Electronic Design

Sticking It To The Developer

Silicon Labs has generated a lot of interest with high-performance 8-bit microcontrollers, but it is now possible to develop software for the 8051 platform using the inexpensive ToolStick. This little marvel is the wave of the future for evaluation and initial development kits. It actually contains a pair of processors. One handles the USB and debugging interface for the second, an C8051F300 mixed-signal microcontroller. You get to program the latter. It effectively moves from the typical power brick, external JTAG-emulator-and-development-board combination to one plug-in device.

Just to prove the ToolStick has some viable alternatives as a product, Silicon Labs came out with its USB FM tuner (see the figure). Note the identical form factor, although the ToolStick does not include the FM tuner hardware. The ToolStick only has some LEDs it can blink under application control, but that should be enough to get started with the tools and the chip’s peripheral interface. A very ambitious person could crack the case and add some wires or additional circuitry. You just need to be very good with a very small soldering iron. Too bad they didn’t leave a couple of holes for this purpose.

Using the ToolStick could not be easier. It comes with a small radius CD ROM that includes the Silicon Laboratories Integrated Development Environment (IDE) plus Keil’s 8051 development tools. The C compiler, assembler, and linker tools are limited to 2 kbytes of code size. This is more than enough for the ToolStick and adequate for quite a number of applications.

I have already written up Keil’s tools in an earlier article (ED Online ID 11307) so I won’t go into detail here. Suffice it to say that Silicon Labs adds enough to its IDE to make customization of its microcontrollers easier while retaining the good qualities of Keil’s tools. You can upgrade the system when your programming needs grow.

Installation and operation with the ToolStick was one of the best of the bunch. Of course, having a known platform greatly simplifies the task. You will need a Windows PC with a USB 2.0 interface. It helps to have an extension cable (not included) so you can see the LEDs for the demos, but you can plug it in the back of the PC or laptop for development work.

The ToolStick acts like any normal USB device. Plug it in and pop in the accompanying CD when the ToolStick is detected by Windows. This installs the driver needed for the ToolStick as well as the development software. The defaults let you start up the test applications immediately, so you can hit the second development plateau in less than half an hour assuming you read some of the documentation. You can be up and programming your own code within an hour if you are familiar with C and check out some of the limitations on the C compiler. The 8051 is not that conducive to using C unless you stick to the basics. Of course, this is true for just about any 8-bit microcontroller.

Overall, the ToolStick is a very neat way to check out Silicon Lab’s 8051 and its toolset. It also has potential for use as a product, although you will have to build your own boards. I suspect that few would use the clear plastic case for a real product.

If you are looking to do 8-bit embedded work and have not done so before, this is a bargain. If you want to check out the features of Silicon Labs’ chips, then this is a very inexpensive way to do it. Either way, it gets my nod for a really neat product.

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