Computer-on-Module (COM) technology has become a welcome fixture to the embedded design community. These commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) modules package all the components needed for a bootable host computer so that the designer can concentrate on the unique features of an embedded product that differentiate it from the competition. COM methodology provides a faster time to market, reduced risk, and lower development cost along with better control over form, fit, and function. A plug-in computer module also allows embedded developers to keep pace with advances in processor architecture and interface technology without having to reengineer their products.
One of the more popular COM configurations for small form factor embedded designs is COM Express, an open industry standard defined by PICMG (PCI Industrial Computer Manufacturers Group). COM Express modules contain the CPU, memory, common peripherals like USB or SATA and I/O interfaces such as PCI Express or graphics. Embedded device manufacturers then create a carrier board that contains the circuitry and connectors that are unique to each application. Since the CPU function is separate from the custom circuitry, the manufacturer can select different processors depending on the application requirements. Industry standard modules also provide developers with multiple vendors to insure uninterrupted availability.
As processor technologies evolve, COM Express module manufacturers are enticed to fit the required functions into smaller packaging. For example, the new Intel® Atom™ E6xx architecture integrates the display, audio, and memory interfaces onto the CPU resulting in higher system bandwidth along with a reduced bill of materials (BOM) and board area. Responding to these new, integrated architectures, PICMG member companies have proposed updates to the COM Express specification to include revised connector pinouts and a new 84 mm x 55 mm “Ultra” form factor that is about the size of a typical credit card (See figure 1). PICMG implements new standard technologies with common connector pinouts so that designers can easily maintain compatibility with legacy circuitry or create new legacy-free products.
Anticipating the new “Ultra” form factor, ADLINK Technology announced the nanoX-TC COM Express compatible module featuring the Intel® Atom™ Processor E6xx series at 600 MHz up to 1.6 GHz along with up to 2 GB of 800 MHz DDR2 SDRAM (See figure 2). The module supports both 24-bit LVDS displays (with resolutions up to 1280 x 768 pixels) and SDVO displays (including DVI, TV out, and analog CRT) with resolutions up to 1280 x 1024. In addition, the module includes four PCI Express x1 lanes, two SATA ports, seven USB 2.0 ports, a serial port, and HD audio. The nanoX-TC operates at 0°C to +70°C with standard processors or -40°C to +85°C with extended-temperature CPUs. Power consumption is five watts maximum and three watts at idle, with support for S0 - S5 sleep modes.
In addition to the integrated display, audio, and memory interfaces, the Intel® Atom™E6xx architecture provides a number of performance enhancements and features that enhance small form factor embedded designs. For example, the E6xx series combines the 45 nm processor core plus memory and display controller into one package to reduce the component count and lower overall power requirements. Also, the front side bus used in previous generations has been replaced with a four-lane PCI Express interface giving designers the option of replacing the companion chipset with custom or third-party circuitry. E6xx processors also incorporate the Intel® Graphics Media Accelerator (GMA) 600 2D/3D graphics engine which delivers a 50 percent improvement in graphics performance compared to the predecessor.
Off-the-shelf modules with low power operation, built in video-processing, and scalability are key components in the development of small or portable embedded devices. The Intel® Atom™E6xx series architecture provides these features through a flexible I/O architecture that simplifies module design and shortens the time to market. If you are starting or have completed a small form factor COM Express design, please offer your suggestions and share your experience or questions via comments with fellow followers of the Intel® Embedded Community. You can keep up with the latest technical articles and product announcements at the Embedded Computing Design archives on COM Express.
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