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Al Williams

Dr. Dobb's Bloggers

Ham for the Holidays

December 05, 2014

I always find it funny that several e-mail programs I use have a way to mark "spam" but also a way to mark mail that you want, which they call "ham" (I guess implying that ham is tastier to eat than Spam, but I never minded eating Spam myself). It is my own fault, but I get spammed with something else: development boards.

As I look around my lab, I see no fewer than 12 development boards of different kinds. That's just the ones that are visible. I would bet I have close to 100 stashed away in different places. I buy some of these if they are inexpensive or I need them for a specific purpose. A lot of vendors send me boards to review. Some were just things handed out at a seminar or trade show (oh yeah, that reminds of the two sitting on that shelf, so really the count is 14).

I’ve recently become very fond of the Freescale mbed board I wrote about a few weeks ago. It is cheap, small, capable, and simple to set up. But sometimes I pull out an Arduino Nano for something really quick and dirty. I've also had a lot of fun playing with the Nordic Bluetooth boards, which are similar to the Freescale boards, but have a 2.4 GHz radio onboard.

Some of these boards and systems sit on my shelf for quite awhile waiting for a rainy day. I thought I'd tell you about a few of them, and maybe one or two of them will show up in a future post.

I got a box the other day that contained an Intel "next unit of computing" (you can read about it on Wikipedia). It is hard to tell what to make of this little box. It looks like one of the very small PCs that is meant to bolt onto the back of a monitor or a Mac Mini. However, it is packaged in a "kit" format. You can get them as bare boards or with cases, so you could compare one to, say, a Raspberry Pi. Some have quiet low-power fans and others are fanless. They cost quite a bit more than a Raspberry Pi, but they also have a lot more capability.

Another very neat board I'm anxious to try is from ST. The 32L0538DISCOVERY is the usual ARM-based development board, but it has a small e-ink display on it (like a Kindle book reader's screen, but very small). Those screens are interesting because they are easy to read outside and they take very little power (in fact, once you draw to them, you can shut down and it will stay until you power up and write something else to it). Naturally, ST married the board to a very low power CPU so you can get some serious battery life with this board. I need to get that one out of the package and think up an interesting project for it.

Finally, I have a pair of PSoC 4 boards from Cypress. I'm a big fan of PSoC and that was when they had an 8051 core. I'd like to play with the new ones, which are ARM based. If you haven't read about PSoC before, the devices are a CPU along with analog and digital "function blocks" that you can use to build things like A/Ds, PWM outputs, serial communication ports, and other useful functions. The granularity is a bit higher than an FPGA, but it isn't just a bunch of prepackaged peripherals either.

The development tools let you build up the modules you want (say, 2 A/D and 3 PWM generators) and then write code to drive your semi-custom CPU. If you want to get fancy, you can have your code reconfigure the chip on the fly. For example, if my chip were a data logger, it might reconfigure itself every day at midnight to have a serial port to send data over an RF modem. Then it would reconfigure itself as a data logger and keep collecting data for the next day.

I was excited to see these new parts come in but I haven't used them yet. Why not? The software is very Windows oriented. While I can boot real or virtual Windows, it doesn't motivate me to get started with these very cool looking boards. By the way, they sell for $4, if you can believe that.

Maybe I need to go on a development board diet for the new year. I do work with students and sometimes my boards find homes with them. On the other hand, sometimes a problem presents itself and I find I just happen to have the perfect board on hand. Then it all seems worthwhile.

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