X-Ray Vision For FPGAs: Using Verifla

Last time I talked about how I took the open source Verifla logic analyzer and modified it to have some extra features. As promised, this time I want to show it in action, so you can incorporate it into your own designs. The original code didn’t actually capture your data. Instead, it created a Verilog simulation that would produce identical outputs to your FPGA. If you were trying to do some black box simulation, that probably makes sense. I just wanted to view data, so I created a simple C program that generates a VCD file you can read with common tools like gtkwave. It is all on GitHub along with the original files, even though some of those are not updated to match the new code (notably, the PDF document and the examples).

If you have enough pins, of course, you can use an external logic analyzer. If you have enough free space on the FPGA, you could put something like SUMP or SUMP2 in your design which would be very flexible. However, since these analyzers are made to be configurable from the host computer, they probably have a lot of circuitry that will compete with yours for FPGA space. You configure Verifla at compile time which is not as convenient but lets it have a smaller footprint.

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Hands On With The Arduino FPGA

All of the tools you need to work with the FPGA Arduino — the Vidor — are now in the wild!

We reported earlier that a series of French blog posts finally showed how all the pieces fit together to program the FPGA on the Arduino MKR4000 Vidor board. Of course, I wasn’t content to just read the Google translation, I had to break out the board and try myself.

I created a very simple starter template, a tool in C to do the bitstream conversion, required, and bundled it all together in one place. Here’s how you can use my starter kit to do your own FPGA designs using the Vidor. I’m going to assume you know about FPGA basics and Verilog. If you don’t, why not check out the FPGA boot camps first?

The first thing you’ll want to do is grab my GitHub repo. You’ll also need the Arduino IDE (a recent copy) and Intel’s Quartus software. Inside, you’ll find three directories, two of which contain slightly modified copies of original Arduino files. But before you start digging in, let’s get the high-level overview of the process.

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Learn FPGA With This Persistence Of Vision Hack

Everybody wants to give FPGA development a try and here’s a great way to get into it. You can build your own Persistence of Vision display using a $30 dev board. It’s a fun project, and you’ll learn quite a bit about designing for an FPGA, as well as using the Quartus design software.

The inspiration for this article comes from [vpecanins] who did an example project where you wave the board back and forth and a message appears in mid air. This uses the MAX1000, a pretty powerful yet odd FPGA board for about $30. It contains an Intel MAX10 (when did Intel start making FPGAs? Remember, Intel bought Alterra back in 2015). I find the board odd because it also holds an accelerometer that you can talk to using SPI. That’s a little strange for a generic FPGA board, but paired with eight on-board LEDs it’s perfect for this demo.

Since I didn’t find any written documentation for this example, I thought we’d help out and take you on a step-by-step tour of the project. What’s more, in a future installment, I’ll show you how to make some significant changes to the tutorial that will make it even more practical as a base for other projects.

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Tiny Arduino + FPGA = Sno

Alorium rolled out a new product late last year that caught our attention. The Sno (pronounced like “snow”) board is a tiny footprint Arduino board that you can see in the video below. By itself that isn’t that interesting, but the Sno also has an Altera/Intel Max 10 FPGA onboard. If you aren’t an FPGA user, don’t tune out yet, though, because while you can customize the FPGA in several ways, you don’t have to.

Like Alorium’s XLR8 product, the FPGA comes with preprogrammed functions and a matching Arduino API to use them. In particular, there are modules to do analog to digital conversion, servo control, operate NeoPixels, and do floating point math.

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Another Introduction To FPGAs

FPGAs can have a steep learning curve, so getting started tutorials are a popular topic. Intel recently published a video titled “Basics of Programmable Logic: FPGA Architecture” and you can see it below. Of course, Intel bought Altera, so the material has a bit of Altera/Intel flavor to it, but the course is generic enough that the concepts will apply to just about any FPGA.

Of course, if you do want to use Quartus, there are quite a few follow-on courses, including the wonderfully named “Become a [sic] FPGA Designer in 4 Hours.” We’d really like to see a sequel titled “Become a Proficient FPGA Designer in 9 Months” but Google didn’t turn that one up.

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Arrow’s $30 FPGA Board Reviewed

We like cheap FPGA boards. It isn’t just that we’re cheap — although that’s probably true, too — but cheap boards are a good way to get people started on FPGAs and we think more people should be using FPGAs more often. One inexpensive board is the Max-1000 from Trenz and Arrow. At $29, it is practically an impulse buy. [ZipCPU] did a great write up on his experience using the board. He found that some of it was good, some was bad, and some was just plain ugly. Still, for $30, it seems like this might be a nice board for some applications or for getting started.

Billed an IoT Maker Board, the tiny board sports a Intel (formerly Altera) MAX10 device with 8,000 logic elements, a USB programming interface onboard, 8 MB of SDRAM, and both PMOD and Arduino MKR headers. The MAX10 has an analog to digital conversion block (with an analog mux for up to nine channels) and the ability to host a 32-bit soft controller onboard, too.

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MiSTer Upgrades Vintage Computer Recreations

The MiST project provides an FPGA-based platform for recreating vintage computers. We recently saw an upgraded board — MiSTer — with a similar goal but with increased capability. You can see a video of the board acting like an Apple ][ playing Pac Man, below.

The board isn’t emulating the target computer. Rather, it uses an FPGA to host a hardware implementation of the target. There are cores for Apple, Atari, Commodore, Coleco, Sega, Sinclair and many other computers. There are also many arcade game cores for games like Defender, Galaga, and Frogger.

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