISC design developed by Sun Microsystems was licensed to several manufacturers, including TI and Fujitsu.

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Alpha microprocessor, DEC, 1993

DEC introduced the Alpha 64-bit RISC processor in 1992 as the next generation to replace the 32-bit VAX’s complex CISC architecture.

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Group photo of Berkeley students who worked on RISC

Student designers Dan Fitzpatrick, John Foderaro, Jim Peek, Zvi Peshkess and Korbin Van Dyke were part of the team that coined the term Reduced Instruction Set Computer (RISC).

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PlayStation, Sony, 1994

The popular Sony PlayStation I video game console used a MIPS R3000 RISC central processor.

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RISC Processors, MIPS, 1994-96

These are all 64-bit RISC chips: R4300i CPU, R8000 floating point vector processor, and R10000 CPU. Silicon Graphics owned MIPS for 10 years.

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PowerPC predecessor board, Apple Computer Inc., 1992

Apple used this IBM POWER RISC processor Smurf board for development tasks prior to the availability of the PowerPC chip.

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