August 28, 2008 -- Design at the logic level for board-level products is rare. If it canít be done with a microcontroller or two, then whatís a designer to do? FPGAs have been the answer for years, but FPGA tools required a steep learning curve. Likewise, FPGAs had a price premium and high power requirements, and external support requirements often proved challenging.
All of that has changed, though. Inexpensive FPGAs are now the norm. High-performance products remain pricey, but the bang for the buck is even higher. Low power has been the mantra for micros, and the same is true for FPGAs. Moreover, supporting an FPGA these days is a relatively simple design exercise.
That leaves the learning curve, where major improvements in FPGA development tools have made a significant difference. FPGA tool designers have been pressed to provide FPGA experts with the required functionality while delivering an interface that wonít send novices screaming for the exits.
So, the next challenge involves connecting the tools to the hardware, which can be met by combining the tools with a development board in a kit. These kits have been around since FPGAs first arrived, but the latest crop no longer leaves designers hanging with just development tools and a bare FPGA with a few LEDs and switches for peripherals.
Targeted kits now come with peripherals, such as digital cameras, and firmware and software to match. Some target soft-core solutions (see ďFPGAs Pushing MCUs As The Platform Of ChoiceĒ at www.electronicdesign.com, ED Online 19149), where software developers can join the fray with FPGAs already programmed with soft or hard cores plus the accompanying peripherals and even operating systems. ARMís own Cortex-M1 Development Kit targets Alteraís Cyclone III FPGA. The Cortex-M1 soft core is license-fee free on Alteraís line of products.
Still, designers need to consider their requirements and options. FPGA kits under $50 open FPGA development to virtually any designer, but beware the fine print, especially when it comes to software. The 30-day cutoff for some tools isnít nearly enough time to even move up the learning curve, let alone design a new product.
Similarly, free tools often lack the more advanced features of their premium-priced cousins. Software modules, middleware, and other intellectual property (IP) may also have hidden costs when it comes to actual deployment.
By William Wong, Electronic Design Staff Editor
This brief introduction has been excerpted from the original copyrighted article.
View the entire article on the Electronic Design Magazine website.