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First Impression (3) - The BeMicro CV and the BeScope Bundle, A Bargain Hunter's View

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If you are looking for a FPGA development board that looks cheap, feels cheap and is cheap, then you need look no further. For, while it can be said that looks could be deceiving, in this case they are not. This board is extremely cheap and looks it. In fact it seems that to reduce cost  and save on drill bits the board has not been provided with any mounting holes!

However, beggars can't be choosers and if you are in the market for a cheap development  board to quickly prototype a design using Altera's Cyclone V FPGA on a limited budget, like us, then this board could be for you. This blog post provides a quick fire review of the board, which is available standalone or as a kit in the form of the BeScope Bundle.

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So why would one want a FPGA development board at the bargain basement end of the FPGA development board market? Well, it could be because you are a student on a limited budget taking a digital design course and want a board to use to further your studies after hours. It could be because you see this board as a reasonably priced entry point into experimenting with FPGAs in general and Altera's Cyclone V family in particular.

Sometimes one creates a dynamic impression by saying something and sometimes one creates as significant an impression by remaining silent - Dalai Lama

Finally, it could be because you are one of those people who have difficulty taking their wallet out of their pocket, unless that rare cataclysmic event occurs. Like, for example, obtaining a FPGA development board for approximately $5.00 or less. This low price point occurs, when one considers the BeMicro CV, which retails for $49 standalone, can be purchased in the BeScope Bundle, described below, which retails for $50.

Compare this to the BeScope Development Kit (that is the same as the BeScope Bundle, but does not contain the BeMicro CV) that sales for $45. Whatever kit or bundle one buys you still get an unbelievable bargain or a lot of bang for your buck, as our cousins across the pond like to say.

However, as one should expect of a board at this price, you need to put quite a bit of leg work to get the best out of it. If you are lucky, on a good day, the kit's documentation  may be found and on an even better day one may find some example code. For example, like the demonstration code provided with the BeScope Bundle that doesn't actually work out of the box! However, a kind hearted soul on the parallax forums has provided a fix to get this demonstration code working.

The BeMicro CV

The BeMicro CV is centralised around a Cyclone V, 5CEFA2F23C8N, FPGA and is characterised by having a built-in USB-Blaster MV with a 16-bit DDR3 hard memory controller and 2 x 20 pin headers, although only one, the J1 connector, is compatible with the DE0-Nano. It also supports 8MB of SRDAM in the form of the MT41J64M16LA-15E DDR3 memory.

A microSD card connector is also provided, presumably, for designs supporting operating systems like LINUX. The board can be powered through the USB Blaster's micro USB socket or alternatively from an external power source using the 2.5 mm power jack connector. The successor to the BeMicro, the BeMicro CV has been around for quite a while now, although it does not seem to have made that much of an indent into hobbyist projects.

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This may be due to a number of reasons, the main one being the similarly sized and priced (when local taxes, import duties and shipping to Europe is considered) FPGA development kit known as the DE0-Nano, reviewed previously, on our website. As these boards will inevitably be compared again and again we have provided a comparison of the essential features of the different FPGAs on the two boards, which are listed in the Table above. This Table also lists the features of the Max 10 FPGA on the BeMicro Max 10 board, which will also be featured in a review article soon.

The Pièce de résistance of the BeMicro CV is, like the other BeMicro boards, the ample number of GPIOs that owners could use to develop their own hardware extensions.  Owners could also purchase SDP expansion boards from Analog Devices when using their Interposer board (see below) to connect to their 82 plus ADI interface cards. Arrow, also provide an interesting USB3.0 board that connects to the BeMicro SDK 80-pin edge connector in the form of the BeUSB3.0 Cypress USB3.0 daughter card (to be reviewed soon).

The BeMicro CV provides users with more than 122 General Purpose I/O pins, across three interfaces, for their own use. We feel that this generous number of I/O pins offers a very important and distinctive advantage over the DE0-Nano. Also, the I/O pins have correctly, IOHO, laid out as differential pair tracks, which allows the GPIO to be used as true LVDS differential pair interfaces, like when interfaced to the AD9628 analog board, discussed below.

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Although the CV supports both 24MHz and 50MHz clock oscillators for user HDL designs, only the socket for the 24MHz one is populated with a SiTime (www.sitime.com) clock generator. I found it impractical purchasing a single 50MHz oscillator, as the shipping costs far outstrip the cost of the device itself, so I headed over to the SiTime website and ordered two free samples.

I used the part number generator and ordered the part, SiT9201AC-S1-25E-50.000000, which I received, quite kindly, a few days later. It's a tiny part measuring 2.9mm x 2.8mm x 1.27mm and will probably require a USB microscope, like the one we reviewed previously, to hand-solder. It is a 2.5V device and works in the temperature range of -20° to 70°.

The part that I ordered has tolerance of ±20 Parts Per Million (PPM), hence the S1 in the part number, whereas the 24MHz clock and the DDR3 clock on the board both  have a tolerance of ±50ppm. So if you intend to order a clock oscillator I suggest that you do the same and order the part with the same tolerance, the SiT9201AC-S3-25E-50.000000. We do not think using the ±20 ppm part will pose any uncertainties in a FPGA development environment, although this is left to be seen.

The BeScope Bundle

As mentioned previously the BeMicro CV can be purchased as a standalone development board or as part of the BeScope Bundle (for a limited time only?). In this section of this post we look at the bundle and suggest it could be a better investment than buying the BeMicro CV standalone, as it costs only $1 more!

The bundle consists surprisingly of the BeMicro CV, the AD9286, a 500MSPS ADC board, a high quality oscilloscope probe and an Interposer board. Given what you get for your money we feel buying and receiving this kit is like celebrating the proverbial birthday and Christmas on the same day. The rest of the components of the bundle are described below.

The AD9286

The AD9286 on this analog board provides a 500MHz analog bandwidth and is the core of the dual channel analog oscilloscope bundle. However to us it screams Software Defined Radio (SDR) every time we look at it. 

According to the AD9286's Analog Devices webpage.  "The AD9286 is an 8-bit, monolithic sampling, analog-to-digital converter (ADC) that supports interleaved operation and is optimized for low cost, low power, and ease of use. Each ADC operates at up to a 250 MSPS conversion rate with outstanding dynamic performance"

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We don't know too much about this device and have only just started looking at its capabilities. However, we are pleased enough with what we have read about it so far to begin investigating designing a Radio Frequency (RF) Analog Front End (AFE), to attach to the BeMicro CV's SDK 80-pin socket, such that we can use the AD9286 in a multi-channel Software Defined Radio Project. Although the board has a mini USB connector on its underside, it is used for power only.

The BNC Oscilloscope Probe

The oscilloscope probe provided with the BeScope Bundle can be seen in the image below and is all black. The provided probe with the BeScope Development kit, the one without the BeMicro CV, is grey in colour and looks somewhat less chic.

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The probe has a bandwidth of 100MHz and a rise time of 3.5ns with an input resistance of 1MΩ/10MΩ ±2%. Also, it has an input capacitance of between 10-35pF, as listed in the image below taken from the user guide.

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This probe should work well with our DS1074Z 4-channel oscilloscope reviewed previously.

The BeMicro SDK/SDP Interposer Board

The Interposer board is an adapter that connects various SDP Analog Devices evaluation boards to the BeMicro CV's 80-pin Edge Connector. According to Analog Devices it is described as the key element in simplifying hardware and software evaluation systems.

 

006-000022d.pngThere are definitely some interesting boards available including I2C and SPI controller boards (SDP-S), as well as  ADI’s leading analog, mixed–signal and RF product component evaluation boards.

Quite surprisingly I found an advert for this Interposer board alone for $50, as can be seen in the screenshot below. This probably means we are getting an extremely good kit or with have been had! My feeling is that it is the former rather than the later.

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Conclusion

Our first impression of the BeMicro CV FPGA development board, which is being touted as an entry level FPGA development board, is that it  is actually quite a good one. We envision its use in small projects  where it ticks all the right boxes in terms of functionality, cost, weight and robustness. However, IOHO, the lack of mounting holes is inconvenient and could be considered to be a poor decision.

We think this is the right board to use in our 17 DOF robotics kit project, as it is light, has variable precision DSP blocks and a generous selection of GPIO's, as discussed previously. The BeScope Bundle offers amazing value for money with the probe alone valued at between £5-£7. However, those who want to cash-in on this amazing bundle, which is limited to one per person, may need to hurry, as it may only be available for a limited time only. It gets the thumbs up from us.

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