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Four ARM modules – A comparison
 
 

The companies interested in using an ARM module in their embedded computers may be divided into two groups. Firstly there are companies that already are using an entry level or mid-range ARM processor in their product. These companies are experiencing an increased demand for more functionality in their products to be competitive. Better graphics, a more advanced user interface including touch technology and a look and feel reminding of the latest mobile gadgets is required for the products to continue to appeal to customers.

 
The second group of companies is the ones that want to explore the possibility to lower the unit price of the embedded computer by introducing one of the new and powerful ARM processors on the market. Perhaps the sales volumes have increased so that it's possible to receive a proper return on investment on the probably larger development cost and then make money by reducing the price per manufactured unit.
 
The ARM processors that typically come up in the meetings with representatives from these companies are found in the upper performance segment for ARM processors. ARM Cortex A8, Cortex A9 and Cortex A15 are found have a performance that's comparable with entry-level X86-type processors like for instance Intel Atom or AMD Embedded G APUs.
 

Focusing efforts on product uniqueness

The first category of companies may have utilized their own resources to develop an ARM9 based embedded computer. Stepping up performance will definitely also challenge the development team with increased complexity in the processor platform. It's less likely that the time consuming and difficult in-house development project including Cortex A8 processors and above will the strategy of choice.

 

That's why ARM modules are on the market to offer the complex core processor technology in the shape of a ready-made and verified Computer-On-Module, COM with drivers, board support package and a standardized interface. The module interface is called form factor specifying for instance physical format, communication interface and contacts connecting the module with the carrier board.

 

Ready-made module on tailor-made carrier board

The strategy using a COM on a carrier board is sometimes called semi-custom because the design is partly tailor made. The COM is the part which is not custom made, but rather a ready-made Commercial-off-the-shelf, COTS product that enables development resources to be focused on the functionality unique to the product. Such functionality is found on the carrier board and in the application software. An option is to let Hectronic develop the carrier board and to concentrate the internal resources on the features and functionality of the application software.

 

The companies about to choose an ARM module for their next generation embedded computer typically argue based on a number of aspects of the application. The decision is largely guided by the required operating system, the demand for graphical performance and the number of displays in use and the communication interface requirements. Let's keep these application aspects in mind when taking closer look at a handful of ARM modules from Hectronic's product portfolio.

 

NR-A335X - Low power and cost-effective

The NR-AM335X is considered to be an entry-level module. It's based on the AM335x Cortex-A8 processor from Texas Instruments clocked from 300MHz up to 800MHz. The entry-level classification comes from the fact that RAM and Flash is limited to 512MB. The operating system options are limited to embedded Linux, Windows CE (Called Windows Compact in later versions). The Android operating system typically requires a more powerful ARM platform with more resources to work. The NR-AM335X module is limited to 2D graphics. 3D graphics or film is not an option.
 
 
A typical application for this entry-level ARM module is a Human-machine Interface, HMI in facility automation. In such an application the requirements for computing performance is typically not an issue. The display is not particularly large but a touch technology is used.
 

Q7-NT2 - Graphics performance in focus

Stepping up the performance requirements a bit and the ARM Cortex-A9 based module may be the one to choose, at least if graphics performance is prioritized. The Q7-NT2 module is based on dual core NVIDIA Tegra290 running on 1GHz. The graphics functionality is based on NVIDIAs technology. Linux is supported through NVIDIAs own distribution called Vibrante Linux.
 
 
Q7-NT2 may well be used in an application within Digital Signage, let's say in a system with a couple of 80 inch displays mounted on a wall in an airport. The module offers great graphical performance without too much power consumption and heat generation.
 

Q7-TI8168 - ARM and DSP join forces

The next module presented is in the same performance segment. It's based on the ARM Cortex-A8 TMS320DM8168 for frequencies up to 1.2GHz, with 1GB RAM and with 2GB Flash SSD onboard. The resources offered by Q7-TI8168 are enough for the Android operating system. The module offers full HD resolution and dual displays. But the more distinctive feature of the module is the DSP.
 
 
The DSP pretty much decides what applications are targeted by the module. We're looking at vision systems within industrial or medical applications. Other targeted areas are test and measurement requiring the increased performance of the type offered by the DSP. 
 

Q7-IMX6 - When quality assurance is main priority

Moving up in performance and based on an ARM Cortex-A9, there is the module Q7-IMX6. It's based on the Freescale processor i.MX6 and is available in single, dual or quad core versions. The interface contains gigabit Ethernet, PCI Express and SATA-II. Up to seven USB 2.0 ports and CAN are other resources in the interface.
 
 

The CAN interface is a clue to what applications the Q7-IMX6 mainly targets. It fits applications in transportation, heavy vehicles and automotive. This module will probably be used in trucks, forestry machinery and boats for instance controlling engines or powering user interfaces.

 

Freescale traditionally has focused on these markets and therefore has developed the strengths of a supplier that are often required from customers in these markets. We are looking at aspects of quality assurance through version control, traceability, long product lifetimes and support, not the least through the act that Freescale develops their own drivers and board support packages. These are all required by the typical customer from market segments like automotive, transportation, maritime but also medical technology companies.

 

I hope that this brief overview have offered some support in your choice on ARM module. There are more modules to choose from in the Hectronic product portfolio (ARM module product group »). And more ARM modules will definitely come in the future.

 
 

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