FPGA boards under $100: Introduction

-June 27, 2014

Whether engineer, hobbyist, or maker, we've happily watched as chipmakers and third parties alike have come to their senses in recent years and cooked up a smorgasbord (smorgasboard?) of low-cost microcontroller devboards – in some cases, very low cost, like TI's $4.30 MSP430 board. More recently, we've seen ARM Cortex kits for $10-$50, the flowering of the whole Arduino ecosystem, and of course, the Raspberry Pi, starting at $25. It’s microcontroller heaven.

Those of us wanting a cheap “in” to the FPGA world have been less lucky. But the times, they are a changin'. Many FPGA devkits, from both chipmakers and third parties, have broken – or downright shattered – the $100 barrier, opening the door to low-cost FPGA prototyping, education, hobby projects, and so on.

Follow me as I explore this brave new world of affordable FPGA learning and design. I've acquired a representative selection of bargain-priced boards, and will be reviewing each, not just on paper, but by actually creating projects with it.

Are you excited yet? I am!

You’ll find a summary of the boards below, but first, we need to come up with fun, interesting, maybe even (gasp!) challenging projects to port to each board in turn. Here are a few of my ideas, but I'm hoping you can suggest some more:

  • A bleep-bloop box, creating strange and complex sounds in response to user input
  • A dual-modulus divider
  • A very simple oscilloscope
  • An AM/FM/frequency-hopping signal generator
  • A “chip melter” project that does nothing except exercise as much of the FPGA as possible at as high a frequency as possible. Will the IC overheat or the PSU fail? Stay tuned.

 

Here's a summary of <$100 devboards, organized by FPGA manufacturer. The ones in [brackets] are not in my pile, but are included for your reference:

 

Altera based boards

Price

Manufacturer

Board

FPGA

kLEs

$79

Terasic

DE0-Nano

Cyclone IV

22

 

 

Cypress based boards

Price

Manufacturer

Board

FPGA

kLEs

[$99]

Cypress

PSoC 3 Devkit

PSoC 3

 

[$25]

Cypress

PSoC 4 Pioneer

PSoC 4         

 

[$4]

Cypress

PSoC 4 Protokit

PSoC 4           

 

[$99]

Cypress

PSoC 5 Devkit

PSoC 5

 

 

Lattice based boards

Price

Manufacturer

Board                    

FPGA

kLEs

$26

Lattice           

MachXO2 Breakout Board

MachXO2

7

$25

Lattice          

iCEstick Evaluation Kit

iCE40

1.3

$49

Lattice          

iCE40-HX8K Breakout Board

iCE40

8

$99

Lattice          

iCE40 16-WLCSP

iCE40

1.3

 

 

Microsemi (previously Actel) based boards

Price

Manufacturer

Board

FPGA

kLEs

[$99]

Microsemi

SmartFusion EVkit

SmartFusion

5

 

Xilinx based boards

Price

Manufacturer

Board

FPGA

kLEs

$89

Avnet

LX-9

Spartan-6

9

$75

Embedded Micro

Mojo V3

Spartan-6

9

$85

Gadget Factory

Papilio Pro

Spartan-6

9

[$38]

Gadget Factory

Papilio One 250k

Spartan-3E

                       

5

[$65]

Gadget Factory

Papilio One 500k

Spartan-3E

           

10

$50

Numato Lab

Mimas

Spartan-6

9

$99

Numato Lab

Saturn

Spartan-6

16

$30

Numato Lab

Elbert V2

Spartan-3A

1.5

 

Avnet LX-9

 

Mojo

 

Papilio Pro with accessories

 

Numato

That's a lot of Xilinx-based boards! Not that it's a popularity contest.

What are “kLEs”, you ask? One kLE is 1,000 logic elements. A logic element is the basic building block of an FPGA, and consists mainly of a small LUT (lookup table) and a flip-flop. The totally general behavior of a LUT lets it emulate one or more gates, and since you can build anything out of just NAND gates, you can build anything and more out of LUTs.

So then, what can you build out of 1kLE (1,000 LUTs)? A simple 32-bit processor… give or take. So, you can see that, while the FPGAs used on these boards are not exactly state-of-the-art megaLUT megaBUCK chips, they’re still more than capable enough for many designs.

Most FPGAs also contain RAM, multipliers, PLLs, flexible I/Os, and so on, but I’ll spell all that out in the individual reviews.

BTW, Cypress’ PSoC parts are not quite FPGAs, but chips combining a processor, configurable analog blocks, and some CPLD-style programmable logic. I thought they had enough overlap with FPGAs to warrant inclusion here.

My first review will look at the Altera-based boards, simply because I have the most experience with Altera's chips and software. That Altera starts with “A” is only a happy coincidence. It also means I can develop the test projects in a familiar environment, which is always a good thing. 

I’ve created a central "collection" on EDN where all the review articles will live, so you'll always be able to find the up-to-date set, no matter how many boards I review, or when I review them.

Also see:

 

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