What CPU Does the Raspberry Pi Use?

The Raspberry Pi is one of the most popular single-board computers (SBCs). It can perform complex tasks such as programming, IoT projects, and setting up media servers, among many others. But what CPU does this card-sized device use?

The Raspberry Pi uses an ARM processor, which comes in various architectures for different Raspberry Pi models. They include ARMv6, ARMv7, and ARMv8-A.

I know some of those terms can be confusing especially when looking at which ARM CPU is 32-bit or 64-bit. I will start by demystifying the difference between the ARM CPU and the x86 CPU that you would find in most laptops and then narrow down to the specifications, advantages and limitations of the ARM CPU.

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Introducing the ARM processor

Two main CPUs run the digital world:

  • ARM: Advanced RISC Machines
  • x86/x86-64: Intel and AMD

The ARM CPU belongs to a family of Reduced Instruction Set Computing (RISC) architectures for computer processors. These processors are popularly known for their power efficiency and great performance. They are widely used in mobile devices, embedded systems, and single-board computers like the Raspberry Pi.

However, the ARM processor has also found its way into the laptop world. Apple released the M1 and M2 chips, based on ARM architecture, to replace the Intel Core i7 processors previously used to power the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air.

Tip: While the ARM processors used in the Raspberry Pi and Apple’s M1/M2 chips share the same fundamental architecture, there are significant differences in their design, performance, and capabilities.

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The x86 CPU, on the other hand, belongs to a family of Complex Instruction Set Computing (CISC) architectures. This CPU is dominant in desktop and laptop computers, servers, and high-performance workstations and is known for its performance and compatibility with a wide range of software.

Key differences between ARM and x86

The ARM architecture and x86 architecture represent two different approaches to processor design:

Instruction Set:

  • ARM uses a RISC architecture, which means it has a smaller set of simpler instructions. This allows for faster execution and greater efficiency.
  • x86 uses a CISC architecture, which has a larger set of more complex instructions. This can speed up certain operations but generally at the cost of greater power consumption.

Power Consumption

  • ARM processors are designed to be highly power-efficient, which is why they are commonly found in smartphones, tablets, single-board computers (Raspberry Pi) and other portable devices.
  • x86 processors, while powerful, tend to consume more power, making them more suitable for desktops and laptops where power consumption is less of a concern.

Performance:

  • ARM processors are highly efficient at handling many lightweight tasks simultaneously, making them excellent for multitasking and running modern, lightweight operating systems.
  • x86 processors excel in multi-threaded performance and can handle demanding tasks like high-end gaming, video editing, and complex scientific computations.

Here is a summary of the main differences between ARM and x86:

ARMx86
Instruction setSmaller set, simplerLarger set, more complex
PerformanceFaster execution, more efficient with light tasksSpeed up certain operations (multithreaded and more demanding tasks)
Power consumptionHighly efficientConsume more power
Used inRaspberry Pi, smartphones, tablets and recent MacBooksMost desktops and laptops

Efficiency and power consumption for ARM processors

One key advantage of ARM processors over CPU is efficiency and power consumption. They are designed to perform with less power, making them ideal for low-power devices that require fewer transistors and simpler instructions compared to the CISC architecture of x86 processors.

This efficiency means lower power consumption and heat generation, making ARM ideal for battery-powered devices like smartphones, tablets and single-board computers such as the Raspberry Pi.

This results in significantly longer battery life and cooler operation.

Tip: The above explanation may have answered the common question – Why don’t phones and tablets come with built-in cooling fans? That’s because they use chips that require less power and generate less heat.

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The architecture used on each Raspberry Pi model

Up to this point, I believe you have a good understanding of the ARM processor. But like the x86 processor, the ARM processor comes in different variants for different Raspberry Pi boards. Let’s have a look at them.

ARMv6 (used in Raspberry Pi 1 and Pi Zero)

  • Instruction Set: ARMv6 is an older 32-bit instruction set architecture used in the first releases of the Raspberry Pi – Raspberry Pi 1 and Pi Zero.
  • Single-Core: The ARMv6 typically supports single-core CPUs, meaning it can only handle one processing thread at a time. This limitation restricts the CPU’s ability to perform multiple tasks simultaneously, resulting in lower overall processing power.

ARMv7 (used in Raspberry Pi 2)

  • Instruction Set: The ARMv7 is a more advanced 32-bit instruction set architecture compared to ARMv6. It features a more sophisticated 32-bit instruction set, which enhances the CPU’s capabilities in terms of processing complex instructions and executing tasks more efficiently.
  • Multi-Core: Unlike the ARMv6 which was single-core, the ARMv7 supports multi-core CPUs. It enables the Raspberry Pi 2 to utilize multiple processing cores simultaneously allowing for parallel processing of tasks, resulting in improved overall performance.
  • Backward Compatibility: The ARMv7 can run software code written for ARMv6 without any modification while benefiting from the improved performance and features of ARMv7.

ARMv8-A (used in Raspberry Pi 3, 4/400 and 5)

  • Instruction Set: The ARMv8-A is a 64-bit instruction set architecture, providing significant improvements over both ARMv6 and ARMv7.
  • 64-bit Processing: It supports 64-bit processing, allowing for more memory addressing and improved performance for applications that utilize 64-bit operations.
  • Backward Compatibility: Despite the ARMv8 being a 64-bit CPU, it allows running both 64-bit and 32-bit applications. You can even install a 32-bit operating system like Raspbian without any issues.

Note: The Raspberry Pi 5 uses the instruction set ARMv8.2-A, including a few enhancements.

Bonus Tip: How to check the CPU Architecture on your Raspberry Pi

As mentioned in the previous section, Raspberry Pi CPUs are 32-bit or 64-bit.

To determine the exact architecture of your Raspberry Pi, launch the Terminal and run any of the following commands:
uname -m
or:
lscpu

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You should get one of the outputs below:

  • 32-bit:
    • armv6l
    • armv7l
    • armhf
  • 64-bit:
    • arm64
    • armv8
    • aarch64

But there is a catch. What if your Raspberry Pi CPU is 64-bit but you installed a 32-bit operating system? What output will you get?

I have had this issue with my Raspberry Pi 4B. It uses a 64-bit processor but when I use the lscpu command to check for architecture, it will show armv7l which is 32-bit. I later realised that’s because I was running Raspbian which is a 32-bit OS. Therefore, when checking for CPU architecture, I advise you to stick to the uname -m command.

Are you a bit lost in the Linux command line? Check this article first for the most important commands to remember and a free downloadable cheat sheet so you can have the commands at your fingertips.

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Constraints and limitations of the Raspberry Pi CPU architecture

Despite the Raspberry Pi CPU architecture being efficient and suitable for various tasks, it comes with certain limitations. These include performance constraints, compatibility issues, and thermal and power management challenges.

Performance limitations

The first limitation you will notice is in terms of performance and computing. There are certain things that you might never do with the Raspberry Pi model you own because of two things:

  • Threading
  • Clock speed

Let me explain that further.

The Raspberry Pi excels in single-threaded tasks. However, even the latest releases like the Raspberry Pi 4 and 5 might struggle with demanding multi-threaded applications due to their lower clock speeds and fewer cores compared to high-end desktop CPUs.

For example, if you attempted to run commercial software like Adobe Premiere Pro on a Raspberry Pi, even if you managed to install it, the software would likely freeze or hang due to the intensive processing and multi-threading demands that exceed the Raspberry Pi’s capabilities.

Related: 17 Best Apps to Use a Raspberry Pi as a Desktop PC

Compatibility issues

The other noticeable limitation is the software compatibility between the two CPUs – ARM and X86. Many applications are designed for x86 architecture and may not run natively on ARM processors.

While you can go ahead and recompile or emulate some of these software, you will still face some performance issues and may not support all features.

There are some workarounds, like using Wine to run Windows programs, but this limitation is big for most users.

Thermal and power constraints

As we have discussed above, ARM CPUs are known to generate less heat than x86 CPUs. However, in the case of Raspberry Pi, cooling can still be a concern especially if you are working on a resource-intensive project.

Effective heat dissipation solutions, such as heat sinks or fans, are sometimes necessary to maintain performance and prevent thermal throttling.

Unlike the normal x86 desktop CPUs, ARM CPUs consume significantly less power making them ideal for small devices.

However, this power efficiency feature comes at the cost of raw performance limiting the Raspberry Pi’s ability to handle power-intensive applications as effectively as desktop computers.

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