Design West 2012 Wrap Up

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It's a wrap for Design West 2012 also known as the Embedded Systems Conference. There was a lot on display and we have a lot of coverage you can find at our Electronic Design Design West 2012 landing page as well as our video coverage on Engineering TV.

As usual, there were a few robots like National Instrument's updated DaNI robot (watch DaNI Robotics Starter Kit from National Instruments - DESIGN West 2012) and a small RC SUV at the NXP booth highlighting features like micro-based motor control. I took a photo of our EngineeringTV crew working with the Sphero robot (Fig. 1) that is a small ball with an STmicroelectronics 3D accelerometer, Bluetooth and STM32 F0 micro support inside (watch Fun Applications for STMicroelectronics Products - DESIGN West 2012). The ball moves a counterweight inside the ball to make it roll. The task was to use the iPod app to control the robot and knock down the stacks of sponge blocks on the table.

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Figure 1. Curtis Ellezy (left) and Terry Knight (right) take on Sphero for Engineering TV.

The STM32 F0 uses ARM's 32-bit Cortex-M0 architecture. The trend is definitely towards 32-bits these days with 8- and 16-bit being challenged because of the low power 32-bit solutions. The 32-bit growth rate is up while the others are much flatter. One big push will be from pin-compatible chips like Freescale's new Kinetis L line (see Suppliers Deliver Low-Cost 32-Bit Arm Architecture).

Of course, vendors are still pushing their 8- and 16-bit lines and adding features not found in the 32-bit platforms, yet. Texas Instrument's 16-bit MSP430FR58xx Wolverine series (watch Wolverine Micro-Controller Platform from Texas Instruments - DESIGN West 2012) incorporates FRAM instead of RAM and flash memory (see FRAM Microcontroller Targets Low Power Applications).

The show had plenty of microcontrollers and microprocessors of all kinds on display. Intel and AMD were both at the show highlighting their latest chips. Likewise, these were found on a wide range of platforms like PC/104 and COM Express modules.

Diamond Systems looks to give the PC/104 Consortium's PCIe/104 and SFF-SIG SUMIT (Stackable Unified Modular Interconnect Technology) a run for their money. Diamond Systems' EmbeddedXpress (EMX) Altair board (Fig. 2) implements a stackable PCI Express system like PCIe/104 and SUMIT but Diamond System's uses its own 120-pin surface mount connector and pin-out. It is similar to the other standards providing x1 and x4 PCIe plus USB 2.0, LPC and SATA interfaces. It has reserved pins for future expansion (watch EmbeddedXpress Form Factor from Diamond Systems - DESIGN West 2012 ).

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Figure 2. Diamond Systems' EmbeddedXpress (EMX) Altair uses a low cost connector to provide a stackable PCI Express solution.

There are a variety of reasons for this divergence of stackable PCI Express solutions. One issue is cost. Another is long term expansion and also backward compatability. PCIe/104 has variations the go up to x16 PCIe while EMX and SUMIT top out at x4 PCIe. Most peripherals only need a x1 PCIe link. Part of this is the advantage that PCI Express has over PCI, scalability. The variation in designs tends to reflect that target audience. For example x16 PCIe is often used for displays or access to GPUs.

The other approach to configurable systems is modules like COM Express that require a carrier board. Connect Tech combined COM Express with stackable PCI Express support with its COM Express Carrier Board (Fig. 3). The COM Express module plugs onto the bottom of the carries board with expansion on the top using PCI-104 or PCIe/104 connections. There are I/O connectors and expansion options on the carrier board so a system only requires a COM Express module and the carrier board.

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Figure 3. Connect Tech's COM Express Carrier Board links a standard COM Express module with PCIe/104 and PCI-104 expansion.

WinSystems announced their PXM-C388-S (Fig. 4) at the show. The single board computer (SBC) has SUMIT PCIe expansion connectors as well as PC/104 ISA bus connectors. The combination provides compatibility with thousands of PC/104 boards as well as newer SUMIT-based boards.

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Figure 4. WinSystems' PXM-C388-S single board computer blends Intel 1.66-GHz Atom processor with PC/104 and SUMIT expansion.

WinSystems also has a new expansion board that uses an FPGA to provide serial and digial I/O support (watch FPGA Solutions to Legacy Board Designs with WinSystems - DESIGN West 2012).

Another form factor that has been growing in popularity is Pico-ITX, the little brother to Mini-ITX and Nano-ITX. Like many other form factors, the Pico-ITX was dominated by x86 processors including the original boards from VIA Technologies. There are plenty of x86-base Pico-ITX like Axiomtek's PICO100 board with an AMD G-Series processor.

What has been changing is that ARM architecture processors are being found on boards and modules. For example, Kontron's Pico-ITX KTT20/pITX has an NVidia Tegra 2 (see Little Board And Little Modules At Design West). VIA Technologies was also showing off a Pico-ITX board with its own ARM SoC (Fig. 5).

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Figure 5. VIA Technologies latest Pico-ITX boards uses its own ARM SoC instead of the more conventional x86 processor.

The x86 platform is not going away and is actually growing at both ends of the spectrum. What is happening is that alternatives are becoming more frequent. The big driving factor is Linux and its variants like Android. There was a large "Android" walking around the VIA Technologies booth.

We saw a lot more including the latest oscilloscopes from LeCroy (watch LeCroy Embedded Test Solutions - DESIGN West 2012). Check out more of our coverage on Engineering TV for more details on this and other things we saw at the show.

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Bill Wong covers Digital, Embedded, Systems and Software topics at Electronic Design. He writes a number of columns, including Lab Bench and alt.embedded, plus Bill's Workbench hands-on column....
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