The three platforms that were tops in the digital arena share one thing in common: a new approach to a common set of problems. On the FPGA side, we have Actel’s SmartFusion FPGA (Fig. 1). On the microcontroller side, we have a pair of winners that target different spaces.
The first is Intel’s E6xx (Fig. 2). Formally known as Tunnel Creek, it foregoes a proprietary bus and goes for the latest PCI Express standard. Next, NXP’s LPC4000 series grafts a Cortex-M4 digital signal controller (DSC) with a tiny Cortex-M0 (Fig. 3).
Even these solutions are likely to bump into each other when a designer is choosing a platform. SmartFusion is great for motor and power control, but so is the LPC4000. All three can handle a range of industrial control applications.
Actel’s SmartFusion has a 100-MHz, hard-core Cortex-M3 with the usual microcontroller peripheral set including 10/100 Ethernet (see “FPGA Combines Hard-Core Cortex-M3 And Analog Peripherals”).
The flash-based FPGA is up and running with the micro, but it isn’t the only customizable part of the system. The 350-MHz system can have up to 500k lookup tables (LUTs) and 128 I/O pins.
The analog compute engine (ACE) is impressive in its breadth and programmability. It can handle up to 35 analog inputs and three outputs. It also has 12-bit successive approximation register (SAR) digital-to-analog converters (DACs) and sigma-delta DACs.
All three of the components can operate independently as well as in synch with each other. It is even possible to drop in a soft-core processor in the FPGA for more compute power.
Embedded Atom Boards PCI Express
Intel’s E6xx microcontroller can boot from its own serial peripheral interface (SPI). It also has a DDR2 memory controller on-chip along with audio and 2D/3D video support (see “Tunnel Creek Takes A Number”).
What is missing is peripheral support. For that, developers can connect a range of devices using the PCI Express x1 links.
One of the links could be used with Intel’s EG20T Platform Controller Hub (PCH) or similar devices available from third parties. For many applications, these multifunction solutions are ideal. For other applications, the peripheral complement may be much different yet easily handled by this Atom processor.
Asymmetric, Dual-re Core micro
NXP’s LPC4000 asymmetrical dual core lets designers use the Cortex-M4 digital signal controller (DSC) for heavy lifting, while the Cortex-M0 handles control and communication chores (see “Asymmetric Microcontroller Combines Cortex-M4 And M0” at www.electronicdesign.com).
The Cortex-M0 can run alone and shut down its sibling or even run it at a near-dc clock rate for impressive power savings. It also can access shared peripherals, but it has a dedicated suite of peripherals as well, including the serial general-purpose I/O (SGPIO) unit.
The SGPIO turns bit-banging peripherals from a CPU-intensive job into a low-overhead, very configurable task that allows the lowly Cortex-M0 to handle up to 16 serial channels. It can also use this interface to provide a high-speed link to a device like an FPGA.
The best of 2010 look to be a good base for building applications in 2011.