The Future is Now!

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09.16.2015 – Black Mesa Labs was delivered a very unexpected large 2’x2′ (60×60 cm) package today. BML generally uses a U.S. quarter as a scale reference – but for this – a Pint glass is in order:

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Examining the shipping label – Realized the new Lattice ICE-Ultra FPGAs had arrived 3 weeks early. This new 40nm FPGA from Lattice is a game changer for both BML and the Maker Movement.

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Backstory – Back in May 2015, BML started experimenting with Lattice ICE40 family  as an alternative to large Xilinx TQFP devices for BML designs.  The ICE40LP384-SG32 appeared to be a game changer for BML as it was both low cost ( sub $2 ) and in a 2-layer PCB friendly package ( SG32 ). The big two FPGA vendors ( let’s call them Brand-X and Brand-A ) have gone entirely BGA for their FPGAs – which is completely useless for BML and the OSH-Park style 2-layer Maker Movement PCB designs and assembly. Lattice ( although offering mostly BGA ) has FPGAs in QFN packages ( aka MLFs, SGs ) which can be hand soldered. Sadly – the LP384 proved limited in capabilities – a simple Mesa-Bus bridge design that would easily fit in 200 Xilinx LCELLs completely filled the LP384 as 1/2 the LUTs were used as route-throughs ( consuming limited gates for simple routing ). The LP384 turned out to be about as useful as a large CoolRunner CPLD. But wait….

In June 2015 – Lattice announced that their newer ICE-Ultra ICE5LP4K ( 4,000 Logic Cells ) that was originally BGA only would soon be available in a SG48 package (QFN).  4,000 FPGA Logic Cells for $5 in a 7x7mm package that is 2-layer PCB friendly –  Sign me up!  Fast forward to July – the ICE5LP4K-SG48s were nowhere to be found in normal distribution.  BML contacted both Digikey and Lattice and learned the devices would need to be special ordered in quantity in uncut reels – with a minimum reel count of 50, and a minimum order of 10 reels. The ICE5LP4K FPGAs themselves are only $5, but 10x50x$5= $2,500 – not exactly within BML $100/month beer money budget.  Through persistence and careful negotiations, BML was able to secure a “Special Order” for a single reel of Qty-50 FPGAs – or $250 – manageable. Placed the order in July with an ETA of October 7, 2015 – but they arrived 3 weeks early – Christmas in September!

Inside the giant box was a little LP vinyl sized box and a whole lot of bubble wrap:

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Inside the little box, the giant reel:

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Unfurling the reel – the actual chips – this is all fifty chips:

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Single chip- 4,000 Logic Cells in 7x7mm package for $5 – how cool is that?

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Backside you can see how it is 2-layer friendly unlike BGA devices:

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This FPGA is really a game changer as it is a true FPGA, much more than just a simple CPLD.  It contains 80 Kbits of SRAM, an on chip ~48MHz oscillator, 39 LVCMOS IOs and 3520 Logic Elements ( LUTS + FlipFlop ). A close Xilinx equivalent ( in a much larger 14x14mm TQFP  package ) would be a device like the Spartan3 XC3S200. This new Lattice device is 1/4 the size and 1/3 the price and 2-layer PCB compatible. 4K LEs aren’t enough for a custom CPU or DSP work – but ample logic for bus bridging, UART designs and complicated FSMs ( Finite State Machines ).  My general rule is 100 LEs a designer can easily consume in a short day of RTL design, 1,000 LEs in a week, 10,000 LEs in a month. 4K LEs is a perfect canvas size for BML designs.

Next up is assembly. BML has 3 PCBs that were waiting for these devices to arrive, Mesa-Video, Mesa-Logic and Mesa-GPIO:

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Initial use for this chip is the Mesa-Bus bridge function – a daisy-chained serial bus that self enumerates based on location in a serial chain and converts clear text ASCII UART serial into either SPI or I2C. Purpose of Mesa-Bus is to provide USB like expansion to simple microcontrollers like Arduinos using only 2 pins ( TXD and RXD UART Serial ). Stay Tuned – the family of Mesa-Modules are about to come alive!

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The Future is Now!