Latest Micro Dev Kits Make For Too Many Toys, Too Little Time

Sept. 25, 2012
The plethora of development kits in the lab leads Technology Editor Bill Wong to lament that there is only 24 hours in the day.

Intel’s original 8-bit 8008 came in an 18-pin dual inline package (DIP), and it was the hot tech item when I was an electrical engineering student back at Georgia Tech. It only had a 14-bit address bus and would have gone nicely with the SRAM and EPROMs that I had on hand.

The 8008 was made available to students on allocation, but I never got my hands on one. I had to wait for the 8080 and Zilog’s Z80 before I could get a microcontroller, although I did get to work with the single-chip 8748. In the meantime it was mainframes, minicomputers, paper tape, and punch cards.

I don’t design hardware or develop software for commercial use anymore, but I try to keep my hands on hardware and software to track where the technology is going. Vendors are always happy to send stuff my way, and most of it winds up as door prizes at the nearby annual Trenton Computer Festival.

One of the latest arrivals was Eurotech’s EDCK4000, which links an Atom-based Helios to the Everyware Cloud 2.0 (see “Hands On The EDCK4000 Kit And The Everyware Cloud 2.0”). I had a Java app linked to a cloud-based service in an afternoon. It was more of a software exercise, but that tends to be the way most development and evaluation kits are these days.

Analoged And Armed

The Silicon Labs SiM Precision32 microcontroller kit is based on Arm’s popular Cortex-M3 (see “Precision Analog 32-Bit Micro Uses A Crossbar Interconnect”). The 32-bit micro has a neat crossbar switch for handling interface pins along with a pair of precision 10-bit digital-to-analog converters (DACs) and 12-bit analog-to-digital converters (ADCs). The development board provides headers for the digital and analog I/O and even has a touch slider on one side (Fig. 1).

1. Silicon Labs’ SiM Precision32 microcontroller development board includes a capacitive touch slider on the left and access to the analog signals in addition to all the digital ports.

The free Eclipse-based C/C++ development platform from Silicon Labs is first rate, but commercial integrated development environments (IDEs) based on Eclipse like Wind River’s tools are well worth the investment. The platform was a big help in terms of integration with the Eurotech kit. I was up and running with the Silicon Labs tools in under an hour, but the applications were dealing with I/O ports. Then again, that’s typically what this kind of platform is designed to handle, and it was a lot less expensive than the Eurotech kit.

Dual-Core Arm Plus FPGA

I’ve wanted to get my hands on Digilent’s ZedBoard, available from Avnet, for a while now, and I was eager to try it once it arrived (Fig. 2). Like the Eurotech and Silicon Labs kits, it was an out-of-the-box wonder. Linux comes installed on the Xilinx Zynq-7000 EPP (extensible processing platform) FPGA (see “FPGA Packs In Dual Cortex-A9 Micro”).

2. Digilent’s ZedBoard hosts Xilinx’s Zynq-7000, a dual-core ARM Cortex-A9 FPGA combination. It comes with Linux installed and supports Digilent’s Pmod expansion modules.

Yes, this FPGA has a dual-core Arm Cortex-A9 processor, and it runs Linux. It’s not bad as a dual-core micro, but the FPGA fabric and software make the difference. The kit includes Xilinx’s ISE WebPack software plus a version of ChipScope matched to the chip on the board.

The challenge is that gaining access to Linux is deceptively simple and powerful since downloading an application is easy. But the power of the system comes from the FPGA, and that takes a lot more design work. The tutorials are good, but dealing with an FPGA isn’t easy. Still, getting started is significantly easier with the platform, and the micros make connectivity a snap.

I expect to see more projects on the ZedBoard community site as these boards reach the market. Of all the platforms out there, the ZedBoard holds the most promise. This is one dev kit that will take a bit more time to check out.

Software development in general and even cloud-based service development tools are just a free download away for most smart phones and tablets, but it’s another thing to interact with your own hardware. That’s what makes these development kits so much fun in addition to useful commercially.

Now it’s time to get back to my iRobot Create, ROS, and the Gumstix TurtleCore (see “TurtleCore Tacks Cortex-A8 On To iRobot Create”). I’ve got too many toys and too little time.

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