Electronic Design

EiED Online>> FPGA 3: Actel ProASIC Starter Kit

ProASIC3 Starter Kit is designed for developers targeting the ProASIC3/E family from Actel. The development board (see see the figure) contains an A3PE250 device in a PQ208 package. The board in the advanced version of the kit has a socket for the FPGA allowing different chips to be employed. This version comes with a 600K-gate A3PE600 chip. At $249, the kit is a good buy since it also includes a Gold version of Actel’s Libero IDE.

The board provides -board voltage regulation for 1.5V, 1.8V, 2.5V and 3.3V supplies and the I/O voltage can be set to either 2.5V or 3.3V. There is an on-board oscillator and PLLs. The board has eight LEDs, four switches, and two rotary switches that are enabled via jumpers. There is a single-line LCD display module. A pair of CAT5E RJ45 connectors provide external access to the high-speed LVDS communications capability of the ProASIC3/E devices. Headers allow the USB-based FlashPro3 JTAG emulator to be used with the board alone or in a daisy-chained fashion for more complex designs. The kit includes all required cables, power supplies and schematics.

Getting Started With The Kit
The board is pre-programmed with an application that cycles through the LEDs and scrolls a message across the LCD display. This is enough to show that the board works but not much else.

The kit comes with Actel’s Libero Integrated Design Environment (IDE) Gold version on CD and a starter kit CD that includes the kit’s schematics and spec sheets for the ProASIC3 family. There is an online and printed User Guide and Tutorial that provided a step-by-step process for installing the software and getting a simple application running on the FPGA.

The Libero CD that comes with the kit includes the IDE and the Designer tools that provide HDL and RTL development, programming and debugging support. The full versions add the ViewDraw AE Schematic Capture, Synplicity Synplify AE synthesis tool, Synplicity Identify AE Debugger, Mentor Graphics ModelSim AE simulator, SynaptiCAD WaveFormer Lite AE testbench generator, Actel Designer for design implementation, Actel FlashPro and ChainBuilder programming tools, and Actel Silicon Explorer II silicon debugger.

The IDE integrates this wide range of Actel and 3rd party options. Most are well hidden or integrated but there are some minor seams that come from using tools that are provided by another vendor.

The tutorial in the User’s Guide was easy to follow although it does not cover all the software that is available under Libero. Still, it is more than enough to continue development assuming you are versed in VHDL.

The tutorial starts by creating a new project. Luckily tutorial is in PDF from because the first thing you need to do is cut and paste some sample code into the project. It would be nicer to have half a dozen projects already built that could be customized instead.

The process can take a couple hours depending upon what you do and it is pretty comprehensive in introduction to areas of the IDE although not in depth. It does address simulation, layout and synthesis followed by programming using the FlashPro JTAG unit.

Actel’s toolset is comprehensive and sophisticated although its tutorial could use a little work. Designers with FPGA expertise at the Verilog, VHDL or RTL level will be quite comfortable although attending a training session on the software is well worth the cost in time and money. The ViewDraw AE schematic-based design entry system from Mentor Graphics and integrated with the Libero IDE will be the design tool of choice for developers who would rather not deal with VHDL directly. ViewDraw AE also handles HDL blocks in addition to predefined symbolic blocks.

Getting to know the in’s and out’s of Libero and its components can be a major task although the payoff can be significant. For example, the Actel ChainBuilder allows in-system programming (ISP) of Actel and non-Actel parts. This is critical in more complex systems that are built from a number of different components from different vendors.

Other FPGA Development Options
Actel has a number of other development and evaluation kits that I did not get a chance to try out. One interesting one is the CoreMP7 Development Kit that has an A3PE600 chip and peripheral connections, such as Ethernet, that is more suitable for a processor-based solution. It works with Actel’s CoreConsole tool for configuring the ARM7TDMI-S-based soft core. The 32-bit architecture supports the 32-bit ARMv4T instruction set and the 16-bit Thumb instruction set. The design has been optimized for Actel flash-based M7 devices and makes all I/Os are accessible to the user. An Eclipse-based IDE provides a software development environment.

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