FPGA is the abbreviation for Field Programmable Gate Array. Quite a complicated term, right? Well, in layman’s language, an FPGA is basically a physical circuit that you can use to program various logical operations. An FPGA is also an IC, also known as an integrated circuit. An IC comprises of several circuits on-chip. These sets of circuits are programmable logic elements, memory or gates.
With a normal chip like a CPU in a laptop or Intel Curie model inside an Arduino board, the device is completely baked. You cannot program it. However, these chips allow you to write software that can be used in a chip and carry out functions. You can later choose to delete or replace the software, but the hardware element cannot be changed.
The FPGA does not have a chip. So, you only get to program the circuits or the hardware only. The programing may involve a simple logic gate such as OR and AND functions or multiple complex functions.
Factors to Consider When An FPGA Board
This is the most crucial feature of an FPGA development board that you must consider. The type of peripherals you need the board to meet the requirements of your project. If you are just starting out, and you want to know how the circuitry in a digital FPGA board functions, then you should look for peripherals like push buttons, USB ports, LEDs, LCD displays, switches and so on.
Conversely, there are some FPGAs development boards that use more high-quality peripherals such as Wi-Fi interface, Gigabit Ethernet, DAC, PCI Express, ADC, DisplayPort, and other characteristics. When starting out, these features may not be important to you but are paramount when you get into more complex projects.
Consider the I/O Ports
I/0 ports are also known as expansion ports or connectors. They let you expand your module. As a beginner, you should use normal standard connectors that you can easily find on the market so that you can expand your modules at a later date when they are required.
You can opt for high-speed connectors like DisplayPort, SATA, and HDMI, all of which are low pin count connectors too. Alternatively, you can purchase low speed, low pin count connectors like flat cables and headers.
As for memory interfaces, there are many options for FPGA boards available at your disposal. Some of the simple options you can consider are SDRAM and SRAM. Alternatively, you can get other memory options such as the DDR2, DDR3/4/5, LPDDR.
The type of memory interface you choose relies heavily on what you want to choose the chip for. Depending on the specifications and requirements of your project, you can make an informed decision.
One popular and broadly used interface is the SODIMM. It is ideal for FPGAs. Development boards that provide SODIMM connectors are the Nereid Kintex-7 PCI Express and Proteus Kintex-7 FPGA development board.
Decide Between Altera and Xilinx FPGA Development Boards
Some people would prefer to start with Xilinx because it is the originator of FPGA and has a good reputation, while others prefer things associated with Intel. The decision you make regarding the two will depend on the firm you are buying it from.
You must consider features that each development board comes with rather than the manufacturer. Consider the price, the type of instructional materials used and additional support you will be offered once you make a decision.
Instructional Material Type Offered
Once you open the package, the first thing you should be able to see is the schematic diagram. Also, the box should come with a reference manual that contains all the detailed information about the peripherals in the system.
Furthermore, the package should have a quick start guide that can help beginners when they are starting out. Lastly, the package should also provide the reference design material. The reference material has all the information on how you should use the on-board peripherals.
It is easy to know if your package contains all these features. You only need to read the summary of the FPGA you wish to purchase. This is a nice way to narrow down your search when choosing an Xilinx FPGA board.
You need to know that FPGAs do not come cheap. That is why they are manufactured in low volumes. So, make sure you are looking for an education kit when purchasing one. Normally, the price of FPGAs is determined by the number of logic they come with.
So, for your own use, you will need a development board that has switches and lights that can help you to do a test and debug. Therefore, choose a model such as the Artix FPGA Evaluation Kit.
What are the Benefits of FPGAs?
They are flexible
The functionality of an FGPA can change every time the device is powered up. So, if you want to make adjustments, you only need to download a new settings file into your device and try to make adjustments. You do not have to make expensive PC board changes since you can make changes to the FPGA alone. You cannot change ASICs and ASSPs functionality because they are fixed hardware.
FPGAs can help increase the performance of your system. In addition, they are sold off the shelf, meaning you can easily access them. Because FPGA is flexible, once can transport the systems once the design has been tested and is working. FPGAs also increase the speed of the system as they provide off-load and acceleration systems.
The latest FPGA products come with DSP engines, RAM blocks, transceiver, and on-die processor and so much more. The more the functions on the FPGA the fewer devices on the circuit board, which in turn, makes it more reliable as it minimizes the probability of failures.
Total Cost of Ownership
Intel FPGAs can support up to 15 years of lifecycles, reducing the cost of remodeling and reverifying the OEM production equipment suppose some electronic devices on board EOLs (end of life).
FPGAs are built to reduce risk, as such they allow prototype systems to transfer to consumers for trials in the field while at the same time allow one to make changes prior to moving to volume production.