New processor makes SMARC 2.0 and Qseven modules more power efficient

This article describes in detail SMARC 2.0 and Qseven modules which contain the 8X version of the NXP i.MX 8 processor. It offers an extremely low power consumption, is robust and comes with many functional safety features. Such modules offer ARM developers greater design security and easier implementation of the processing core despite increasing complexity.

Figure 1. The new NXP i.MX 8X is now available on Computer-on-Modules – initially only for sample purchase, also in series quantities when NXP goes into serial production


By Martin Danzer and Daniel Gunter, congatec                        Download PDF version of this article


As NXP flagship processor, developers of embedded systems have long had their eye on the new i.MX 8 processor. It is the most powerful of the entire i.MX 8 family. Next to it, the new i.MX 8X processor family is now also becoming available. It extends the scalable range of the i.MX 8 series with a particularly low-power and robust processor variant with 2 to 4 ARM Cortex-A35 processor cores, with optional SIL 3 certification. Applications for this new, particularly robust and power-efficient 8X variant can be found, among others, in industrial devices, machines and systems demanding a high level of functional safety.

At the same time, these new 8X processors, which integrate the most efficient ARM cores ever, are also available for the extended temperature range from -40 to +85°C, making the new processor class suited even for outdoor and mobile vehicle applications. With an energy consumption of less than 3 watts in normal operation and a maximum TDP of 3-4 watts, such systems are also usable for completely fanless and solar-powered applications. Thanks to a high degree of graphics, video, audio and voice integration, the new processors are also attractive for implementation in HMIs, rugged tablets and handhelds. The integrated image processing functions further predestine the new processors for video analytics and the use of neural network technology for object recognition and situational awareness applications.

Application options are extremely diverse and range from smaller industrial control and automation systems such as PLCs, I/O controllers, robotics and handling systems, to building management systems, patient monitoring systems, automotive and intralogistics cockpits and on-board infotainment in aircraft and trains, to IoT, M2M and telematics applications with distributed devices of the most diverse designs, as well as to distributed smart video surveillance systems. If these devices are equipped with the new i.MX 8X, they offer significantly more performance than what was considered the ultimate in tablet performance until a few years ago. As they are also becoming more and more attractive in terms of price, they are opening up a growing number of new application fields and markets.

Figure 2. The main differences between i.MX 8 and i.MX 8X

 

Since the new NXP processor integrates all major subsystems and architectures of the higher-value i.MX 8 family, developers benefit from an extremely wide range of scaling options and maximum software reuse. But what are the differences between i.MX 8 and i.MX 8X? First of all, it should be noted that neither variant has anything to do with the i.MX 8M, which is already available in series production. This has been developed as a device for set-top boxes and TV systems and is therefore positioned in the consumer electronics segment, which has a completely different application focus than industrial setups, where LVDS support is still an important feature among other things. Only the two i.MX 8 and i.MX 8X variants, for which companies such as congatec provide support at the embedded board and module level, will be compared in the following.

Next to the already mentioned optional SIL support offered by the i.MX 8X, another difference is the use of ARM Cortex-A35 cores instead of ARM Cortex-A53 cores. No ARM Cortex-A72 processors are used and the overall feature set is more economical and therefore more energy-efficient, which reduces the power consumption of the 8X version to 3-4 watts compared to 12 watts for the fully equipped i.MX 8. The i.MX 8X is available in configurations with 2 or 4 Cortex-A35 processors together with 1 Cortex-M4F with integrated floating point unit and DSP for processing critical tasks such as fallback camera as well as system monitoring and wakeup. The i.MX 8, on the other hand, offers a total of up to 8 cores (4x A53, 2x A72, 2x M4F) and comes with a feature set that includes high-bandwidth and energy-efficient LPDDR4 as well as optional DD3 with ECC.

The i.MX 8 supports up to 3 independent displays as well as 1x SPDIF and 2x ASRC sound including comprehensive codecs for speech recognition and contactless interaction. Two of the displays are supported in Full-HD (1080p) and one in WVGA (864x480). The integrated video processing engine supports de- and encoding of 1080p videos in h.264 as well as decoding of even higher resolution 4K video in h.265. Another important feature is hardware-based resource partitioning, which allows processors and graphics cores to be separated, making it possible for multiple independent applications to run on a single chip. In combination with hypervisor support, developers have great flexibility when creating reliable systems – an important feature, for example, for in-vehicle applications: If the infotainment system fails, the rear view camera continues to operate safely in s/w mode. The same principle can also be applied to control systems in automation.

Figure 3. Both the i. MX 8 and the i.MX 8X on SMARC 2.0 and Qseven modules are offered. Customer-specific carrier boards and full-custom designs are also available

The core also executes 1 PCIe 3.0 interface for flexible expansion options as well as 1x USB 3.0, 2x USB 2.0, 3x CAN, 4x UART, 4x SPI and 1x 12-bit AD converter interfaces. The two provided Gigabit Ethernet interfaces are suited for horizontal and vertical networking in automation. Optional support for 1588-compliant real-time communication via the TSN protocol makes the core Industry 4.0 and IoT-ready, so that several welding robots/arms in a production cell can be synchronized in real time via Ethernet. In case of the i.MX 8X, this support can be realized by using an additional Qualcomm Atheros device, an option that is available for congatec modules. Audio video bridging (AVB) is also supported for video streaming via Ethernet, which is just as interesting for digital signage players as for surveillance cameras connected via GbE.

For video-based applications, the i.MX 8X supports a 4-lane MIPI-CSI interface, among others. The GPUs with 2-4 Vec4 shaders (1x GC7000Lite or 1 x GC7000UltraLite) also support OpenGL ES, OpenCL, OpenVG and Vulkan for parallel data processing besides the graphics output. The focus is on situational awareness applications with image recognition as well as AI and deep learning applications for machine learning. If you are missing something from this already extensive feature set of the i.MX 8X, you can assume that the i.MX 8, as the bigger version, will offer more in every feature category.

Overall, both processor variants also offer increased reliability thanks to the fully-depleted silicon-on-insulator (FD-SOI) manufacturing technology employed. It helps application processors manufactured in the 28nm process to drastically improve MTBF compared to previous technologies, and to reduce latch-ups thanks to the high immunity of FD-SOI to soft defects. All these functions, together with sophisticated security features such as high assurance boot, TPM timer, comprehensive encryption, and up to 10 active and passive tamper pins, make the new processors a basis for the development of extremely energy-efficient, high-reliability embedded computing platforms.

However, device developers in this small form factor segment often face the challenge of needing a specific design but none of the existing standard boards meets their demands. As a rule, standard boards do not provide the required performance, nor do they offer the interfaces needed to directly start with the application development. That is why developers are looking for the most efficient way to develop their solutions. Will they have to develop everything themselves or can they also use off-the-shelf components? And if so, which should they use?

Figure 4. SMARC 2.0 and QSeven modules with i.MX 8X processor come in three different variants (Source: NXP Factsheet)

 

Since the computing core is first and foremost a means to an end and does not require any further adaptation, industrial Computer-on-Module standards such as SMARC 2.0 or Qseven are recommended. With these application-ready modules, the powerful computing core can be installed by simple plug and play – and bingo, developers immediately benefit from a drastically simplified design in which all  is left to do is to fine-tune the specific interfaces on the carrier board. Computer-on-Module standards are also ideal for full-custom designs, as the computing core can be easily merged with carrier boards. A particularly important advantage of using modules is the fact that they can be scaled from i.MX 8X to the high-end i.MX8-M based on SMARC 2.0 or Qseven, even though the processors are not pin-compatible and would therefore require their own specific design.

Developers can immediately start their application design based on an evaluation carrier board and the extensive software ecosystem that comes with the board and modules in the form of customized boot loaders and BSPs. Based on carrier boards, first prototypes and small series can be developed and the computing core can be merged with the carrier board from break-even to full-custom design. Since the computing core comes application-ready, project risks are reduced from the outset. Another advantage of Computer-on-Modules is the fact that they can be made available for evaluation purposes prior to series production at NXP by companies such as congatec. Those who pursue first-to-market strategies for their i.MX 8-based system designs will be well served with SMARC 2.0 and Qseven Computer-on-Modules from congatec. As super components, they bundle everything an i.MX 8 application developer needs into an application-ready complete package and are very easy to implement right up to full-custom designs.

However, if you want to move from a standard product to a platform that is optimized for a specific application, using the right hardware platform is only half the problem, especially if it is an ARM processor-based design. For this reason, congatec offers a comprehensive software ecosystem for its standard components, which is provided off-the-shelf along with the hardware and accompanied by personal integration support for OEM developers so that they can perform their tasks more easily and efficiently. At the same time, the company also positions itself as a full-service provider for the entire embedded computing needs of OEMs. The Technical Solution Center (TSC), which is responsible for additional hardware platform related services, therefore offers an extensive range of solutions. TSC services include everything from bootloader and UEFI customization to any custom firmware development, as well as any questions around (real-time) Linux and company and custom projects with QNX or Green Hills. The service offering further includes the selection of suitable components for carrier boards – for example for SIL certification of the system design – as well as compliance tests of high-speed signals, thermal simulations, MTBF calculations and debugging services for customer-specific solutions. The goal is to always provide customers with the most efficient and convenient technical support – from requirement engineering to mass production.

By the way, when faced with a choice between Qseven and SMARC 2.0, congatec advises its customers to start new designs with SMARC 2.0, as this form factor enables a higher packing density and more graphics than Qseven. Existing designs or solutions with lower graphic requirements are still well served with Qseven. This also applies to the aspect of long-term availability, because this form factor is still the top dog in terms of quantities.


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