The ASIC (application-specific integrated circuit) wars are heating up. Butterfly Labs -- the US-based company that has been promising a low-powered, low-cost ASIC mining rig for months now -- has finally shipped one to a US blogger and bitcoin specialist.
Perry measured the unit hashing at 5 Ghashes/sec, with an energy consumption rate of 30 watts when working ... which is in line with Butterfly's specifications. The rig sucks up 13 watts when idle.
Perry, who had seen some initial designs for the Butterfly kit (he's known to the company as an active bitcoiner), says the initial specs for the Jalapeno called for a small, USB-powered device with a 2.5-watt load. The rig released this month, however, not only has a higher power load but comes with both a USB cable and its own power brick.
Perry says he was disappointed the device was larger than originally envisioned. (Butterfly Labs had initially promised something the size of a cup warmer, he says.)
Competing ASIC rig vendor Avalon, which offers its units on a per-batch basis and is in between batches right now, offers 60 Ghashes/sec with its device, which is the size of a desktop PC. Getting the same output with Butterfly's rig would require bolting 12 of the 5 Ghash/sec Jalapenos together ... which still makes the Butterfly unit a little more compact, although far from svelte.
What makes the Butterfly Labs unit more power efficient than Avalon's?
"The primary difference is the nm (nanometer) process of the chips," Perry tells CoinDesk. "The transistors in Avalon's chips are about twice the size of the ones on Butterfly Labs', which makes the device larger and causes it to consume more electricity and put off more heat."
Perry's early delivery was a one-off. Butterfly Labs says on its site that the ASIC mining units won't be shipping until later in April 2013, and orders will be processed on a first-come, first served basis. There is already a queue, and the firm predicts wait times of up to two months. (Butterfly Labs did not respond to several requests for comment early this week.)
This makes the hardware payback difficult to predict. At a BTC/USD exchange rate of $130, the 5, 25 and 50 Ghash/sec options on Butterfly Lab's website all offer roughly the same payback period of around seven t0 eight days (you can do the calculations yourself here or here). But who knows where the volatile currency will stand eight to 10 weeks from now?
"If I knew in January that it would (be) end of April and still no jalapeno, I wouldn't have bought one," said one impatient Butterfly Labs customer on the IRC chat for the BTC Guild mining pool. "Live and learn, I'll only order an ASIC now from someone that has them shipping."
The customer added, "If i had just bought a gpu with that $175, I would have mined 3+ btc by now with it, rather than having nothing to show for it other than promises of delivery."
Assuming he had a Radeon 7970, he's right (we checked). At today's BTC/USC rate, that device's payback is around 99 days at today's rates, even though the Radeon costs approximately $120 more than a 5 Ghash/sec Jalapeno. So the question is: do you want your mining rig now, or do you want it later, but better?
There could be a comfortable middle ground: Avalon accepted trade-ins on FPGA mining gear for its second ASIC batch. If it continues that policy, you could buy into the mining game with what's available now, and then upgrade later while minimizing your capital loss.
Unlike some, Perry doesn't think that ASICs will replace GPUs:
"I don't see GPU mining dying off, I see it migrating to Litecoin," he says. "I think FPGA may eventually fall off, but probably not from this generation of ASICs."
While he waits to see if that pans out, he's mining himself a nice little collection of bitcoins. Lucky for some.