Two New Dev Boards That Won’t Make Your Wallet Hurt-So-Good

If you’ve been keeping up with the hobbyist FPGA community, you’ll recognize the DE0 Nano as “that small form-factor FPGA” with a deep history of projects from Oldland cpu cores to synthesizable Parallax Propeller processors. After more than four years in the field though, it’s about time for a reboot.

Its successor, the DE0 Nano SoC, is a complete redesign from multiples perspectives while doing it’s best to preserve the bite-size form factor and price that made the first model so appealing. First, the dev board boasts a Cyclone V with 40,000 logical elements (up from the DE0’s 22K) and an integrated dual-core Arm Cortex A9 Processor. The PCB layout also brings us  3.3V Arduino shield compatibility via female headers, 1 Gig of external DDR3 SDRAM and gigabit ethernet support via two onboard ASICs to handle the protocol. The folks at Terasic also seem to be tipping their hats towards the “Duino-Pi” hobbyist community, given that they’ve kindly provided both Linux and Arduino images to get you started a few steps above your classic finite-state machines and everyday combinational logic.

And while the new SoC model sports a slightly larger form factor at 68.59mm x 96mm (as opposed to the original’s 49mm x 75.2mm), we’d say it’s a small price to pay in footprint for a whirlwind of new possibilities on the logic level. The board hits online shelves now at a respectable $100.

Next, as a heads-up, the aforementioned Arduino Zero finally makes it’s release on June 15. If you’ve ever considered taking the leap from an 8-bit to a 32-bit processor without having to hassle through the setup of an ARM toolchain, now might be a great time to get started.

via [the Arduino Blog]

48 thoughts on “Two New Dev Boards That Won’t Make Your Wallet Hurt-So-Good

  1. FPGAs are something I have been wanting to play with for a while now. I have some experiments that I want to do with radiation hardened memory and FPGAs seem to be one of the cheapest and best ways to mitigate the associated problems. While this is good news, I don’t know if this is the one I will choose. The one I have my eye on is less than half the price, and since it’s my first, there’s plenty I still need to learn before I move on up. I’m gonna do some more research anyway tho

    1. Which one do you have in mind? Keep in mind that in opposite to cheap ebay FPGA boards DE0-Nano and its successor are much larger density devices. At some point you may lack LEs when your design gets more complex.

      1. I want to learn mechanics by taking something apart and putting it back together.

        Should I start with: –
        1) A bicycle
        2) A Medical grade life support system
        3) A space shuttle

      2. https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/B00LEMKR92/ref=aw_wl_ov_dp_1_12?colid=2KKSOJGPRFBV&coliid=I2FQNAC16EJ8HF

        This is the one that currently has my eye. Less than thirty dollars, decent amount of gates and I/O. The only downside I can see is having to use an external programmer, but it’s less than ten dollars. It’s a good starter from my point of view, but I don’t have any experience. Let me know if you think there’s something better out there to start out on

        1. Excellent choice.

          Why bust the bank with has all the bells and whistles if the bells and whistles are only going make the learning process harder.

          The Altera USB Blaster is under $10 while the Xilinx download cable is around $40.

          You don’t need a schematic or constraints file as is it all in the silk screen (except the clock pin used by the oscillator). Though a schematic always helps. Anyway this is a common board so there will be a schematic out there somewhere.

          If you know how use a soldering iron or breadboard and are happy to add hardware as you go, then you have the advantage of not being trapped into the hardware attached to more expensive kits. Just remember that the chip is not 5 Volt tolerant so work wit 3v3 stuff.

          Next steps –
          . order board
          . download the Altera IDE. I use Quartus for older chips but not sure which (free) one you need.
          . get registration key (this is a pain for everyone so install the software and key straight away even before the board arrives. Use flame thrower to write registration key on wall (seriously you don’t want to loose it!). Also requires a very large wall.
          . download a tutorial that is specific to the Altera IDE it’s a (little) bit quirky to start, like how to add VHDL file and you have to use pin config manager for constraints at least to start with.
          . dowload a VHDL tutorial.

        2. Yeah, those Cyclone-II boards are cheap and use an older FPGA, but seem to work nicely. If you need project ideas or examples for that board, you can check out https://hackaday.com/2014/02/17/a-pick-and-mix-fpga-retrocomputer/

          You might also consider $30 Lattice MachXO2-7000 dev board (with integrated JTAG and FTDI UART (with addition of a few 0-ohm resistors). http://www.latticesemi.com/en/Products/DevelopmentBoardsAndKits/MachXO2BreakoutBoard.aspx

          Also http://hamsterworks.co.nz/mediawiki/index.php/Main_Page is another great site for FPGA projects and information.

        3. Be aware that the Cyclone II isn’t supported beyond version 13.1 of the Quartus IDE, and that board has nothing but an FPGA and a clock crystal (which may be fine, depending on what you want to do with it).
          You don’t need to spend a lot extra for something more capable. For example http://www.ebay.com/itm/Altera-Cyclone-IV-FPGA-Development-Board-EP4CE6E22C8N-20-days-promotion-/271434726780?pt=LH_DefaultDomain_0&hash=item3f32c53d7c gives you RAM, flash ROM, VGA out and keyboard in, in addition to a newer Cyclone IV chip.

        4. I’m also a newbie in FPGAs and I’d like to start off with something reasonably powerful, cheap and easy to use.

          I was considering this Xilinx Spartan 6 for US$31 (which already comes with USB to UART):
          http://www.ebay.com/itm/111640406811?_trksid=p2055119.m1438.l2649&ssPageName=STRK%3AMEBIDX%3AIT

          For the ones who have more knowledge about FPGAs, would this option be easier/more powerful than the Cyclone II mentioned by j0z0r? Would you recommend something else?

          (I did a bit of googling and figured maybe Altera has better tools and Lattice might have the best cost-benefit ratio, but the source is not up-to-date: http://www.fpgadeveloper.com/2011/07/list-and-comparison-of-fpga-companies.html )

          1. There is nothing written on the ebay page that says it can be programmed with the on-board USB to UART. It is possible that they have the software to do that but I would check. If not then you need the $40 Xilinx download cable (JTAG).

          2. @Rob
            Ouch. Well, that’s steep. I suppose that ain’t the best option, given the Cyclone II mentioned by j0z0r might only require a $10 cable. Would you advise me to stick to that Cyclone II, or would you have another suggestion in terms of cost/benefit which is also easy for beginners and somewhat powerful? :P

          3. Well FPGA aside. What you want to learn is VHDL or (Verilog). These can be copy and pasted from the Xilinx ISE to the Atera IDE and vice versa.

            If you are happy to have a basic board and willing to add features yourself then perhaps start with an Altera USB Blaster <$10 and a CPLD board. The language is the same for CPLD as it is for FPGA and you use the same design environment. CPLD's are much cheaper so you can save your money and spend it when you have a better idea of what you want or need. What you may want later is very much a personal preference ie there is no 'ideal' preference.

            CPLD's have far far less gates (logic elements/cells/register) so you will soon use it to capacity but it's not a bad thing to learn how to reduce the logic element requirement of a design to fit it into a smaller chip.

            I see Altera CPLD boards (search for Altera CPLD) on ebay for < $10. That's $10 for the USB blaster that you would have to spend anyway and <$10 for a board that you can through in the bin after you have learnt the basics without breaking the bank. But seriously – you'll find some use for it after your learning is done. The point is that it a small investment.

            One that catches my eye is the MAX II EPM240 or 570 boards. The good thing about these is that they're 5 Volt tolerant so you can add practically any hardware you want. The 240 / 570 are about 190 / 360 registers which is enough to do things like VGA output but definitely not enough to put a simple computer system into. CPLD's also don't have any Block RAM (B RAM) like FPGA's but you can add an external SRAM chip.

            Anyway that is my 'opinion' it's definitely not the best option if you want the most 'Bank for Buck' but I believe it's a better choice for a beginners because is simpler. You can look at the architecture of a CPLD on the datasheet and understand it. FPGA's can be overwhelming to start with.

            I have some projects that use CPLD here –
            https://hackaday.io/project/3610-z80-retro-computer-with-graphics
            https://hackaday.io/project/5565-trs-80-compatible-clone
            I would be happy to answer any question you have later on.

            PS: When you do decide on a chip do read the datasheet (RTFM) it won't all make sense at first but you will get to a point where you can correlate what you are doing with code to what's happening in the chip. This is an important step that wont happen if you don't RTFM.

          4. @ Rob

            Thanks so much for your tip! CPLDs are definitely very interesting devices and an excellent starting point for those not very familiar with programmable logic. But probably this is something I should have mentioned before: I’m an electrical engineering student and I have already had some experience with programmable logic, such as the very small PAL chips, and also a bit of CPLDs and VHDL (though it’s been a while). Recently I’ve decided I want to keep developing my knowledge further than the college taught me, so I thought it would be interesting to venture in more complex devices (hopefully with a bunch of peripherals) and learn Verilog – that’s why I’d be willing to spend a bit more on the Xilinx cable if that’s really the best option (I’ve read you made the jump from Xilinx to Altera, so maybe Altera is really the best option). I’d also prefer to buy a reasonably capable board because currently I’m on europe but I’ll soon be returning to my sh!thole of a country which charges import taxes greater than the value of the product + shipping, AND they also take 3 months to deliver anything from China (welcome to Brasil).

            Also, because of my will to learn without a teacher, RTFM is pretty much a mandatory (and long) part of the efforts. I’m sure it will be frustrating at first, but so was it when I began learning microcontrollers. I believe anyone who wants to be a good engineer must not be afraid of manuals and datasheets. :)

            Once again, thanks for the tip about CPLDs and congratulations on your retrogaming/computing projects, they seem very interesting! :D

    2. Wonder at which point it ceases to be a breakout board and is considered a full computer? Anyway, this is a great time to be into micro-controllers. They do more than ever, and they’re cheaper than ever. The future is going to be exciting!

  2. If you search for them, the Chinese are doing some interesting entry level FPGA boards. For about £40 you can get a board with a Cyclone IV, 32MB of SDRAM, 16 bit VGA port, PS/2 port, SD card reader, RTC, JTAG programmer etc. You don’t get a huge amount of capacity for that price, but plenty enough for 8 bit system emulation.

  3. … and if you *are* up for an ARM tool chain, with very little pain and a ‘duino feel, check out http://stm32duino.com/index.php – yup I’m biased, I know, but I think its starting to take pretty good shape. It brings fairly painless ‘duino ness to the STM32F103{balh} processors of every flavour. Not a bad combination, 32 bit ARM, around 10x as fast as a ‘duino and not a bad price point either.. catch it while its hot (and still has a few interesting bugs).

    1. FPGA and ASIC are two different development paths.

      ASIC design is completed and simulated first and then sent to the manufacturers to make a dedicated chip, this costs $100,000’s. Sure, sometimes parts of an ASIC design are simulated in FPGA but the two are still vastly different.

      FPGA is a blank chip every time you turn it on. You write the configuration (program) and it sits in a FLASH chip and loads into the FPGA when power is applied.

      CPLD is also a blank chip when you buy it but once it is programmed the program remains after power off. You can however re-program it. CPLD’s have a much smaller gate count than FPGA but use the same VHDL (or Veralog) language and the same development environment. They’re ideal for beginners and are much lower cost than FPGA.

      1. The development tool chain is almost identical between FPGA and ASIC. You start with a simulation language like VERILOG or VHDL, write the code, simulate, and finnaly commit to hardware. Many FPGA manufacturers include the option of converting an FPGA project to an ASIC.

    1. Try putting a switch in series with the battery. Flick the switch, and current draw should drop to zero. Just like the toggle switch that you used to find, on old PC power supplies.
      Leaving the switch on isn’t a shutdown – it’s a “sleep” mode.

        1. You are asking a different question. The original complaint was “draws too much current”.
          Now you’re asking “how to draw low current in remote sensing situation”. The answer to this NEW question may be a different micro controller. Look for the EFM32 “gecko” series, owned by Silicon Labs.

          1. I am talking about standby consumption, not active. Some 32bit micros are bad at this, compared to 8 bit ones. It is kind of why i stuck with the xmega series: 8 bit, sure, but low power and nice peripherals.
            Atmel is supposed to launch a new series of arms with low power in standby, but they will probably take a long time to be available.

      1. On some chips, if you want to go to the lowest power consumption sleep mode, it is more like a coma with short term memory lost. i.e. not much difference that a cold start. Having the peripherals active while sleep would drain a bit more current.

        Not much you can do if you have to insist on a certain vendor’s part for framework compatibility. The silicon process by the CM is the issue not likely to get fixed just because there is a new chip, unless they are doing something drastic…

  4. The Zero seems way too much to me. At least it would feel defensible if it were at the Uno price point, because you have the dead-easy SDK. But even with the latest updates, the SDK still leaves a lot to be desired.

  5. Be advised that altera is pulling support for chips they dont want you to use (ie. Older ones like cyclone II) from the free version of the software. i threw away verion 10 of the software thinking i’d get the latest when i wanted to play with my fpga board again…. I now have a board wirhout software support ( untol I pay lots of money for the software which used to be free)

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