New Part Day: Espressif ESP32-C6 Includes WiFi 6 And A RISC-V Core

If you’re a reader of Hackaday, then you’ve almost certainly encountered an Espressif part. The twin microcontroller families ESP8266 and ESP32 burst onto the scene and immediately became the budget-friendly microcontroller option for projects of all types. We’ve seen the line expand recently with the ESP32-C3 (packing a hacker-friendly RISC-V core) and ESP32-S3 with oodles of IO and fresh new CPU peripherals. Now we have a first peek at the ESP32-C6; a brand new RISC-V based design with the hottest Wi-Fi standard on the block; Wi-Fi 6.

There’s not much to go on here besides the standard Espressif block diagram and a press release, so we’ll tease out what detail we can. From the diagram it looks like the standard set of interfaces will be on offer; they even go so far as to say “ESP32-C6 is similar to ESP32-C3” so we’ll refer you to [Jenny’s] excellent coverage of that part. In terms of other radios the ESP32-C6 continues Espressif’s trend of supporting Bluetooth 5.0. Of note is that this part includes both the coded and 2 Mbps Bluetooth PHYs, allowing for either dramatically longer range or a doubling of speed. Again, this isn’t the first ESP32 to support these features but we always appreciate when a manufacturer goes above and beyond the minimum spec.

Welcome to the ESP32-C6

The headline feature is, of course, Wi-Fi 6 (AKA 802.11ax). Unfortunately this is still exclusively a 2.4GHz part, so if you’re looking for 5GHz support (or 6GHz in Wi-Fi 6E) this isn’t the part for you. And while Wi-Fi 6 brings a bevy of features from significantly higher speed to better support for mesh networks, that isn’t the focus here either. Espressif have brought a set of IoT-centric features; two radio improvements with OFDMA and MU-MIMO, and the protocol feature Target Wake Time.

OFDMA and MU-MIMO are both different ways of allowing multiple connected device to communicate with an access point simultaneously. OFDMA allows devices to slice up and share channels more efficiency; allowing the AP more flexibility in allocating its constrained wireless resources. With OFDMA the access point can elect to give an entire channel to a single device, or slice it up to multiplex between more than once device simultaneously. MU-MIMO works similarly, but with entire antennas. Single User MIMO (SU-MIMO) allows an AP and connected device to communicate using a more than one antenna each. In contrast Multi User MIMO (MU-MIMO) allows APs and devices to share antenna arrays between multiple devices simultaneously, grouped directionally.

Finally there’s Target Wake Time, the simplest of the bunch. It works very similarly to the Bluetooth Low Energy (4.X and 5.X) concept of a connection interval, allowing devices to negotiate when they’re next going to communicate. This allows devices more focused on power than throughput to negotiate long intervals between which they can shut down their wireless radios (or more of the processor) to extended battery life.

These wireless features are useful on their own, but there is another potential benefit. Some fancy new wireless modes are only available on a network if every connected device supports them. A Wi-Fi 6 network with 10 Wi-Fi 6 devices and one W-Fi 5 (802.11ac) one may not be able to use all the bells and whistles, degrading the entire network to the lowest common denominator. The recent multiplication of low cost IoT devices has meant a corresponding proliferation of bargain-basement wireless radios (often Espressif parts!). Including new Wi-Fi 6 exclusive features in what’s sure to be an accessible part is a good start to alleviating problems with our already strained home networks.

When will we start seeing the ESP32-C6 in the wild? We’re still waiting to hear but we’ll let you know as soon as we can get our hands on some development hardware to try out.

Thanks to friend of the Hackaday [Fred Temperton] for spotting this while it was fresh!

New Part Day: Espressif ESP32-S3

Since Espressif Systems arrived in our collective consciousness they have expanded their range from the ESP8266 to the ESP32, and going beyond the original WROOM and WROVER modules to a range of further ESP32 products. There’s a single-core variant and one that packs a RISC-V core in place of the Tensilica one, and now they’ve revealed their latest product. The ESP32-S3 takes the ESP to a new level, packing as it does more I/O, onboard USB, and an updated version of the two Tensilica cores alongside Bluetooth version 5. It’s still an ESP32, but one that’s more useful, and it’s worth a closer look because we expect it to figure in quite a few projects.

Espressif's block diagram for the chip.
Espressif’s block diagram for the chip.

Sadly the data sheet does not seem to have been released, but we do have some tidbits to consider. Espressif are anxious to tell us about its “AIOT” capabilities thanks to the vector instructions in the EXTensa LX7 cores (PDF) that were not present in the previous model’s LX6. They claim that this will speed up software neural networks; this does have an air of marketing about it but we’ll withhold judgement until we see it in use. The new core certainly will offer a performance improvement across the board though, which should be of interest to all ESP32 developers. Meanwhile the ultra-low-power core that existing ESP32 developers will be familiar with remains.

Then there is that USB support, which appears in the feature block diagram but has little information elsewhere. It’s listed as USB OTG which raises the possibility of the ESP32 being the host, but what it should also bring is the ability to emulate other USB devices. We’ve seen badges mount as WebUSB devices using STM32 clones as peripherals for an ESP32, but in future these tricks should be possible on the Espressif chip itself.

Probably the most anticipated piece of the new device’s specification comes in the addition of 10 new I/O lines. This has historically been a weakness of the ESP line, that it’s an easy chip with which to run out of available pins. These extra lines will make it more competitive with for example the STM32 series of microcontrollers that have larger package options, and will also mean that designs can have more in the way of peripherals without the use of port expanders.

In summary then, the latest member of the ESP32 family delivers a significant and useful update, and brings some of the features first seen in the single core version to the more powerful line of chips. Sadly it doesn’t have the hoped-for on-chip RAM boost, but it brings enough in the way of new capabilities to be of interest. At the moment it doesn’t look like the ESP32-S3 is available to order, but we hope to have engineering samples soon and should be bringing you a hands-on report in due course.

New Part Day: Hackboard 2, An X86 Single-Board Computer

From the old Gumstix boards to everyone’s favorite Raspberry Pi, common single-board computers (SBCs) have traditionally had at least one thing in common: an ARM processor. But that’s not to say hackers and makers haven’t been interested in an SBC with a proper x86 processor. Which is why the $99 Hackboard 2 is so exciting. With a modern x86 chip at the core it’s akin to a small footprint desktop motherboard, but with all the extra features that we’ve come to expect in a hacker-friendly SBC.

So what’s the big deal? In a word, compatibility. The fact that these diminutive computing devices shied away from the x86 architecture that most of us have been using on our desktops and laptops since the 1980s originally introduced software compatibility issues, but this was largely outweighed by the advantages of ARM. The latest NVIDIA Jetson is running on an ARM chip for the same reason the smartphone in your pocket is: they’re smaller, cheaper, and more energy efficient than x86.

However they’re rarely more powerful. Even the latest and greatest Raspberry Pi 4, often touted as a viable desktop replacement thanks to its quad core Cortex-A72, will get absolutely trounced by the pokiest of Intel’s Celeron CPUs. The performance gap is just too great. While the Pi can admirably handle most of the tasks the hacker community asks of it, there will always be a call for a board that puts raw processing power before anything else.

Sucking down nearly 40 watts at full tilt, the Hackboard 2 isn’t the SBC you’d want to use for a solar powered weather station. But if you’re putting together a set top box to play back video and run the occasional emulator, its Celeron N4020 processor and Intel UHD 600 GPU represent the most powerful combination available for a device of this size.

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Espressif Leaks ESP32-C3: A WiFi SoC That’s RISC-V And Is ESP8266 Pin-Compatible

Six years on from the emergence of the Espressif ESP8266 we might believe that the focus had shifted to the newer dual-core ESP32. But here comes a twist in the form of the newly-revealed ESP32-C3. It’s a WiFi SoC that despite its ESP32 name contains a RISC-V core in place of the Tensilica core in the ESP32s we know, and uses the ESP8266 pin-out rather than that of its newer sibling. There’s relatively little information about it at the time of writing, but CNX Software have gathered together what there is including a draft datasheet whose English translation is available as a Mega download. As with other ESP32 family members, this one delivers b/g/n WiFi and Bluetooth Low-Energy (BLE) 5, where it differs is the RISC-V 32 Single-core processor with a clock speed of up to 160 MHz. There is 400 kB of SRAM and 384 kB ROM storage space built in.

While there is no official announcement yet, Espressif has been dropping hints. There’s been an OpenOCD configuration file for it in the Espressif repositories since the end of last month. And on Friday, Espressif Software Engineering Manager [Sprite_tm] answered a reddit comment, confirming the RISC-V core.

ESP-01: Kjerish, CC BY-SA 4.0, RISC-V logo: RISC-V foundation, Public domain.

Why they are releasing the part as an ESP32 rather than giving it a series number of its own remains a mystery, but it’s not hard to see why it makes commercial sense to create it in an ESP8266-compatible footprint. The arrival of competing parts in the cheap wireless SoC space such as the Bouffalo Labs BL602 we mentioned recently is likely to be eating into sales of the six-year-old chip, so an upgrade path to a more capable part with minimal new hardware design requirements could be a powerful incentive for large customers to stay with Espressif.

We’re left to guess on how exactly the rollout will proceed. We expect to see similar developer support to that they now provide for their other chips, and then ESP32-C3 powered versions of existing ESP8266 boards in short order. It’s also to be hoped that a standard RISC-V toolchain could be used instead of the device-specific ones for current Espressif offerings. What we should not expect are open-source replacements for the blobs that drive the on-board peripherals, as the new chip will share the same closed-source IP as its predecessors for them. Perhaps if the PINE64 initiative to reverse engineer blobs for the BL602 bears fruit, we might see a similar effort for this chip.

New Raspberry Pi 4 Compute Module: So Long SO-DIMM, Hello PCIe!

The brand new Raspberry Pi Compute Module 4 (CM4) was just released! Surprised? Nope, and we’re not either — the Raspberry Pi Foundation had hinted that it was going to release a compute module for the 4-series for a long while.

The form factor got a total overhaul, but there’s bigger changes in this little beastie than are visible at first glance, and we’re going to walk you through most of them. The foremost bonuses are the easy implementation of PCIe and NVMe, making it possible to get data in and out of SSDs ridiculously fast. Combined with optional WiFi/Bluetooth and easily designed Gigabit Ethernet, the CM4 is a connectivity monster.

One of the classic want-to-build-it-with-a-Pi projects is the ultra-fast home NAS. The CM4 makes this finally possible.

If you don’t know the compute modules, they are stripped-down versions of what you probably think of as a Raspberry Pi, which is officially known as the “Model B” form-factor. Aimed at commercial applications, the compute modules lack many of the creature comforts of their bigger siblings, but they trade those for flexibility in design and allow for some extra functionality.

The compute modules aren’t exactly beginner friendly, but we’re positively impressed by how far Team Raspberry has been able to make this module accessible to the intermediate hacker. Most of this is down to the open design of the IO Breakout board that also got released today. With completely open KiCAD design files, if you can edit and order a PCB, and then reflow-solder what arrives in the mail, you can design for the CM4. The benefit is a lighter, cheaper, and yet significantly more customizable platform that packs the power of the Raspberry Pi 4 into a low-profile 40 mm x 55 mm package.

So let’s see what’s new, and then look a little bit into what is necessary to incorporate a compute module into your own design.

Continue reading “New Raspberry Pi 4 Compute Module: So Long SO-DIMM, Hello PCIe!”

Hands On With A Batteryless E-Paper Display

E-paper displays are unusual in that power is only needed during a screen update. Once the display’s contents have been set, no power whatsoever is required to maintain the image. That’s pretty nifty. By making the display driver board communicate wirelessly over near-field communication (NFC) — which also provides a small amount of power — it is possible for this device to be both wireless and without any power source of its own. In a way, the technology required to do this has existed for some time, but the company Waveshare Electronics has recently made easy to use options available for sale. I ordered one of their 2.9 inch battery-less NFC displays to see how it acts.

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New Part Day: Raspberry Pi Camera Gets Serious With 12 Megapixels & Proper Lenses

The Raspberry Pi Foundation have slipped out a new product, a $50 camera module with a larger sensor that increases the resolution from the 8 megapixels of its predecessor to a Sony IMX477R stacked, back-illuminated 12.3 megapixel sensor, and most interestingly adds a mounting ring for a C mount lens (the kind used with CCTV equipment) in place of the tiny fixed focus lenses of past Pi cameras. In addition there is a standard threaded tripod mount on the module, and an adapter ring for CS mount lens types. The camera cannot be used without a lens, but there are a few options available when ordering, like 16mm telephoto or 6mm wide angle lenses, if you do not already have a suitable lens on hand.

It’s an exciting move for photography experimenters, because for the first time it offers an affordable way into building custom cameras with both a higher quality sensor and a comprehensive selection of interchangeable lenses. We can imagine that the astronomers and microscopists among us will be enthusiastic about this development, as will those building automated wildlife cameras. For us though the excitement comes in the prospect of building decent quality cameras with custom form factors that break away from the conventional, because aside from a period when consumer digital cameras were in their infancy they have stuck rigidly to the same form factor dictated by a 35mm film canister. It’s clear that this module will be made into many different projects, and we are looking forward to featuring them.

At the time of writing the camera is sold out from all the usual suppliers, which follows the trend for Raspberry Pi products on their launch day. We didn’t manage to snag one, but perhaps with such an expensive module it’s best to step back for a moment and consider the project it will become part of rather than risking it joining the unfinished pile. While waiting for stock then perhaps the next best thing is to 3D print a C mount adapter for your existing Pi camera, or maybe even hook it up to a full-sized SLR lens.