Electronic Design
Low-Cost Kits Make Evaluation Faster

Low-Cost Kits Make Evaluation Faster

Texas Instruments has been pushing low-cost evaluation kits for many years now. Its first eZ430 kit, the eZ430-F2013, was only $20 (see “$1 Arms And $20 Development Kit”). A later version, the eZ430-RF2500, added wireless support (see “RF Development Tool Fits On A USB Stick”).

The latest offering is the eZ430-Chronos (Fig. 1). It not only costs a low $49 (whenever they are in stock, as they go fast), it’s also essentially a reference design with a 96-segment LCD that can be used as a demo unit for a host of applications such as a sports watch or a remote-control device.

The eZ430-Chronos is built around the CC430 wireless microcontroller, so it drives the display and serves as a 915-MHz wireless communication link. The link can connect the watch to BMI’s wireless heartbeat monitor or other devices.

The kit comes with a pair of USB dongles. One is a wireless gateway that connects the eZ430-Chronos and a PC. The other is a program and debug unit that attaches to the module inside the watch.

The module must be removed for programming, but that is a relatively easy chore on the order of changing a watch battery. TI even included a small screwdriver and extra screws. The module also includes a temperature, pressure, and three-axis accelerometer. And, it can track battery voltage.

The cost is low given the hardware, but the kit comes with a complete software complement as well. You have a choice of using IAR Kickstart or the Eclipse-based Code Composer Studio. Both support  an assembler, linker, simulator, source-level debugger, and code-limited C-compiler.

Overall, the eZ430-Chronos is one slick platform. But TI isn’t alone in pushing this part of the market.

OTHER KEY KITS

Arrow Electronics created the BeMicro in conjunction with Altera (Fig. 2). Altera’s Cyclone III FPGA is at the core of this USB-based system, which can host the NIOS II 32-bit soft-core processor.

Altera and other FPGA vendors have made significant gains in ease of use with their development tools, especially with respect to soft-core platforms, allowing software developers to tackle FPGA designs without a tremendous amount of training.

That isn’t to say that FPGA experts are out of work. Rather, they now have a wider range of supporters. This is likely to make FPGA intellectual property (IP) more interesting to more developers, so expect to find more FPGAs being deployed than ever before.

The BeMicro has almost a dozen LEDs, but its 80-pin edge connector will interest most developers. The USB interface can be used for programming and debugging, though the unit can also plug into your board and run on its own. 

Digilent’s Cerebot is a more conventional evaluation platform that hosts the 32-bit MIPS-based Microchip PIC32 (Fig. 3). Its nine PMod connectors support modules ranging from an H-Bridge to LCDs. The 12-pin or six-pin headers on the PMod modules can be connected to the Cerebot via ribbon cables. While it makes a great platform for robotics, it handles prototyping chores as well.

The system has 512 kbytes of flash, 32 kbytes of RAM, electrostatic-discharge and short-circuit protection on all I/O, and a USB interface for programming and debugging in addition to an OTG USB interface for the PIC32 itself. The Cerebot comes with Microchip’s MPLAB development tools (see “Good Things Come In Round Packages”).

Another slick eval kit is Cypress Semiconductor’s First Touch Start Kit with CyFi Low-Power RF (Fig. 4). The 8051-based PSoC 3 supports multiple-touch technologies like the CapSense slider in addition to wireless capabilities (see “Field-Programmable I/O Augments 8- And 32-Bit Microcontrollers”).

Also, the PSoC line includes an 80-MHz ARM-based PSoC 5. The PSoC family is built around FPGA-like analog and digital programmable logic device (PLD) modules that are configured at run time. This provides PSoC designers with a flexibility not available with other microcontrollers that is significantly easier to use than FPGAs.

PSoC Creator, the PSoC development tool, is included with the kit as well. It is used to configure the digital and analog blocks. This is typically done by selecting predefined devices such as an I2C master or an 8-bit analog-to-digital converter (ADC).

Chips are rarely released without an evaluation kit or reference design. Just make sure to take a close look, because not all kits are created equal.

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