How Low-Cost, High-Value Chips Are Changing IoT

By Carsten Rhod Gregersen, Founder/CEO, Nabto

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A new breed of microcontrollers that pack immense computing power into tiny, low-cost chips is reshaping the Internet of Things (IoT). These modern marvels are powerful enough to run advanced applications while sipping energy—all for less than the price of a cup of coffee.

Leading this charge are chips like Espressif’s ESP32, Raspberry Pi’s Pico, and Nordic Semiconductor’s nRF54. Despite miniature sizes, these chips boast impressive features such as strong cores, decent memory, and wireless connectivity. The result is a remarkable combination of performance and efficiency that enables developers to create smart cameras, wearables, industrial sensors, and more at prices unimaginable just years ago.

As we’ll explore, the widespread adoption of these low-cost, high-value chips is ushering in an era of powerful, affordable, connected devices across consumer and industrial applications.

Chips That Pack A Punch

The evolution of IoT chips has been marked by a steady increase in performance and a decrease in cost. Early “system on a chip” series were lauded for their simplicity and connectivity, but the latest generation of chips has raised the bar even higher.

At the heart of these chips lie powerful microprocessors that pack a punch despite their tiny packages. Generous helpings of memory complement the impressive computing power, wireless connectivity, and dedicated hardware for things like encryption and encoding.

Manufacturers have expanded their chip offerings into entire product lines comprising various processors tailored to different use cases. For example, Espressif has built upon the original ESP32 base model, creating a diverse product line that includes chips optimized for video applications with powerful image and voice processing capabilities, as well as chips designed for simple and secure connectivity applications that require Wi-Fi, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), and sufficient memory.

From using open-source tools and environments to affordable pricing sometimes starting under $1, these chips are making powerful computing and connectivity accessible to even amateur developers and hobbyist projects. Low-cost modules integrate the chips with wireless antennas, code flashers, and more right out of the box.

Empowering a New Era of Devices

From smart homes to industrial automation, these low-cost, high-value chips are revolutionizing the way we interact with the world around us. They are the powerhouse behind a wide array of connected devices, enabling them to connect and communicate like never before.

Imagine a smart security camera, no larger than your palm, keeping a watchful eye on your home. With one of these chips at its core, this camera not only streams high-quality video but also processes and analyzes data in real-time, all while consuming minimal power. This is something our team recently achieved for just a few dollars. Again, we couldn’t believe the quality or ability of these chips for such a low price.

But the applications go beyond surveillance. From wearable health monitors discreetly tracking vital signs to smart HVAC systems intelligently regulating temperature, humidity, and air quality based on real-time data, the sky’s the limit in consumer devices.

Industrial Uses

Likewise, in the industrial realm, these chips are powering a new generation of programmable logic controllers and automation systems. With their ability to handle complex data processing tasks and communicate seamlessly with other devices, they’re transforming factories and supply chains worldwide.

Most manufacturers have strategically positioned these chips as high-end microcontrollers running real-time operating systems (RTOS) rather than low-end microcontrollers running Linux. This allows the chips to handle multiple tasks, peripherals, and file access while avoiding the overhead and complexity of a full Linux distribution.

The well-supported RTOS stacks provide a plethora of libraries, tools, and integrations that developers can easily deploy on their target devices. By striking this balance between resource-efficient real-time operations and robust ecosystems, these chips offer a compelling middle ground between bare-metal boards and fully-featured Linux boards.

Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger

Modern devices are getting cheaper and performing better thanks to chips like these. Additionally, due to their open nature, developers are also embracing architectures like RTOS and, especially in surveillance and video devices, WebRTC for IoT. This is in and of itself leading to changes in the video capabilities and consumption of devices.

Of course, developers will need to consider which modules or development boards work best for their projects. Do they need Bluetooth connectivity or just Wi-Fi? Do they require powerful image and video processing capabilities with encoding like H.264? The diverse product lines of these chips cater to various requirements, so choose wisely.

But when it comes to the “brains” of these devices, this new breed of chips delivers a knockout combination of performance and efficiency. Pound for pound, they offer an impressive blend of processing power, versatility, and energy-saving capabilities—precisely what embedded devices need to intelligently perform their duties without wasting a watt.

Affordability

As sensors and devices only increase in the modern home and office, the price point and feature list are proving irresistible to developers. While Espressif’s ESP32 is currently dominating the market for low-cost chips with Wi-Fi, be sure to keep an eye on the competition. Nordic Semiconductor is making strides on the Bluetooth side, while the Raspberry Pi is carving out a niche in the Linux-based embedded and real-time space with an optional Wi-Fi variant. 

Another growing contender is Texas Instruments’ CC32xx, which could soon challenge Espressif if they improve their application support and accessibility for the maker community. 

Watch this space as these chips proliferate even further and bring newfound intelligence and performance to everyday “things.”

About the Author:

Carsten Rhod Gregersen is the CEO and founder of Nabto, a company that provides a P2P-based platform for IoT devices.

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