Review of SLS CoreCommander Development Board (Cyclone III)

Table of contents

RoadTest: SLS CoreCommander Development Board (Cyclone III)

Author: mconners

Creation date:

Evaluation Type: Independent Products

Did you receive all parts the manufacturer stated would be included in the package?: True

What other parts do you consider comparable to this product?:

What were the biggest problems encountered?: Bad USB cable supplied by Vendor

Detailed Review:

SLS Core Commander Review

I was quite excited to be selected as one of the Road Testers for this module. I was also a bit apprehensive. It had been years (19) since I had been involved with programmable hardware devices. I had started life as a hardware guy, but eventually found I had a talent for software and shifted my career in that direction. It was only in the last year that I started participating in electronics again, this time as a hobbyist,  but I found that my excitement about hardware was still there. I have several Arduinos, a BeagleBone, a Maple, a Raspberry Pi, and a few other evaluation/prototype boards, so my review will be slanted with my experience with those devices.

First off, appearance, the SLS module came fixed between two pieces of lexan that were custom cut for the user interface board that was attached to the top of the main module. It made for a very attractive board and served the additional purpose of protecting the module from accidental damage by protecting the exposed pins from shorts while sitting on the workbench. Somehow however there was damage to the plastic surrounding the tft display. The Bit Jet Lite USB JTAG programmer was literally a black box, no stickers or markings whatsoever. Not like the pictures in the literature for the device.

In the Box:
The Core Commander Module and User Interface
The Bit Jet Lite USB JTAG device
2 USB cables
CD with software, drivers, etc.

The device description on the website mentioned a power supply supplied with the kit. I received no power supply, but I have plenty, and the device works adequately powered via USB.

Installation of the software was uneventful, but as I started it warned me that I did not have the Altera Quartus software installed, so I paused the installation, and started that process. The Quartus software is a very large package so my testing was done for the evening. I pretty much started the installation process and went to bed, hoping the web installer was able to complete everything properly while I slept. Everything went well so I was able to complete the installation of the CoreCommander software the next evening.

The documentation is installed along with the software package and when the installation is complete a web page is open in a browser window which will allow you navigate to the docs. The documentation is very detailed and complete, which will come in handy as I get to know this board better and come up with various ways to use it. I will say though, as a someone used to open source projects, I would have liked a quick readme that concisely outlined the installation steps in a few short sentences rather than making me read a whole manual.

My system is a Linux box, running Windows XP as a guest OS in VirtualBox. I started to follow the instructions to install the Bit Jet Lite device driver. I plugged the Bit Jet Lite into the USB port and saw nothing. Looking at the messages generated by the system, the linux box could not even recognize the Bit Jet Lite to pass the device information onto windows. I started to question whether this was a workable configuration. I had never had this problem before, but not all devices and software are the same, so I decided I needed to come up with their recommended configuration and start from there. Too many unknowns in this scenario.

The next day I borrowed an XP laptop and proceed to do the whole installation process over. Once I got all the software installed, I tried again with the Bit Jet Lite. The system didn’t recognize it. But at least now I had a known supported configuration and I could start troubleshooting without wasting my time. I disconnected the Bit Jet Lite from the supplied USB cable that came with the board, and unpacked the second USB cable. Plugged it back in using the new cable and immediately the system recognized it. Minus points to the vendor for sending me a bad cable.

I went through all the demo software contained on the CD and it all worked well. All of the cores provided are time limited, so they are great for prototyping and getting a feel for the board, the chip and its capabilities.

I went back to my linux box to try again through VirtualBox, everything seemed to be going well until I tried to access the Bit Jet Lite, the Virtual session had a hard reset and rebooted. It may be my configuration, but it seems like there could be potentially be issues with attempting to use this device in a linux host/Windows XP guest environment.

Back to the XP laptop. I then proceeded to run through a tutorial on creating an fpga design using Quartus (http://www.altera.com/literature/tt/tt_my_first_fpga.pdf). The tutorial went well. The docs supplied with the board were adequate to change the pin mappings. Although the tutorial created a counter with a 4 bit output to drive LEDs, I only had the two user LEDs available on the board. I mapped the LEDs to the 2 lsbs, and the button to the pin mapped to the up arrow button on the User Interface Board. I’m sure I could have easily mapped the outputs to the GPIO connector on the edge of the board and built supporting circuitry, but that’s not what the evaluation was about. After completion of the tutorial I programmed the device and uneventfully everything worked. So I was happy to learn that I did not have to only use the supplied designs and that I was free to develop my own cores. As I grow more familiar with Quartus and FPGA design in general, I will look to OpenCores.org to try some more sophisticated designs.

The cost of this device as compared to similar development kits appears to be on the low end. It looks to be quite a full featured board for the asking price of ~$250. As a hobbyist I would probably be inclined to buy Arduinos or Raspberry Pis, but if I were looking to professionally develop FPGA designs and System on a Chip designs this might be a very good board to get you started.

Overall my impression of this device is that it is a good entry level board. The daughter board has many features that would be very interesting to play around with. I have ordered an Altera USB JTAG programmer that I expect to arrive in a few weeks, at that time I will see if I am able to develop with this in a purely Linux environment. The board has vendor support for uCLinux so I will probably look to try that out once I receive the Altera programmer.

 

Update 6/30 : I received the Altera USB blaster and I am able to use this device in a Linux environment in both native mode and from XP running in VirtualBox. Will report more as I go.

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