Many of us dream about the wonderful widget we could build that would revolutionize our homes, parking, health, gaming, factories or whatever domain gets our creative juices surging, but how many of us take it the next step? Even when you’re ready to live on your savings, prototypes can be expensive and royalties add to the pain. Fortunately, ARM have extended their DesignStart program to FPGAs, in collaboration with Xilinx, eliminating cost and royalties for M0 and M3 cores. OK, I’m sure these are folded somehow into device pricing but that’s invisible to you and your savings will last longer than they would if you had to pony up ASIC NREs and license fees or even a conventional FPGA plus license fees.
ARM have been running the DesignStart program since 2010 with a lot of success – over 3,000 downloads and 300 new licensees in the last year alone. Free stuff really does attract a following. The appeal on an FPGA platform is obvious to most of us. At around $70 for a Spartan 6 bread-boardable module, you wouldn’t have a hard time defending that this could easily be absorbed in the family budget. Knowing that you can now get a Cortex M1 (the FPGA-optimized version of the M0) or an M3 – both as soft IP – makes this even more appealing. The most expensive part of your initial effort may be the Keil MDK, though ARM do offer a 90-day eval on that software (maybe you can develop your software really quickly 🙁).
Of course a CPU plus your custom logic may not be enough to meet your needs. Maybe you need some serious multi-processing capability and perhaps wireless capability, so now you’re looking at a Zynq or even a Zynq Ultrscale device. These definitely cost more than $70, but still a lot less than an ASIC NRE. Sorry, the DesignStart program doesn’t extend to A-class or R-class cores, but it still extends to the M1 and M3 cores on those platforms if you want heterogenous processing. So you can prototype your ultra-low power product with high-performance and wireless connectivity when you need it.
The motivation behind this introduction seems fairly obvious. For ARM this is another way to further push ubiquity. Why even think about RISC-V if you can start with a well-known and widely supported core, supported by a massive ecosystem, at essentially no added cost and no additional effort? This should further extend the ARM footprint and network effect in a much more elegant and appealing manner than an earlier and rather embarrassing counter to RISC-V. Meanwhile Xilinx gets to sell more devices with this attractive profile; what’s to lose?
ARM also offers very reasonably priced Arty development boards (based on Artix devices) for makers and hobbyists. These will get you up and running with drag and drop programming, debug support and lots of other goodies. So you really can get all the basics you need to build that first prototype at minimal cost (apart from the Keil MDK).
Of course if you want to get beyond an initial prototype, you are going to have to buy more FPGAs and maybe upgrade to those higher-end FPGAs (but you can carry across the software you developed to those bigger devices). So you may eventually still need a family loan, or Kickstarter funding or a second mortgage. But no-one ever said that getting rich was easy…