FPGA Journal Article

I'm writing a feature article for FPGA Journal

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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?

Reply to
Kevin Morris
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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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Reply to
Hal Murray

"Kevin Morris" schrieb im Newsbeitrag news: snipped-for-privacy@o13g2000cwo.googlegroups.com...

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

Spartan3E VQ100 on single sided toner transfer made PCB

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

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my FPGA protoboard pictures are lost unfortunatly

xilinx isnt actually the best for hobby because of the 3 power supplies required 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 supply 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
Reply to
Antti Lukats

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...

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.

Hal Murray wrote:

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..]


Reply to
Jim Granville

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.

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!

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 over...

- Brian

Reply to
Brian Drummond

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.

Reply to


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,

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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,


Reply to
Austin Lesea

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...

I assume you are aware of

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- you should certainly ask for input there.

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 times.

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 suppliers. 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 :

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(lower half of page), and I already have plans for another couple of 'fun' FPGA projects.

Reply to
Mike Harrison

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.

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. don't 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.

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


Reply to
Phil Tomson

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
Reply to
Peter Alfke

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.


Reply to


I'll start by saying I represent manufacturer making low cost boards but I can pass offline some of the feedback we get from users of our products particularly our Raggedstone1 and low cost modules that we sell also. Generally I would say that the fact that FPGA boards like ours now cost less that it takes to fill my car with fuel so that the start-up cost is nearly inconsequential to most hobby engineers. Coupled to that you get free fully function tools from most silicon vendors, and that achieving timing in designs at frequencies below say 50MHz is now easy, the marriage of factors is allowing hobbyists to use the technology. Looking back to say 10 years ago most of these factors didn't exist or were very limited and the barrier to hobby use was hugh. I can be contacted through our support email or telephone number, available on our website, if you want a bit more feedback.

John Adair Enterpoint Ltd. - Home of Raggedstone1. The Low Cost Spartan3 PCI Development Board.

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Reply to
John Adair

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 fpga.

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 projects.

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 corechart

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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.


Reply to
Alex Gibson

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

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 encrypted.... 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 it. 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.

Reply to
Jan Panteltje


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 Board.

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Reply to
John Adair

I *used* to be an electronics hobbyist, but now I do it full-time.

The trend here is increasingly towards digital and software, increasingly away from actual electricity. The tools of choice become PCs and green eyeshades, same as the gear needed to be an accountant.

This is partly because it's less messy, and because universities can replace expensive lab benches and test equipment with cheap laptop PCs that the students have to buy themselves. Hell, you can get an "EE" degree now without studying electromagnetics!

I walked through the EE department at Cornell and counted screens. PC screens outnumbered oscilloscope screens by about 6:1.

That's fine by me: I design instrumentation that's analog intense, and the uPs and FPGAs play supporting roles. But a lot of kids are missing the luxury boat if the only numbers they know how to count are 0 and

  1. John

Reply to
John Larkin

Hello Kevin,

You are welcome to contact me directly. You know what they say about opinions... I have one, too. You can check out my hobby-ish activites at:

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(self-funded hobby) http:///
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(some funds from Ahhhnold and the State of California)

I'm standing on the shoulders of great people like Mr. Mike J from FPGA Arcade over at:

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Also, I think another very interesting product for recreational learning is the XGS, see:

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Of course, you could implement the whole XGS in a small FPGA, but for someone with a CS background (or none at all) a product like the XGS might be a very enticing first step into the world of electronics.

Eric Crabill Speaking for Myself

Reply to

Hi John, I design the same stuff. However, I find I'm using my PC more and more. Simulating it and getting the design right first spin is much nicer than fixing it later, at least that's what the CEO says. I have software on my PC that (I hear) uses lots of 0's and 1's together to model real numbers. Lovely! ;-) Cheers, Syms. p.s. But you're right. I don't own a boat.

Reply to

So, I wonder, how many people here are exclusively logic designers, and how many are more general EEs, who deal with the analog, power, thermal, and other aspects of electronic design?


Reply to
John Larkin

Well, I'm not really a hobbyist, but a VERY small business (just me, and sometimes a part-timer to help solder boards.) But, the level of stuff I'm doing (in my home business) is maybe close to hobby level. You might look at my web pages on that project, and see if it is of interest :

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All of the "control" or "controller" products have at least one FPGA in them. The PPMC has one FPGA and 2 CPLDs for the basic set. No way could I have done these without FPGAs. I have never used a development board, just bludgeoned ahead with my best guess of what the prototype should look like. And, just 2-layer boards, too.


Reply to
Jon Elson

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