I recently conducted an informal poll of embedded board designers, specifically those who were designing with an ARM-based microprocessor. I was surprised to learn that the Freescale i.MX architecture dominated the space (note that thanks to the NXP/Freescale merger, the family is now part of the NXP portfolio). There wasn’t any one processor within that family that came out head and shoulders above the others, but the family itself was a clear winner.
This week, NXP is launching some new additions to the family, with an emphasis on graphics on the first pair. The i.MX 6DualPlus and i.MX 6QuadPlus (Figure 1) applications processors are designed with an ARM Cortex-A9 core running at up to 1.2 GHz (initially, a 1.0 GHz will be available). These devices are follow-on products to NXP’s i.MX 6Dual and 6Quad (without the Plus), and they maintain software and pin compatibility with those devices.
According to NXP, the parts offer a 50 percent improvement in graphics performance and memory efficiency. Integrated into the devices are 1 MB of L2 cache, a pre-fetch and resolve engine, and optimized 64-bit DDR3 or 2-channel, 32-bit LPDDR2 support. I/O comes through FlexCAN, MLB buses, PCI Express, and SATA II, as well as LVDS, MIPI display port, MIPI camera port, and HDMI v1.4.
“A perfect target for these new parts is a car’s reconfigurable instrument cluster,” says Marsha Chang, product marketing manager for i.MX 6 series. “Now, rather than dealing with manual dials and buttons, a user can interact with an aesthetically pleasing deep digital interface, with 2D and 3D enablement.” (Instrument cluster depicted in Figure 2.)
The i.MX 6DualPlus and 6QuadPlus can also drive the car’s infotainment unit (pun intended). Hence, in addition to better graphics, the same device can also handle Internet connectivity, GPS/navigation, video, and so on, all enabled through a touch screen display. And now that backup camera mandates are in place (by 2018), you can control them from the same CPU, too.
Other applications wherein the i.MX 6DualPlus and 6QuadPlus can shine include external vision and camera systems, seat-back displays on airplanes, digital signage, IPTV/media streaming, industrial HMI, and health care, such as patient monitoring and fitness equipment.
NXP is simultaneously launching a development board based on the i.MX 6DualPlus and 6QuadPlus processors, called the SABRE board (Figure 3). The board helps developers get their end products to market more quickly by allowing them to work with the majority of the processor’s primary features with the corresponding software support.
Just beyond the i.MX 6DualPlus and 6QuadPlus processors is the launch of the i.MX 7Solo and i.MX 7Dualprocessor families, which are scheduled for release in May.
According to Robert Thompson, i.MX ecosystem manager, “The i.MX 7 series is for people really looking for a device that’s very power efficient, with the ability to deliver long battery life. They’ll also get lots of high-speed connectivity in terms of PCI, Gigabit Ethernet, low-power DDR3 memory, and security.”
Thanks to its integrated ARM Cortex-M4 core, the i.MX 7 series has a heterogeneous architecture, with the ability to run at up to 1 GHz on the Cortex-A7 core, with the M4 running at 200 MHz. Hence, the M4 can run an RTOS while the A7 is available to handle a display interface, for example.
The i.MX 7 series architecture allows designers to utilize the different cores and peripherals and opens opportunities to maximize these features in the system architecture. In order to help designers reach the full potential, NXP has established a strong ecosystem that covers all the potential usage models for the diverse customers that will utilize the chip. In addition, other enablement tools including system-level reference designs, the SABRE development board (a general-purpose development board), and the WaRP7 wearable reference design (Figure 4) have been created.
The WaRP7 incorporates the i.MX 7Solo applications processor into a design optimized for wearables including small form factor, long battery life, usability, and low cost. This is just the beginning, as the ecosystem of both hardware and software partners will enable a wide range of companies and industries to shorten development and time to market. Six companies are currently available to jump-start evaluation board designs based on the i.MX 7 series.
Markets that will be well served by the i.MX 7 series include anything that can benefit from power efficiency and small packages, like the mobility market in general, such as wearables, handheld point-of-sale systems, and patient-monitoring platforms. It’s capable of running a high-level OS like Linux or Android and handling multiple interconnects like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
A good target example is the smart thermostat. It requires multiple levels of connectivity, such as USB, Gigabit Ethernet, UARTs, I2C, and CAN, as users want the ability to monitor and control their homes over the Internet. But they also desire the simplicity that requires a rich graphical user interface.