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Al Williams

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Recent Embedded News

May 11, 2011

There were a few news items that have caught my eye lately. I thought I'd share them in no particular order.

I don't do as much as I used to, but at one time I did a lot with the Microchip PIC processors. Under Windows they had a pretty reliable IDE that nicely integrated support for their products, the debugging hardware, and even third-party languages. However, the IDE wasn't very "modern" looking and it didn't run well under Linux. Microchip is now showing MPLAB IDE X in Beta (http://is.gd/GoGlAK). It looks nice (based on NetBeans), and it runs on Windows, Linux, or Mac OS. My biggest complaint: The Linux package is 32-bit only. Most of this is Java and it should run under 64-bit Linux, but the installer segment faults under Kubuntu 11.04. Honestly — I really don't think I am the only person running 64-bit Linux! Especially if you are using your box as an engineering workstation.

You can install it, however. The .bin file you download must be made executable. Then you need to set GTK_PATH=/usr/lib32/gtk-2.0 before you execute it. At least that worked on my system. I understand there may be some hardware detection problems even after that but I haven't tried using any of my PIC debug hardware with it yet.

Speaking of MPLAB, do you remember the Microchip "Visual Device Initializer" (also known by the acronym VDI)? It was a tool in MPLAB that let you point and click to set up different chips. You'd pick which pins you wanted as I/O, which timers you wanted to use, and the like and it would generate code to perform the requested functions. Unfortunately, on a Microchip forum they said:

"It [VDI] is, in reality, a tremendously complex system that is, unfortunately, also very labor-intensive. In fact it is so labor intensive and so infrequently used that VDI support has been discontinued. We'll leave it around for the devices that it currently supports, but will not expand it. There are no plans to replace VDI.

Texas Instruments recently has been showing a similar tool for their MSP430 processors called Grace (which I'm sure is an acronym starting with Graphical). Grace hooks into their Code Composer IDE (but not into other popular IDEs, unfortunately) and lets you generate an initial code skeleton for the peripherals you choose to use. I watched a demo of it and it seemed well thought out. There were different views of each hardware module available, so most of the time you could use the simple view. But there is also a power user view for people using more advanced features. You can even switch to a register view to see or control exactly how the tool manipulates the configuration registers.

[Click image to view at full size]

As Microchip found out with VDI, keeping these kind of tools up to date and correct is no small task. But considering that starting a project is a sliver of my project's total lifecycle, you don't get many chances to convert me into a believer. If I open the tool and my device isn't listed yet, I'm just going to press on and when the tool finally supports my CPU I won't care again for quite some time (at which point I might even need a different, newer, and still unsupported device). I hope TI gets that and will keep this tool well supported.

Speaking of TI, they have made quite a splash with low cost development boards. I see they have a new $29 board with their new FRAM memory on the MSP430 chip instead of flash. FRAM is nonvolatile, but is (according to TI) 100 times faster than flash and survives 100 trillion write cycles (that's right, trillion). TI also note that they can achieve lower power, and can dynamically repartition, using some memory as RAM and some as program memory, changing on the fly. They say it is even radiation hardened, so it sounds almost too good to be true. You can read more about what TI is saying about FRAM at http://is.gd/8u4Uhi and for $29, it is probably worth experimenting.

Not that TI has been the only vendor with cheap educational starter kits — I've written about several sub $10 development boards from ST and others. These are a great way to get people interested in your processor and I am hopeful they will help more educators work embedded controllers into classroom.

Atmel has recently rolled out several new AVR Xplained boards. These are application-specific boards that are relatively inexpensive. For example, the XMEGA-A1 Xplained kit (http://is.gd/U1bv8u) is under US$30. There are boards for 8- and 32-bit processors (all about the same price) and there are add-on boards that stack on the baseboards to do things like ZigBee, inertial position, and temperature sensing. You can find the whole line of cards at http://is.gd/n9UVGE.

[Click image to view at full size]

Finally, cheap hardware reminded me about a cheap educational board I saw at http://www.raspberrypi.org. Not on sale yet, but if they can make the $25 price that will be a good deal on a Ubuntu system with these specs:

  • 700MHz ARM11
  • 128MB of SDRAM
  • OpenGL ES 2.0
  • 1080p30 H.264 high-profile decode
  • Composite and HDMI video output
  • USB 2.0
  • SD/MMC/SDIO memory card slot
  • General-purpose I/O

Oh yeah, and it is tiny (about the size of a large USB thumb drive).

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