Electronic Design

$1 Arms And $20 Development Kits

2006 saw a trend of high-value development tools combined with low-cost microcontrollers. It began as a trickle, but now it's a flood of new technologies. And in between all of the announcements, two products really defined the trend—Luminary Micro's Stellaris and Texas Instruments' eZ430-F2013.

The Stellaris' new 32-bit Cortex M3 ARM architecture broke a major barrier with pricing around a dollar ( see " 32- Bit ARM MCU Hits One-Dollar Mark" at www.electronicdesign.com, ED Online 12358). It follows on the footsteps of the past two years, which saw standard 32-bit ARM microcontrollers become dominant factors in design.

Meanwhile, Luminary Micro's EKK-LM3S811 Evaluation Kit incorporates a JTAG emulator that can be used with off-board debugging (Fig. 1). It only costs $49. It's tough to find a JTAG emulator alone for that price!

Texas Instruments' $20 eZ430-F2013 development kit comes in a DVD box normally associated with movies (Fig. 2). Its USB stick includes a USB-based hardware debugger. The microcontrolleris found on a tiny removable board that can be plugged into an embedded system. As with the EKKLM3S811, the eZ430-F2013 debugger can be used with target systems as well.

These products are just the beginning. The 32-bit market will continue its march below $1, but 8- and 16-bit solutions won't be outdone. TI's development kit is based on the company's 16-bit MSP430. The big difference these days is that rarely will the low-cost development solutions lack a C or C/C++ compiler with a substantial integrated development environment like Eclipse or IAR's Embedded Workbench. There is also a wide range of opensource and royalty-free operating systems often found within a development kit.

Surveys have shown that development tools are the number one issue in choosing a new target platform. Movementto C is almost complete even in the 8-bit realm, making the hardware choice more of a peripheral and memory selection instead of bus width.

The quality of today's hardware and software in these packages and others like them is very impressive. Some, like the eZ430-F2013, even have books and coursework wrapped around them. This is important for high schools and colleges, but it's equally significant for engineers in the trenches.

Designers can afford the tools for continued learning as well as experimenting with platforms for new products. The integration of the kits reduces the time required to get started, and that can be one of the greatest benefits given how little time engineers have to spare.

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