FPGA Boards for Beginners

FPGA Boards for Beginners
FPGA Boards for Beginners

When choosing a development board, consider what you get with it and what you want to use it for.

What is an FPGA?

It is an acronym for field programmable gate array. It is a semiconductor IC where a large majority of the electrical functionality inside the device can be changed; changed by the design engineer, changed during the PCB assembly process, or even changed after the equipment has been shipped to customers out in the ‘field’.

FPGAs provide benefits to designers of many types of electronic equipment, ranging from smart energy grids, aircraft navigation, automotive driver’s assistance, medical ultrasounds and data center search engines – just to name a few.  Fraser Innovation Inc provides a series of FPGA boards including Beginner FPGA board , Risc-V FPGA board, and Advanced educational FPGA boards.

Customer Benefits by Using FPGAs

Benefit Details
Flexibility
  • FPGA functionality can change upon every power-up of the device. So, when a design engineer wants to make a change, they can simply download a new configuration file into the device and try out the change.
  • Often, changes can be made to the FPGA without making costly PC board changes.
  • ASSPs and ASICs have fixed hardware functionality that can’t be changed without great cost and time.
Acceleration Get products to market quicker and/or increase your system performance.

 

  • FPGAs are sold “off the shelf” vs. ASICs (which require manufacturing cycles taking many months).
  • Because of FPGA flexibility, OEMs can ship systems as soon as the design is working and tested.
  • FPGAs provide off-load and acceleration functions to CPUs, effectively speeding up the entire system performance.
Integration Today’s FPGAs include on-die processors, transceiver I/O’s at 28 Gbps (or faster), RAM blocks, DSP engines, and more. More functions within the FPGA mean fewer devices on the circuit board, increasing reliability by reducing the number of device failures.
Total Cost of Ownership (TCO)
  • While ASICs may cost less per unit than an equivalent FPGA, building them requires a non-recurring expense (NRE), expensive software tools, specialized design teams, and long manufacturing cycles.
  • Intel FPGAs support long lifecycles (15-years or more), avoiding the cost of redesigning and requalifying OEM production equipment if one of the electronic devices on-board goes end of life (EOL).
  • FPGAs reduce risk, allowing prototype systems to ship to customers for field trials, while still providing the ability to make changes quickly before ramping to volume production.

FPGAs are ideal for use with high speed peripherals, and in general it is much easier to buy a board that contains the part you want, rather than trying to add one on later (and inevitably giving up and upgrading to a more capable board). Examples of things you might want, and are quite difficult to add yourself:

  • Gigabit Ethernet
  • HDMI/DVI
  • PCI/PCI Express
  • External non-serial memory (DDR/Flash etc.)

Things that are relatively easy to add, and are not so much of a big deal to wire up yourself.

  • MMC/SD cards
  • Character (e.g. 16×2) LCDs
  • Anything I2C/SPI and relatively low speed
  • VGA (with low colour depth)

I like having a board with many (at least 8) SPST switches and LEDs, and momentary buttons. Unlike a microcontroller where it’s relatively easy to spit debug information out of a serial port or to an LCD with a single C function call, debugging FPGA designs is a bit harder. LEDs provide a zero fuss way to break out internal signals for visualisation – if you’re tracking the progress of a complex state machine, you can light up an LED when it gets to a certain point without adding any extra logic. While these are easy enough to add yourself, I find that it’s better to get a board that has them so that you don’t waste valuable user IOs or waste time investigating failures caused by your terrible soldering skills.

Some manufacturers promote a standard form factor for add-ons, notably Digilent with their very wide range of Pmods and the Papilio One’s Wings.

If you would like to connect high speed devices (above 10-20 MHz) to your FPGA, make sure your board has an interface connector that supports the speeds you’ll be using. Look for ground wires interspersed regularly between signal wires, high speed connectors (not just 0.1″ headers), PCB trace length equalisation, and impedance control. Few of the cheap boards bother with any of these.

FPGAs can be a bit daunting, so check that the manufacturer provides:

  • Schematic diagram
  • A reference manual, describing all of the on-board peripherals
  • A guide to getting started, if you’ve never used an FPGA before
  • A reference design that exercises all on-board peripherals.

Reference designs can either be HDL or microcontroller-based, but in recent boards, most manufacturers seem to be moving to the latter. Bear this in mind if you don’t have a license for the microcontroller and environment (e.g. Xilinx EDK/SDK is not free), as the code will be difficult to port to HDL.

If you’re a beginner, you may benefit from buying a board that has a companion textbook which has been written specifically for the board in mind, and describes each of the peripherals and how to interface with them. Some popular boards have attracted a larger community of users, though this isn’t necessarily helpful because most of the other users are beginners. The most popular Xilinx boards are those made by Xilinx (none of them cheap enough to be listed here), Digilent and Avnet. Terasic seem to make the most popular Altera boards.

Finally, if you concerned with software freedom, the Lattice iCE40 parts are supported by the open source Project IceStorm tools.

The advantage of FPGA beginner study board:

  1. Beginner FPGA study board, cheaper but fully functional. cellphone sized. ( < 100 USD )
  2. power supply and download at the same time, no extra power supply and no extra data transfer line needed
  3. Small volume and light and can be put into your pocket. size: 10cm X 7 cm.
  4. Unique function: can be a study board as well a multifunctional JTAG downloader. 
  5. We use newest version Intel FPGA within two years and you can always keep in the front of FPGA industry.

Altera FPGA Study Board Hardware Resources:

  1. seven_seg_r
  2. VGA Video Interface × 1
  3. 1G Ethernet Interface × 1
  4. I2C EEPROM × 1
  5. DIP Switch × 8
  6. Controllable  LED light × 8
  7. Photoresistance × 1
  8. Thermistor × 1
  9. Adjustable Varistor × 1
  10. Buttons × 4
  11. GPIO Interface × 2
  12. Micro usb Interface(Power Supply and downlaod ) × 1
  13. SPI Communication Interface × 1
  14. AD/DA Conversion chip × 1
  15. JTAG Download Interface × 1
  16. FLASH 32Mbit  × 1