Page 1 of 1

Atmel or FPGA?

Posted: Mon Jun 11, 2007 1:35 pm
by Newz2000
Long time no chat. :-)

My Brother is heading off to Iowa State University in the fall seeking an EE degree. He's off to a good start already, having passed out of his first two sem of Calc. I want to get him a gift that would be fun and would give him a further head start on his studies. I contacted the advisor of the EE dept and asked what kinds of uC/FPGA devices they use there. The answer was Atmel for the lower (100/200 level) classes and FPGA for the upper level classes. He said he thinks some profs use arm, and its not unheard of for the BS to pop up now and then. (actually, he said Basic Stamp, but I say BS)

In our projects together we've stuck mostly to small PIC, logic circuits and 555 projects. Doing PIC stuff, I did most of the programming. Anything that had to do with big sparks, magnets and high voltage he did. :-) (typical teenager you know)

I'd like to get him a dev board that he can play with. Something that will give him the satisfaction of quick results with little effort, but will grow with him and guide him in accomplishing practical, useful stuff. He's only done programming in C++/C#/Java/Basic type environments, and honestly, I think high level languages are the way of the future.

Can anyone suggest a development board that I can buy as a gift? Again, the goal is
* ready to go and start using with little effort (easy to learn, all necessary parts included)
* Atmel or FPGA
* high level language
* can do practical stuff with it
* USB (or works with USB->serial converter)

Any suggestions for choosing between Atmel or FPGA? I'm not sure what the pros of each are, though I'm guessing that Atmel mcus are cheaper so if he lets the smoke out or wants to build a permanent circuit the atmel chips might be more practical. Seems FPGA is taking hold of the professional world though, so maybe that will serve him better in the long run.

Posted: Mon Jun 11, 2007 7:58 pm
by Yerry
Go Here:

It's a very inexpensive version of an Atmel-based uP board that was featured on MAKE magazine. It's a kit, but if your brother is an EE student HE CAN DO PUT THIS TOGETHER.[/b]

Posted: Tue Jun 12, 2007 10:18 am
by hp
I would say go with a conventional microcontroller (PICs, Atmel, Freescale, etc). The reason being is that FPGAs use a HDL which is somewhat harder to learn and radically different from standard computer programs.

Learning to program on a certain microcontroller is probably much more beneficial in the long run anyways since you get the best of both worlds, interfacing and programming. If you were to use a FPGA or CPLD, you would generally be stuck with some large demo or breakout board for some 100 - 400 pin SMT chip. I personally don't see the fun using elaborate and expensive demo boards.

It also depends on what your brother is interested in. If he's interested in robotics and device control then I would say stick with the Atmel. If he is interested in real time signal processing, processor design, VGA output (a VGA connector seems to be included of many FPGA/CPLD demo boards), then stick with a FPGA.


Posted: Tue Jun 12, 2007 12:31 pm
by haklesup
I agree with hp, he may not be able to do much with a FPGA or HDL based board until his third year. ... f2013.html
Here is a very low cost ($20) easy to get started kit from TI and its expandable to other more complicated uControllers in the same family.

There was a design contrest for this too but I couldn't find the link, there were many complete examples on the list.

In the end, if he is like most college bound persons, he will want cash or a cell phone plan paid for him.

Atmel, Basic Stamp and a few others market to students and classes but they aren't necessarily the best devices available.

Posted: Tue Jun 12, 2007 1:16 pm
by Newz2000
haklesup wrote:In the end, if he is like most college bound persons, he will want cash or a cell phone plan paid for him.
Yeah, but I want to give him something that he knows is from me. He's on our parent's cell phone plan, and he has a summer job for cash, so he's well off.

I like that board Yerry sent, because its ready made, high level and very versatile. Its not what I was originally thinking of, but I think its better than what I was picturing.

My original thought process was an Avr version of the BS PDB, maybe something like this EasyAVR4 from mikroelektronika. The problem with this is that you're limited by the layout and size of the board. So while he'd be able to use it to flash leds and send messages to the lcd, he'd not be building robotic ramen cookers or electro-shock alarm clocks with it.

So if I bought him two of those Arduino things, a decent bread board, a power supply and some misc stuff like shift registers, LEDs and darlington arrays, he'd should still get up going quickly.

My only concern is how useful is the arduino platform in the long-term? Is it basically a thin-layer around the avr platform (i.e. the step from Arduino to AVR is very small) or is it radically different from AVR?

Posted: Wed Jun 13, 2007 4:53 pm
by haklesup
Any chip you choose now will be obsolete (but not gone) by the time he graduates. Buy for now not later.

Normally you choose a chip to fit an application, you're swimming upstream. Any chip you choose will limit what applications are possible or practical. A good choice will still leave lots of choices though.

Posted: Thu Jun 14, 2007 1:38 pm
by GoingFastTurningLeft
Atmel makes the AVR series of microcontrollers...

I just got into them after getting an EE degree, fun things to play around with. Real cheap too... All the software needed to design and program is free, you can build your own parallel port programmer for a couple bucks, and the AVR's themselves are pretty cheap. I went with a Mega16 which does more than I need it to to use to learn and develop, and that was $7. Starting from nothing more than limited C experience, I was controlling stuff through my serial port with my own C++ computer program within a few weeks.

You can do all sorts of fun projects with them. is a whole site dedicated to it. Anything you can think of these guys have done it.

A lot more fun to play with than the boring Xylinx FPGA labs I had in college!

Posted: Thu Jun 14, 2007 2:37 pm
by philba
Ditto on the AVR. While a FPGA is going to be a lot more powerful, the ramp up on that is going to be steep for some one who hasn't done much in the way of any programming. I'd probably get him the Atmel STK500 plus a collection of expansion modules (depending on your budget) and a bunch of sample chips. ... d=607#1443 (scroll down)

Or you might consider the NGW100 - ... rget=atngw nice little linux based AVR32 board with an ethernet connection (2 actually).