A Raspberry Pi In An FPGA

Somehow or another, the Raspberry Pi has become a standardized form factor for single board computers. There are now Raspberry Pi-shaped objects that can do anything, and between the Odroid and bizarre Intel Atom-powered boards, everything you could ever want is now packaged into something that looks like a Raspberry Pi.

Except for one thing, of course, and that’s where [antti.lukats]’s entry for the 2016 Hackaday Prize comes in. He’s creating a version of the Raspberry Pi based on a chip that combines a fast ARM processor and an FPGA in one small package. It’s called the ZynqBerry and will, assuredly, become one of the best platforms to learn FPGA trickery on.

Xilinx’ Zynq comes with a dual-core ARM Cortex A9 running around 1GHZ, and from that fact alone should be about comparable to the original Raspberry Pi. Also inside the Zynq SoC is a very capable FPGA that [antti] is using to drive HDMI at 60hz, and can stream video from a Raspberry Pi camera to a display.

Last year for the Hackaday Prize, [antti] presented some very cool stuff, including a tiny FPGA development board no bigger than a DIP-8 chip. He’s hackaday.io’s resident FPGA wizard, and the ZynqBerry is the culmination of a lot of work over the past year or so. While it’s doubtful it will be as powerful as the latest Raspberry Pis and Pi clones, this is a phenomenal piece of work that puts an interesting twist on the usual FPGA development boards.

The HackadayPrize2016 is Sponsored by:

When Difference Matters: Differential Signaling

We have talked about a whole slew of logic and interconnect technologies including TTL, CMOS and assorted low voltage versions. All of these technologies have in common the fact that they are single-ended, i.e. the signal is measured as a “high” or “low” level above ground.

This is great for simple uses. But when you start talking about speed, distance, or both, the single ended solutions don’t look so good. To step in and carry the torch we have Differential Signalling. This is the “DS” in LVDS, just one of the common standards throughout industry. Let’s take a look at how differential signaling is different from single ended, and what that means for engineers and for users.

Single Ended

Collectively, standards like TTL, CMOS, and LVTTL are known as Single Ended technologies and they have in common some undesirable attributes, namely that ground noise directly affects the noise margin (the budget for how much noise is tolerable) as well as any induced noise measured to ground directly adds to the overall noise as well.

By making the voltage swing to greater voltages we can make the noise look smaller in proportion but at the expense of speed as it takes more time to make larger voltage swings, especially with the kind of capacitance and inductance we sometimes see.

Differential

diff4

Enter Differential Signaling where we use two conductor instead of one. A differential transmitter produces an inverted version of the signal and a non-inverted version and we measure the desired signal strictly between the two instead of to ground. Now ground noise doesn’t count (mostly) and noise induced onto both signal lines gets canceled as we only amplify the difference between the two, we do not amplify anything that is in common such as the noise.

Continue reading “When Difference Matters: Differential Signaling”

Crawl, Walk, Run: Planning Your First CPU Design

I’ve worked with a lot of students who want to program computers. In particular, a lot of them want to program games. However, when they find out that after a few weeks of work they won’t be able to create the next version of Skyrim or Halo, they often get disillusioned and move on to other things. When I was a kid, if you could get a text-based Hi-Lo game running, you were a wizard, but clearly the bar is a lot higher than it used to be. Think of the “Karate Kid”–he had to do “wax on, wax off” before he could get to the cool stuff. Same goes for a lot of technical projects, programming or otherwise.

I talk to a lot of people who are interested in CPU design, and I think there’s quite a bit of the same problem here, as well. Today’s commercial CPUs are huge beasts, with sophisticated memory subsystems, instruction interpreters, and superscalar execution. That’s the Skyrim of CPU design. Maybe you should start with something simpler. Sure, you probably want to start learning Verilog or VHDL with even simpler projects. But the gulf between an FPGA PWM generator and a full-blown CPU is pretty daunting.

Continue reading “Crawl, Walk, Run: Planning Your First CPU Design”

Coleco Chameleon is a Kickstarter Scam

Retro gaming consoles exploded with the introduction of the Raspberry Pi and other similar single-board Linux computers. They all work the same way in that they emulate the original game console hardware with software. The game ROM is then dumped to a file and will play like the original. While this works just fine for the vast majority of us who want to get a dose of nostalgia as we chase the magic 1-up mushroom, gaming purists are not satisfied. They can tell the subtle differences between emulation and real hardware. And this is where our story begins.

Meet the Coleco Chameleon. What appears to be just another run-of-the-mill retro gaming console is not what you think. It has an FPGA core that replicates the actual hardware, to the delight of hardcore retro game scam_04enthusiasts around the world. To get it to the masses, they started an ambitious 2 million US dollar Indiegogo campaign, which has unfortunately come to a screeching halt.

Take a close look at the header image. That blue circuit board in there is nothing but an old PCI TV tuning card. To make matters worse, it also appears that their prototype system which was displayed at the Toy Fair in New York was just the guts of an SNES Jr stuffed into their shell.

This scam is clearly busted. However, the idea of reconstructing old gaming console hardware in an FPGA is a viable proposition, and there is demand for such a device from gaming enthusiasts. We can only hope that the owners of the Coleco Chameleon Kickstarter campaign meant well and slipped up trying to meet demand. If they can make a real piece of hardware, it would be welcomed.

Does the World Need an FPGA Arduino?

What would you get it you mashed up an FPGA and an Arduino? An FPGA development board with far too few output pins? Or a board in the form-factor of Arduino that’s impossible to program?

Fortunately, the ICEZUM Alhambra looks like it’s avoided these pitfalls, at least for the most part. It’s based on the Lattice iCE40 FPGA, which we’ve covered previously a number of times because of its cheap development boards and open-source development flow. Indeed, we were wondering what the BQ folks were up to when they were working on an easy-to-use GUI for the FPGA family. Now we know — it’s the support software for an FPGA “Arduino”.

Icezum-rev1-1607-img1-peq_thumbnail

The Alhambra board itself looks to be Arduino-compatible, with the horrible gap between the rows on the left-hand-side and all, so it will work with your existing shields. But they’ve also doubled them with pinheaders in a more hacker-friendly layout: SVG — signal, voltage, ground. This is great for attaching small, powered sensors using a three-wire cable like the one that you use for servos. (Hackaday.io has two Arduino clones using SVG pinouts: in SMT and DIP formats.)

The iCE40 FPGA has 144 pins, so you’re probably asking yourself where they all end up, and frankly, so are we. There are eight user LEDs on the board, plus the 28 I/O pins that end in pinheaders. That leaves around a hundred potential I/Os unaccounted-for. One of the main attractions of FPGAs in our book is the tremendous availability of fast I/Os. Still, it’s more I/O than you get on a plain-vanilla Arduino, so we’re not complaining too loudly. Sometimes simplicity is a virtue. Everything’s up on GitHub, but not yet ported to KiCad, so you can tweak the hardware if you’ve got a copy of Altium.

We’ve been seeing FPGA projects popping up all over, and with the open-source toolchains making them more accessible, we wonder if they will get mainstreamed; the lure of reconfigurable hardware is just so strong. Putting an FPGA into an Arduino-compatible form-factor and backing it with an open GUI is an interesting idea. This project is clearly in its very early stages, but we can’t wait to see how it shakes out. If anyone gets their hands on these boards, let us know, OK?

Thanks [RS] for the tip!

A Better Way to Plug a CPLD into a Breadboard

If you read my first post about a simple CPLD do-it-yourself project you may remember that I seriously wiffed when I made the footprint 1” wide, which was a bit too wide for common solderless breadboards. Since then I started over, having fixed the width problem, and ended up with a module that looks decidedly… cuter.

To back up a little bit, a Complex Programmable Logic Device (CPLD) is a cool piece of hardware to have in your repertoire and it can be used to learn logic or a high level design language or replace obsolete functions or chips. But a CPLD needs a little bit of support infrastructure to become usable, and that’s what I’ll be walking you through here. So if you’re interested in learning CPLDs, or just designing boards for them, read on!

Continue reading “A Better Way to Plug a CPLD into a Breadboard”

Sort Faster with FPGAs

Sorting. It’s a classic problem that’s been studied for decades, and it’s a great first step towards “thinking algorithmically.” Over the years, a handful of sorting algorithms have emerged, each characterizable by it’s asymptotic order, a measure of how much longer an algorithm takes as the problem size gets bigger. While all sorting algorithms take longer to complete the more elements that must be sorted, some are slower than others.

For a sorter like bubble sort, the time grows quadradically longer for a linear increase in the number of inputs; it’s of order O(N²).With a faster sorter like merge-sort, which is O(N*log(N)), the time required grows far less quickly as the problem size gets bigger. Since sorting is a bit old-hat among many folks here, and since O(N*log(N)) seems to be the generally-accepted baseline for top speed with a single core, I thought I’d pop the question: can we go faster?

In short — yes, we can! In fact, I’ll claim that we can sort in linear time, i.e a running time of O(N). There’s a catch, though: to achieve linear time, we’ll need to build some custom hardware to help us out. In this post, I’ll unfold the problem of sorting in parallel, and then I”ll take us through a linear-time solution that we can synthesize at home on an FPGA.

Need to cut to the chase? Check out the full solution implemented in SystemVerilog on GitHub. I’ve wrapped it inside an SPI communication layer so that we can play with it using an everyday microcontroller.

To understand how it works, join us as we embark on an adventure in designing algorithms for hardware. If you’re used to thinking of programming in a stepwise fashion for a CPU, it’s time to get out your thinking cap!

Continue reading “Sort Faster with FPGAs”