FPGA Journal Article

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I'm writing a feature article for FPGA Journal (www.fpgajournal.com)
about FPGAs and the re-birth of the electronics hobbyist.  My theory is
that electronics as a hobby went through a "dark age" period, maybe
from the early/mid 1970s until recently becuase of the inaccessibility
and cost of designing with state-of-the-art technology.  Radio Shack
shifted their focus from 50-in-1 project kits and hobbyist parts to
selling toys, cell-phones, and stereo equipment.

Now, with the emergence of low-cost, high-capability FPGAs, development
boards, and design software, I see a new age of hobbyist activity
beginning (as often evidenced in this group).

I'm looking for a few people that would be willing to express views on
this topic for the article.

I know, Austin will probably post a strong technical argument that
Xilinx FPGAs are uniquely attractive to the hobbyist, somebody from
Altera will send me a Cubic Cyclonium prototyping paperweight (they're
very cool), and Actel and Lattice people will post just to remind us
that they have low-cost kits too, but I'm primarily interested in some
info from real, live, "working" hobbyists.

Any takers?

Re: FPGA Journal Article
The low cost starter kits are great - not restricted to FPGAs.
  Both Microchip/PIC and Atmel/AVR have starter kits under $100,
  available from Digikey.

Anybody got a list of hobbyist friendly vendors?  I'm thinking
of places like Digilent.

The problem with FPGAs and CPLDs that I see is getting the raw
parts in small quantities at hobbyist friendly stores.

Most distributors are interested in large volumes.  They aren't
really setup for hobbyists.

The Xilinx store still doesn't carry the small Coolrunner IIs.
Digikey doesn't stock any of them.

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I am actually not so hobbyist, but I have my fun some times

Spartan3E VQ100 on single sided toner transfer made PCB
http://xilant.com/content/view/35/2 /

DIL24 (GAL like) Spartan3-100 based module works as
MMC card in card reader

http://xilant.com/content/view/33/55 /

my FPGA protoboard pictures are lost unfortunatly

xilinx isnt actually the best for hobby because of the 3 power supplies
sometimes you can get it with 2 power supplies (if VCCIO is 2.5)

so all other vendors have an small advantage here, with the true single
chips being the best, in generic it really looks like it may come to
DIY electronic rebirth again - if I can help here I would be glad -

there are so many thing any FPGA board can do because of
its reprogrammability

for true do it all yourself hobby bastler Lattice XP in TQ144
is possible the easiest to handle

so what info are you looking and what is it where you look
for takers ?

Actel has no low kits (no real low cost). for xilinx/lattice
kit prices start from 50USD 50EUR, for Altera has been same
all actel kits are 149USD+

the only interesting Actel thing is the Fusion starterkit and
that costs already 399EUR

Antti Lukats

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There is also a parallel in the Microcontroller sector.
With most new devices having FLASH and OnChip debug, the level
of entry for capable in-system debug, has dropped.

SiLabs have a sub $10 USB ToolStick, Zilog had some sub $10
demos, and I think now have $39 Eval/Demo Boards.
Freescale have a new $50 promo USB system...

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Lattice have the OpenSource Mico8, and their MachXO means you can get
a tiny, but working, SoftCPU in one low cost chip.

AS Assembler has added support for the Mico8, giving a second ASM tool flow.

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Hal Murray wrote:

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Yes, alas, more signs of 'big company syndrome' from Xilinx :(

How hard can it have been to have ensured the newish '32A/64A'
were there, before they yanked the older ones.... ?
( and in the new packages too ?! )

With the Webstore as it is now, users might think any/all of
a) They do not want these in new designs
b) There is some supply problem, with smaller CPLDs
c) Xilinx is phasing out emphasis on smaller CPLDs
[Xilinx are now last in release of new CPLD devices..]


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er, no, I wouldn't have said the late 70's or 80s were in any way a dark
age for the hobbyist...

admittedly around 1980 all a hobbyist had to play with was the Z80 or
6502, but at the time they WERE state of the art. It was probably the
last time a hobbyist could build a computer, modify or even write the
BIOS, and actually understand pretty much every detail of a machine
capable of running the leading OS and applications.

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If anything, it's a return to those days, with Linux in the place of
CP/M, (though Linux is too big to _really_ understand), and with WebPack
in the place of that fat orange book (you know the one), 16-pin sockets,
and the wire wrap tool.

Pete A will probably maintain the fat book was actually bright red!

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Digital clock, 1978.

FM tuner, 1979.

Dictation type cassette recorder, hacked for hi-fi stereo headphone use,
in progress summer 1980. Yes, the summer the Walkman came out. Grrr...

Richard Russell Board (Z80, 32k later 64k RAM; a BBC OS (not BBC Micro!)
and later CPM 1982,3,4) An oddball (but good!) in the ZX80, ZX81 era.

Mahogany laptop (64180 based) ca 1987, but it was getting obsolete
faster than I could finish it...

Vacuum tube amp restorations, various.

Some deaf microphones, ca 1995, until I gave up and used commercial
capsules. (The electronics and enclosures were my own though)

Don't know if these count.

...then working from home and non-electronic hobbies started taking

- Brian

Re: FPGA Journal Article
Don't have the time for an interview but I think you need to revise your
time line. I was etching my own PC boards, hand assembling boards, and
burning my own proms up to the early 90s. The "dark age" was probably in the
90s when everything switched over to surface mount.

I think the renaissance now is hacking WITHOUT a soldering iron, e.g.
hacking tivo or ipod software, building custom mame video machines,
re-flashing boxes like linksys routers, etc.

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Actually, I do have some possible places for you to go look:

University robotics competitions

The DARPA intelligent vehicle crowd (Berkeley's motorcycle used V2 Pro
for vision, just too bad they used a two wheel vehicle, and it fell over
and were disqualified!).  The Mars rovers used Virtex' for control, but
they have six wheels!

Amateur radio software defined radio:  ARRL Magazine has their technical
rag, http://www.arrl.org/qex /

which has had articles of SDR using both Xilinx and Altera FPGAs.  There
is even a hobby project SDR that comes with a FPGA.

Good luck,


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I think it was more about the fact that it became less possible to build things
for less money than
you could buy them for...
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I assume you are aware of www.fpga4fun.com - you should certainly ask for input

A few assorted ramblings, in no particular order....

I think a major development has been the availability of free devtools - for a
long, long time PLDs
and later FPGAs were the exclusive territory of the professionals due to the
high entry cost of the
software, not to mention the steep learning curve and cost of the computing
power needed at the
time. Few hobbyists would have the patience to wait through multi-hour compile

I think the FPGA hobbyist thing has happened more by accident than anything else
due to the
availability of cheap devboards and free software, rather than any conscious
effort by FPGA
I don't think the FPGA companies have yet really woken up to the needs of the
low-volume user
market. Contrast this with companies like Microchip in the MCU arena, who have
always had a policy
of supporting the lower volume users, not necessarily hobbyists in particular,
but by catering for
low-volumes this happens anyway - easy availability of chips in sensible
packages at low volumes
makes a big difference, and many hobbyist/student users go on to be professional
users, which  in
the long term has to be good for the business of the companies whose products
they first started
playing with .

I'm a little surprised that we haven't yet seen (well not that I've noticed -
apologies if I've
missed you...) any of the many hobbyist oriented suppliers that have appeared in
the MCU area in
recent years start looking at making very low cost FPGA boards - for example a
PCB with a 40 pin DIL
footprint containing a small FPGA, config device and JTAG connector maybe be
quite popular.
As long as FPGAs are the preserve of distributors like Avnet,
low-volume/hobbyist takeup is going to
be limited. Packaging is an obvoius barrier, and I doubt that many FPGA
hobbyists venture further
than using ready-made demo boards.
On the other hand I also wonder how many hobbyists actually have a need for the
speed and power that
an FPGA provides - there are so many fun thnigs that can be done with
microcontrollers, how many
hobbyists have the time and inclination to venture into the sort of speeds and
complexities that
need FPGAS (and have the test gear to support it).

I would be somewhat skeptical about FPGAs being anything to do with a 'rebirth
of the electronics
hobbyist', if such a rebirth is  indeed occurring. Unless maybe you consider a
move by some of the
people that were messing with MCUs into FPGAs a shift from a software to a
hardware activity, which
is tenuous at best..! OK, a few hobbyists are moving into work that is of much
greater complexity
than was possible without FPGAs but I doubt that there are many who have seen
FPGAs as a way into
electronics in general.  

From a personal  point of view, although an electronics professional, I also
manage to do the
occasional hobby project, and recently ventured into the world FPGAs for a
project that would simply
not have been worth the effort doing without the availability of a cheap FPGA
devboard and software
to base it on :  www.electricstuff.co.uk/ektapro.html (lower half of page), and
I already have plans
for another couple of 'fun' FPGA projects.

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Well, I would say that the 'dark age' began more in the early to mid 80's when
everything started going surface mount.  Lots of people experimented with 74XX
parts back when they were in DIP packages.

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it doesn't matter who makes the kits, per se, it's the fact that for $100 now
you can buy an FPGA starter kit with 300,000 to 400,000 gates or so (and a
good amount of memory).  I really think the Xilinxs, Alteras, Lattices, etc.
know what they've got.  Perhaps they don't want to be bothered with a
consumer/hobbyist market, however, I think that a company like Radio Shack
could really capitalize on this: kind of like a return to the 50-in-1 project
kits we had as kids, only now it could be 50,000 in one with an FPGA board,
memory, USB interface, etc.  They could setup a website where people could
download & share code.  They could sell addons: sensor boards, etc.  Given the
success of Lego Mindstorms (and there's the new Lego NXT robotics kits coming
out this summer) it seems to me that there is an opportunity for consumer level
FPGA kit priced under $200.

Software engineers could be a good market for an FPGA kit aimed at
helping them to create hardware accelerators for software - maybe a relatively
small market right now, but it could really grow if hardware acceleration
became 'easy' (or at least 'easier').

Also, look at the success of Make magazine: it seems to indicate that there's
potentially a big market of makers, tinkerers, hardware hackers, etc.

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I think the advent of open source FPGA related design software will also help
bring in more hobbyists.


Re: FPGA Journal Article
I have struggled for decades to come up with enticing demo projects for
digital circuits, and I have made my rules:
It must be something that cannot be done with just a microprocessor.
That means it must be something fast. Audio, video, radio, robotics
come to mind.
Or, for FPGAs, it must be a platform that allows all sorts of
variations. Like the Swis Army knife of electronics.
Most likely it must be something that appeals to a limited number of
people. That way the toy industry has not yet made it available for $
9.99. (That was the death of some of my keyboard synthesizer projects
in the 'seventies.)
I think a secondary light-triggered (slave) flash unit would be very
useful for all those small digital cameras, but that does not need an
FPGA...  :-(
Peter Alfke

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Why not an fpga  synthesizer project ?

Projects like that appeal to people.

Things like the fpga4fun projects.

Something like  a music visualiser like the ones in winamp etc
most micros aren't powerful enough for that.

Or a software am  radio.
Use a fpga to replicate a couple of dollar tranny radio.

Or some simple dsp projects like filters without using system
generator or core generator.
Pitch shifter, simple wah effect etc

Update all the old analog type projects the hobby magazines have/had for

One company could probably capture a lot of the hobbyist market if they
produced a pdf magazine or quarterly with these sort of projects.
As others have said provide the source code and maybe even an area to share

A bit like the Atmel applications journal when it started out.

I'm still surprised non of the fpga companies have targeted the
US board of education market like parallax has with the basic stamp.

Use a s3e or s3 starter kit or dip module, with a "simple" soft-core that
has a basic compiler for it
that hides the internals.
Simplify the schematics with like an icon based design environment like

Could also easily target this at robotics as well.

Get them using your products from 12 years onwards.

Could stimulate designs like this by having a circuit cellar
design contest and targeting it at the hobby market.


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We are half way there at the moment and a lot more is coming to fill in the
gaps.So wait and see.

John Adair
Enterpoint Ltd. - Home of Raggedstone1. The Low Cost Spartan-3 Development

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On a sunny day (12 Jan 2006 17:10:56 -0800) it happened "Peter Alfke"

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OK I wanted to shut up on this, no I am no hobbyist, but I once was one.
Still I tinker with stuff on the side.
No running light etc.. is the interest of the 'current tinkerer'.
Yes, high speed video.
The current tinkerer (in me) needs an FPGA board with H264 decoder
capable of doing H264 main profile, something like this:
Stream #0.0, 50.00 fps(r): Video: h264, yuv420p, 1920x1088

The current tinkerer knows there is no real H264 acceleration graphics
card with Linux driver, the current tinkerer also want to decode any
The current tinkerer KNOWS systems change every few years, and wants to keep
using the same hardware as long as possible, the current tinkerer wants
VGA DVI and perhaps HDCP, and the current tinkerer wants Ethernet RJ45
100 MB/s to connect to the board.. and Linux soft like WebPack-8.1 to program
The current tinkerer knows he needs a dual core Pentium 4 3.2 to pull
it all of in software (better then that, even dual Opteron does not hack it
actually), so here comes the price advantage of the FPGA solution.
But only for so long, until the first H264 chips or accelerated graphics
cards are on the market.

So, throw in the H262 codec IP (or just the decoder) with the required
soft and 'demo board', make sure it has that VGA (without earth noise
problems), and RJ45 connector... and put it in the web shop.

Hey I have it all working in C, have the source... developing a H264 decoder
is some job.... maybe one of those C to HDL compilers... dunno.

So the real hobbyist I was in the sixties build his own vidicon camera and TVs
and what not... do not underestimate the real hobbyist ;-)
And that kind of person will go for FPGA.
The E Hobbyist was never 'dead', look at all the micro boards, then PICs, but
indeed these demo FPGA boards are much more then that, they are  universal
building blocks.
Just make sure it has the right IO.

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What?  No traffic lights and vending machines?  :-)

It's always entertaining when people pop up in various newsgroups
(including this one), wanting help with their vending machine project,
and insisting that it isn't homework.

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But why would you set one of these as an assignment as there are
lots of such projects on the net?


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If I were an instructor, I certainly wouldn't use those assignments.

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I can think of two ideas.

One is an audio digital delay.  A CODEC, some analog for the front and
back ends, a rotary encoder, some buttons, an LCD and/or some LEDs for
the user interface, an FPGA for the delay engine and the logic to
handle the user interface, and a couple of SRAM chips for the delay
memory.   The delay engine is a pair of address counters and you need a
state machine to handle the memory access, and a couple of shift
registers to do the I2S interface.  Hell, while you're at it, add a
digital input level meter and blink some LEDs.

A second is a simple logic analyzer.  Of course, the hard part here is
writing a Windows (or Mac OS X or Linux) host program.


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USB seems like the obvious choice, but I don't think any of the low cost
demo boards support that.

Some of them have VGA connectors.  If you have a spare monitor you
could do the display output in the FPGA too.

RS-232 is probably good enough to have a lot of fun.  115K works
fine with not-long cables.  1000 points is a reasonably size.
If you have 8 channels, that's 8K bits.  Under a second.

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Getting data from the analyzer hardware to the host computer isn't a
problem.  It's cooking up a nice display on said host computer that's
the problem, at least for me.   I plead "Hardware guy, your Honor."

I will say that it was easier to get my HID stuff working on Mac OS X
than it was on Windows.


Re: FPGA Journal Article
Kevin, I agree with you.
(even if I think that the starter kit are still too expensive for
people that want electronics as an hobby)
I'm going to write some articles for an italian magazine (Fare
Elettronica) about FPGA.
This magazine is for people that like electronics as hobby.
In my articles I'll talk about the Xilinxs FPGA and in 5 aticles I will
introduce people to this technology.


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