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Frequently Asked Question: What's an ASIC, FPGA?

So you're sick of just mining on your GPU, and not a fan of the electric bill after a month of mining? There has to be a better option out there than your loud GPU in your gaming computer. There is!
Shortly after GPUs became popular for bitcoin mining, enterprising folks started looking at other things they can re-purpose to mine bitcoins more efficiently. Around mid-year 2011, the first devices sprang up that are called FPGAs or Field Programmable Gate Arrays. These are nothing new to the hobbyist community, they've been around for a while for crackers and other security-conscious folks looking at ways to defeat cryptographic locks. Hey! I know something that uses cryptographic calculations to secure its network! BITCOINS! Yep, so some miners developed their own boards and slapped some FPGA chips on them (most commonly the Spartan-6), and wrote specific firmware and "bitstreams" to more efficiently calculate bitcoin hashes. The first generations were sort of slow, but still they had better efficiency than a GPU. Some of the latest generation included the Icarus boards, Cairnsmore, x6500, and ModMiner Quad.
In early 2012(i think my timeline is right), Butterfly Labs(BFL) was selling their own FPGA miner that hashed at 800 Mhash/s using 80 watts and only cost US$600 amazing! These grew very popular, but people could see that FPGAs still weren't the most efficient way to hash their shares. BFL then announced that they would be designing their own chips that would be orders of magnitude faster than anything ever seen. These would be the ASICs (or Application Specific Integrated Circuit)everyone is raving about. ASICs are--as the name implies--specifically designed for one thing, and one thing only. Bitcoins. This is all it can do, and can't really be repurposed like an FPGA to other applications. Who wouldn't want a US$150 "Jalapeno" that hashes at 3.5 GIGAhashes/s using only power from a USB port?? Crazy! So summer 2012, BFL says they will ship before Christmas. Various things happen and we now still don't have any confirmed ship dates from BFL.
A few other companies have sprouted up, ASICminer which I believe is developing their own chips to mine themselves, but in a responsible way as to not threaten the network with a sudden influx of hashing. bASIC was a fiasco that was developed by the creator of the ModMiner Quad(which is actually a fantastic miner, I own one, and love it.) where he took many preorders, promised lots of people amazing ASIC performance, but in early 2013 the stress of the whole endeavour got to him and he gave up, refunded money(I think it's still being refunded now, or maybe it's been cleared up already.)
Avalon is the only company we know has ASIC mining hardware in the wild. It is not certain exactly how many are out there, but they have been confirmed by independent sources. The Avalon units are expensive(75 BTC) and have been in limited production runs (or batches) of a few hundred units that were pre-sold out very quickly.
All of this info is gleaned from the Custom Hardware forum over at bitcointalk.org over the past year or so I've been involved in bitcoin. I may have some facts wrong, but this is the gist of the situation and hopefully gives you an insight on the state of the hardware war against bitcoin
Thanks for reading!
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