FPGA Evaluation Boards

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There are a bunch of FPGA evaluation boards on the market with which one can start learning about FPGAs and having fun. Three boards are discussed here. Actel's IGLOO Icicle kit (with an AGL125 IGLOO FPGA chip), Xilinx's Spartan 3E starter kit (with a Spartan 3E FPGA chip) and Altera's DE2 Development and Evaluation board (with an Cyclone II FPGA chip).

Below I present the main characteristics of these boards from an educational perspective. On the left you can find some designs for these boards. All the designs are in Verilog.

Actel's IGLOO Icicle kit

I'm not sure if one can use the word "cute" for an FPGA board, but that's definitely what comes to mind when looking at the Icicle kit: it's small, the OLED display is blue (on Rev. D boards) and it looks very pretty at night!

picture of altera de2 board

The main sale point of Actel's IGLOO FPGAs is their very low power consumption and this kit is designed for the evaluation of this feature. This means that the chip on this board is much smaller and the board does not have the features of the other two kits. Still, there are plenty of features to play with:
  • Blue OLED Pacer PMO13701 96x16 display
  • USB to UART
  • User I/O
  • 3 user LEDs
  • 2 user push-buttons
  • built-in lithium rechargeable battery

There is no additional memory on the board so one has to work with the 36 kbits on the chip itself, and there is no additional ROM. The chip is based on nonvolatile memory technology and thus retains its state while powered off.

Actel provides the Libero design suite that I found relatively intuitive and easy to work with, and it comes with Synplicity's Synplify and MentorGraphics ModelSim licenses.

This board is a great way to get familiar with FPGAs, and at $99, it's also relatively inexpensive.

Altera's DE2 Development and Evaluation board

picture of altera de2 board

The Altera DE2 has a complete range of devices such as an audio CODEC, a TV decoder, IrDA and an SD connector. Also, the 8 7-segment displays, the 18 switches and the 26 LEDs are very useful when experimenting and debugging a design. Like the Xilinx Spartan 3E starter kit, it is large enough and has enough memory to run an embedded linux.

  • 16-Mbyte StrataFlash
  • 8-Mbyte SDRAM (enough to run uCLinux)
  • 4-Mbyte Flash
  • 18 switches with 18 red leds and 8 green ones
  • Ethernet 10/100
  • Infrared port
  • 24-bit Audio CODEC
  • PS/2 mouse or keyboard port
  • RS232
  • TV Decoder (NTSC/PAL)
  • 16 x 2 LCD Module
  • SD Card Socket

Altera provides an evalutation of its devlopment environment (Quartus II) and it also provides itsNios II soft processor environment (EDS) for evaluation. They also provide an interesting set of exercices (labs) for digital logic and for the Nios. These labs are a great way to get familiar with FPGAs and I highly recommend to anyone new to digital logic and soft processors to go through them.

Not inexpensive at $495, but a great board designed for educational purposes.

Xilinx's Spartan 3E starter kit

picture of spartan3e starter kit board

This is an relatively inexpensive kit ($149) with many features. It's absolutely perfect to start experimenting with FPGAs. The FPGA is sufficiently large and the board has enough memory to get an embedded Linux running.

Xilinx provides an evaluation version of their tools (Xilinx ISE) but not of its soft processor (MicroBlaze) environment (EDK). Instead they provide a microcontroller, the Picoblaze, with a very neat and tidy development environment and a bunch of extremely well documented example designs. For many tutorial purposes the PicoBlaze is adequate, although one has to program it in assembler rather than in C.

The feature/price ratio of this board is undoubtedly the best out there.