Small Form Factor Computers Go Ultra-low Power

Agrowing number of mobile, space constrained or harsh environment applications are being designed for the military, industrial automation/HMI, digital signage and medical markets that are driving the need for ever-lower power consumption. These embedded systems have been underserved by existing SFF platforms that have not been able to offer ultra-low power operation, many times below 3 Watts, in a slim profile design. OEM developers have also been challenged to find computing platforms that deliver a flexible and scalable solution in terms of performance and rugged reliability with state-of-the-art interface and graphics support that mimics the same functionality as today’s smart consumer devices.

Figure 1. Patient monitor application block diagram example.
ARM processors are seen as a leading architecture solution for many embedded designs due to its open systems support for a wider range of interfaces and functionality. ARM processors have been proven to provide an ideal platform for low profile, high density embedded applications while also offering long-term availability and scalability that allows efficient development for multiple product generations.

Because of these advantages, more and more mobile connected solutions are now ARM-based. Today’s ARM-based solutions can deliver significant benefits by meeting a wide range of application design requirements that include:

• System cost constraints even with complex system integration;

• Broad network connectivity (Ethernet, Wi-Fi);

• Support for multiple connectivity and interface options (CAN, USB, SDIO, LCD I/F, I2C, SATA, PWM);

• Advanced graphical user interfaces that include graphics acceleration capabilities;

• Extensive operating system compatibility (Linux, Windows® Embedded CE and more);

• Scalability from a wide portfolio of product options that support a codecompatible roadmap;

• Application software portability.

Scalable Platform Options

Specifically benefitting SFF, low power applications, the operating power for ARM processors is less than 1 Watt and also supports extended industrial temperature ranges. This means ARMbased modules can satisfy extremely low energy consumption for applications such as very small portable handheld devices, as well as larger devices in which consumption must not exceed a few watts, but where the computing performance must be very high. ARM processors have demonstrated that they offer exceptional performance with dual/quad core CPU offerings.

Of particular importance to many embedded OEMs is that ARM-based platforms offer extended product life that is a minimum of seven years and up to 15 years. Ultra-low power operation is achieved with ARM’s no moving parts, small size and height, and eliminating the need for a chipset that help with higher density systems. In addition, ARM-based solutions require fewer pins and lower-cost power circuitry. Contributing greatly to SFF design, ARM-based module platforms give designers the ability to implement simplified passive cooling and effective thermal management for improved reliability. IMS Re search has projected that 40 percent of the Computer-on- Module (COM)-based applications will be ARM solutions by 2016.

Finding the Right Ultra-Low Power Solution

Figure 2. HMI/digital signage application block diagram example.
Obviously, design considerations vary greatly depending upon the specific application. The key considerations for ultra-low power designs typically focus on processor performance, integrated graphics capabilities, thermal design power (TDP) and, of course, price. Luckily, there are multiple embedded module options that allow OEMs to select the right combination of features to match their design.

For higher-end applications such as those that need significant CPU performance coupled with superior graphics and reasonably low TDP, one can find optimized solutions that utilize both the ARM Cortex A9-based quad core Freescale i.MX 6 and the NVIDIA Tegra3 processors. Very high-end systems will find module platforms based on the NVIDIA Tegra3 particularly suitable. This ARM Cortex A9 building block offers performance up to 1.2 GHz with graphics support for LVDS and HDMI making it ideal for graphic-intensive applications, requiring low power, low profile and the ability to withstand harsh environments.

Enabling SoC designs to scale from solo to quad core, module platforms based on the Freescale i.MX 6 family enable efficient development of smart devices in an extremely compact, fanless design that offer a wide performance range with excellent graphics performance.

For more mainstream applications where graphics are needed but low cost must be maintained, modules that integrate the single core Texas Instruments AM3874 Sitara processor provide optimum cost to performance ratios for applications that do not have high performance requirements. This ARM Core A8 building block is able to withstand harsh environments and offers a particularly low TDP, which is optimized for small form factor applications that must be energy efficient and operate in harsh environments.

Standardization Provides Ecosystem Support

The availability of new ARM-based Computer-on-Modules (COMs) based on the SMARC specification gives designers the ultra-low power, small form factor (SFF) computing platforms needed for next-generation mobile applications. The Standardization Group for Embedded Technologies (SGET) recently ratified the new SMARC™ Computer-on-Modules specification. Many companies, including Kontron, played influential roles in the development of the specification, which had the working title ULPCOM.

The Kontron SMARC-sAMX6i module supports extended temperature range operation bydesign with single, dual and quad-core ARM® Cortex A9 technology on the basis of the Freescale i. MX 6 series.
This new Smart Mobility ARChitecture is specifically developed for ARM/SoCbased extremely compressed Computeron- Modules. As a standard for extremely small ARM/SoC-based building blocks, SMARC has the opportunity to fill a very significant gap in the embedded market. The SMARC™ specification describes extremely flat ARM/SoC-based ultra-low-power Computer-on-Modules in a miniature format. The module specification is aimed at manufacturers of Computer-on-Modules as well as carrier board and system developers. OEMs and VARs benefit from the new specification due to the resulting comprehensive ecosystem that sees revenue opportunities for ultra-flat ARM/SoC-based Computer-on-Modules. The specification is available free of charge on the SGET website.

Minimizing Time from Development to Deployment

Pre-verified building block module solutions, such as SMARC modules, that offer software development tools allow OEMs to reduce the time from evaluation to deployment for a new range of mobile connected applications. This design approach enables companies to concentrate on core competencies, and eliminates much of the time previously needed to find, install, program and troubleshoot drivers or debug hardware. It is possible to reduce system risks and accelerate time-to-market using standard and comprehensive ARM-based software development tools. Pre-validated solutions also enable the reuse of an OEM’s application-specific software library with the added benefit of a flexible and scalable hardware platform.

Using a pre-verified open architecture ARM platform approach, designers can eliminate the time-consuming task of validating hardware because they are fully configured and tested to deliver the required interoperability and functionality. Application development, operating system integration and adding middleware can be streamlined without the need to validate hardware. An added value for end customers is that pre-validated building blocks provide necessary compatibility, interoperability and high reliability enabling OEMs to concentrate their efforts on specific application development instead of hardware integration.

Application Examples

The design of portable data terminals such as a healthcare patient monitor (Figure 1) requires ruggedness in a small form factor. Some of the possible main features for these systems include an integrated camera, bar code scanner, and wireless connectivity to communicate and access information on remote servers. A patient monitor may also call for an operating system that allows for custom applications, remote updates and ease-of-use in the field. The advantages stem directly from its ultra-low power, SFF attributes where lower power usage provides the ability to use the application for a longer period of time without a charge. It will also eliminate the need for a thermal cooling solution, thus enabling more portable devices. Finally, the low profile footprint of these modules permits an even thinner application.

For HMI and digital signage systems, an ultra-low power solution also must be optimized for performance and provide enhanced security with advanced encryption capabilities (Figure 2). The evolution of HMI and digital signage devices are moving from tethered connection- type systems to more portable and mobile solutions. These designs require superior graphics support for touchscreen displays and video. Broadband connectivity such as full duplex wireless communication with remote servers and data storage facilities is also a necessity. Most systems require IEEE 802.11abgn wireless LAN as well as 2G/3G/4G cellular modems to allow for true mobility. The high performance WL1271 Transceiver chip offers 2.4GHz IEEE 802.11 b/g/n and Bluetooth v2.1 + Enhanced Data Rate (EDR) transceivers.

Design Tools

Design tools such as board support packages (BSPs), operating systems, supporting software and other ecosystem resources are available to help OEMs get up and running quickly on ultra-low power modular platforms, giving them a head start on the total system design. OEMs should seek out suppliers that provide:

• Free or easy access to software;

• Low-cost development tools with reference code;

• Application-specific and advanced development kits;

• Access to Linux community, Windows Embedded CE and RTOS ecosystem of development partners;

• Driver software that is compatible with most high-level operating systems.

Allowing easier porting of applications between RISC and CISC architectures is extremely beneficial in terms of decreasing development time, risk and time-to-market. Helpful in meeting fast time to deployment goals are evaluation carrier boards that only require the module installation that is best suited for an application’s needs. An Evalua tion Carrier compliant with the ULP-COM specification is available to support a broad range of interface options dedicated for low power applications including Gigabit Ethernet support, SIM card socket, LVDS adapter, and multiple mini-PCI Express interface options.

This can also be streamlined with the addition of hardware-specific software services to implement necessary code modifications, which diminishes the fundamental decision criterion for the underlying processor architecture. Enabling OEM customers to begin using ARM technology immediately, Kontron offers ARM-based building blocks in bundles with extensive custom design services that include already integrated application-ready platforms at the board and system levels as standard products or customized solutions.

This article was written by Jack London, Product Manager, Kontron Computer-on- Modules (Poway, CA). For more information, Click Here .