FPGA and FPGA Dev Boards – What is it and What are they used for?

FPGA also known as Field Programmable Gate Arrays are semiconductor devices. They are based around CLBs also known as configurable logic blocks which are connected via programmable interconnects. It has a flexible reconfigurable computing function which allows the user to change and reprogram the device to implement a desired logic function or functionality after manufacturing. So what exactly are they? Through today blog, you will learn about:

  • What is FPGA?
  • Why use FPGA?
  • What are FPGA used for?
  • Best FPGAs for projects

What is FPGA?

  • FPGAs are based around programmable logic blocks and connected through reconfigured interconnects.
  • They are designed to be reprogrammed and configured to a user desired application or functionality requirements and can carry out 1 or more logical operations.
  • With FPGA, it allows you to design your own chip from scratch! With the FPGA you can implement any digital function limited by the 1 universal chip.
  • They are a set of circuits on a chip and its electrical functionality can be changed during the PCB assembly process or by the user with no limit.
  • It can be configured to perform complex combination functions similar to a CPU or a simple logic gate (AND or OR function).
  • It has no intended function compared to a microcontroller where it already has hardwired logic and just you have to program for it to work.

Why use FPGA?

Even though programming FPGA is more challenging due to its complex calculations compared to other Microcontrollers and requires more power, the FPGA has various advantages that outweighs these cons. They are:

Flexibility

  • With the design of FPGA, it has a flexible reconfigurable computing function which allows for the user to change and reprogram the device to implement a different logic function
  • This allows for changes to be made to the circuit without any cost compared to other hardware circuits like the ASICs (Application Specific Integrated Circuit) which has fixed hardware functionalities.

Security

  • Due to FPGA flexibility, it allows for a lower risk for malicious modifications during manufacturing or programming.
  • In addition, various FPGA vendors also offer various security solutions to users such as bitstream encryption and authentication for your security needs.

Performance and Efficiency

  • FPGAs have off-load and acceleration functions for your CPU which can improve the performance of your system.
  • FPGAs are also suitable for running parallel execution which is efficient as they are able to process several input channels of information or control several channels at once. For example, with FPGAs, you can read 2 sensors at the same time data are instantly transmitted.
    • This makes FPGAs become energy efficient as well as energy wouldn’t be wasted waiting for data to be transmitted and data is only processed when there are updates.
  • Compared to microcontrollers, dataflow and processing speeds of FPGAs are faster and improved.

Time to market

  • With its flexible reconfigurable computing function, they are ideal for prototyping purposes.
  • With its parallel processes, development steps can be performed simultaneously. In addition, even in other users hands, the progamming can be changed and upgraded.

What are FPGA used for?

As FPGA are programmable and flexible, they are capable of becoming any digital circuit as long as there are enough logic blocks in the unit to implement that circuit. This allows them to be used in various industries and have various functions. Some of them are:

  • Parallel Processes
    • To process several input channels of information or control several channels at once.
  • Digital Signal Processing
    • Algorithms such as digital filtering, image processing, etc.
  • Medical and Scientific Purposes
    • Medical equipments for diagnostic, monitoring and therapy applications (eg. Diagnostic imagining systems like X-Ray and ultrasound)
  • Consumer Electronics
    • Allows for cost-effective solutions like Digital television (eg. Digital Set-top boxes for TV broadcasts), portable entertainment (eg. Cameras, smartphones) etc,
  • Security Systems
    • FPGA are used in cloud security, network security, etc.
  • Data centre
    • FPGA are used for high-bandwidth, low-latency servers, storage applications for cloud purposes.
  • Aerospace and Defence
    • Used for image processing, waveform generation in radars, radios for real time signal processing, etc

Best FPGAs for Projects

Unfortunately, nothing is ever the best at something. The same goes for FPGAs! Each microcontroller and single board computers each have their own unique features that makes them stand out from each other. Do not worry as we have highlighted them so you will know which board to buy to suit your project the most!

Best for Beginners

Perf-V Based on Xilinx Artix-7 FPGA RISC-V opensource ($79.00)

  • Perf-V is an FPGA demoboard designed for RISC-V opensource community by PerfXLab.
  • It integrates various peripheral chips and offers many interfaces with great flexibility and transplant multiple architectures.
  • There are plenty of learning materials for you to learn this product and acts as a perfect experiment platform for the design of RISC-V and FPGA products.
  • It is a designed for electronic design engineers, hardware DIY enthusiasts, college teachers and students, hobbyists to study, develop programs or make a DEMO.
  • Its specifications include:
    • Logic Cells: 33280
    • DSP: 90
    • CLBs: 41600
    • Block RAM (Kb): 1800
    • CMTs: 5

Want a bigger storage and better FPGA Demoboard? We have it too!

Perf-V Based on Xilinx Artix-7 FPGA RISC-V opensource – XC7A100T-1FTG256C ($189.00)

  • This board is similar with the previous board in terms of features but it has different specifications with more storage and capabilities for users to study, develop programs, make a demo, etc.
  • Its specifications include:
    • Logic Cells: 101440
    • DSP: 240
    • CLBs: 126800
    • Block RAM (Kb): 4680
    • CMTs: 6

Here is a table comparing the both!

Features Perf-V Based on Xilinx Artix-7 FPGA RISC-V opensource Perf-V Based on Xilinx Artix-7 FPGA RISC-V opensource – XC7A100T-1FTG256C
Logic Cells 33280 101440
DSP 90 240
CLBs 41600 126800
Block RAM (Kb) 1800 4680
CMTs 5 6
Price $79.00 $189.00

Best for Python Users

PYNQ™ Z2 board – based on Xilinx Zynq C7Z020 SoC ($119.00)

  • PYNQ is an open-source project from Xilinx® that makes it easy to design embedded systems with Xilinx Zynq® Systems on Chips (SoCs) using the Python language and libraries.
  • Users can now exploit the benefits of programmable logic and microprocessors in Zynq to build more capable and exciting embedded systems.
  • Specifications of the ZYNQ Z2 includes:
    • 650MHz dual-core Cortex-A9 processor
    • DDR3 memory controller with 8 DMA channels and 4 High-Performance AXI3 Slave ports
    • High-bandwidth peripheral controllers: 1G Ethernet, USB 2.0, SDIO
    • Low-bandwidth peripheral controller: SPI, UART, CAN, I2C
    • Programmable from JTAG, Quad-SPI flash, and MicroSD card
    • Programmable logic equivalent to Artix-7 FPGA
    • 13,300 logic slices, each with four 6-input LUTs and 8 flip-flops
    • 630 KB of fast block RAM
    • 4 clock management tiles, each with a phase locked loop (PLL) and mixed-mode clock manager (MMCM)
    • 220 DSP slices
    • On-chip analog-to-digital converter (XADC)

Best Arduino Compatible Board

Spartan Edge Accelerator Board – Arduino FPGA Shield with ESP32 ($35.90)

  • When we talk about Arduino, very few people associate it with FPGAs. Because the two have little in common, to be frank, they are exactly the opposite. 
    • Arduino – cheap to buy, easy to learn, simple to use, but can’t deal with complex calculations and large projects.
    • FPGA – flexible and powerful, easily handle complex calculations like audio and video processing, but hard to learn and very expensive.
    • By combining both of them, it is a game changer!
  • The Spartan Edge Accelerator Board is a Xilinx Spartan FPGA development board in the Arduino UNO shield form factor.
  • It can work with Arduino as an FPGA shield and as a stand-alone FPGA development board.
  • With the onboard ESP32 chip, the Spartan Edge Accelerator Board also features 2.4GHz WiFi and Bluetooth 4.1.
  • Moreover, this development board has a wealth of peripherals and interfaces which are extremely playable. Such as an 8-bit ADC, a 6-axis accelerometer, two RGB LEDs, a MINI HDMI interface, a CSI camera interface, two Grove interfaces, etc.
  • All in all, it will be a perfect FPGA board for Makers and Hobbyists.

Cheapest FPGA board

Sipeed Tang Nano FPGA Board Powered by GW1N-1 FPGA ($4.90)

  • At only $4.90, you can get your own FPGA board!
  • The Sipeed Tang Nano FPGA board powered by GW1N-1 FPGA board, will be a nice choice for you to accomplish some subentries. Don’t worry about its small size; it is well equipped with many elements for an FPGA development board.
  • It carries a low power core chip GW1N-1-LV,which has 1152 LUT4 which contains 4 address for RAM and 864 FF(Flip-Flop). The block SRAM in this tiny FPGA board is 72K, so you have 72kbits to save data.
  • Unfortunately, due to the size limitation, this board doesn’t include a DSP module which means you can’t do the complex calculation like accumulation or multipliers cascading based on this board.
  • This board contains 34 I/O PINs, USB Type-C interface for the power supply and downloading code, JTAG downloader on the FPGA board, so you can simply use a USB cable connecting to the board to download the code without an extra downloader outside the board.
  • One of the best features is that this board has a 40 Pin FPC LCD carrier which means a 40 PIN RGB LCD Screen can be equipped on the board!
    • The 5 inches 800*480 screen is especially compatible with this FPGA board, for your better experience with the board, we suggest you purchase them in a bundle!

Summary

With how versatile the FPGA is due to their programmable nature, they have many applications and uses that appeals to many users including hobbyists and makers. Have not decided on which FPGA development boards to get for your project? You can check out the rest of our FPGA products if those boards does not satisfy your project needs here!

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