Sorting out Small Form Factors

Graphics Performance Drives Ever More Capable Small Form Factor Designs

Evolving pin-outs and integrated on-chip graphics options are enabling richer visual applications that will extend the idea of what have been considered embedded systems.


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It is well known that many embedded market applications have evolved to smaller, space-constrained designs that also require long-term availability and cost-effective embedded computing solutions. Small form factors have steadily filled this need by delivering increased computing power and improved performance across a range of platforms and markets. Yet as designers are working with some of the most versatile and energy-efficient processors ever developed, graphics performance is one important feature that has not kept up so readily. This limitation has forced embedded designers to constantly search for technologies that can deliver high-end graphics performance in a long-life, small form factor system.  

Today that challenge is being overcome, as new developments in integrated graphics are fueling greater design options in small form factor platforms. By integrating high-performance graphics, manufacturers are serving up a range of new performance options in small form factors such as COMs, Pico-ITX and PC/104. This represents a new learning curve for designers—understanding the design features and options that determine the ideal platform for peak performance, reduced development cost and fastest time-to-market. 

AMD Processors Fuel Improvements 

The recently introduced AMD Embedded G-Series gives designers a new alternative to increase graphics performance. This industry first integrates high-performance graphics directly into the silicon, eliminating the need for an add-on graphics card. The AMD Embedded G-Series is the first to include a Fusion Accelerated Processing Unit (APU), joining x86 computing capabilities and the parallel computing power of a general-purpose graphics processing unit (GPGPU) within a single computing entity. This gives designers discrete-level graphics capabilities, dramatically improving standard graphics-intensive small form factor applications. The integrated AMD Radeon HD6310 supports DirectX 11 as well as OpenGL 4.0, for extremely realistic 2D or 3D graphics with high frame rates and resolutions of up to 2560 x 1600 pixels. A dedicated graphics card is not required, allowing space savings and extremely high performance in a cost-effective system.  

Computer-on-Modules (COMs), for example—already an attractive embedded design solution in infotainment, transportation, medical devices and digital signage systems—can now incorporate integrated, high-performance graphics. This in turn allows designers to bypass less ideal design alternatives for achieving high-level graphics performance. The Kontron microETXexpress-OH Computer-on-Module (COM) features the AMD platform with support for DirectX 11, OpenGL 3.2, OpenCL and Microsoft DirectCompute. As a result, the graphics unit speeds parallel processing tasks for solutions designed to process parallel vector algorithms.

More on COMs

Mounted directly onto a carrier board, these highly integrated computers are well suited to applications requiring any or all of the following: a small footprint; high performance; low power consumption; design flexibility and scalability; or simple customization. A standard processor, bus, system memory and I/O components are incorporated into the COM platform—and should the application require greater computing power or better energy efficiency, the COM itself can be readily swapped for one supporting the necessary level of performance or power consumption.

COMs are especially designed for systems that can take advantage of off-the-shelf features while also implementing a good deal of customization in the carrier board over a long-term deployment. Customization can last multiple generations by simply swapping out one CPU module for another. This means that COMs work well not only for systems that require scalability from generation to generation, but also within a single generation. By integrating graphics performance onto the module, OEMs can readily swap in next-generation graphics when they upgrade to newer, higher performance modules, further extending the life of the carrier board within future product generations. 

With the AMD Embedded G-Series on the COM module, designers can achieve additional power savings through the integrated graphics technology, as the x86 CPU is “unloaded” when decoding video streams via the Universal Video Decoder 3.0 (Figure 1). This sets a new benchmark with system power usage. Further, the AMD Embedded G-Series APUs include five different performance versions, ranging from the AMD T44R with a 1.0 GHz single-core AMD 64 CPU and 9 watt TDP, to the AMD T56 N with a 1.6 GHz dual-core CPU and 18 watt TDP. The power consumption of the AMD G-Series is 9 and 18 watts, much lower than other graphics-based processor solutions. This level of features and performance within a single platform enables OEMs to fine-tune the performance and power consumption to the precise requirements of the application. 

Figure 1
The Kontron micro-ETXexpress-OH is based on the new energy-efficient and highly integrated AMD Embedded G-Series Accelerated Processing Units (APUs). Integrating a powerful parallel processing and graphics unit, in addition to the processor, this strikingly small Computer-on-Module stands apart because of its extremely high graphics performance as compared to other modules offered in a compact footprint.

The AMD Embedded G-Series also supports decoding of up to three HD videos in parallel, 1080p BluRay videos with HDCP, and HD MPEG-2 and DivX (MPEG-4) videos. Up to four displays are supported by a wide variety of interfaces, including DisplayPort, DVI and HDMI, as well as the embedded interfaces LVDS and VGA at a maximum resolution of 2560 x 1600 pixels. 

Time-to-market is greatly accelerated for COMs-based designs incorporating this high level of flexibility and graphics performance. A resulting design is very thin and ideal for high volume, long-life applications. It is suitable for either stationary or mobile applications, and can be integrated into a number of designs such as mobile terrain mapping or in-vehicle GPS systems. COMs are also an excellent option for point-of-sale kiosks used in more rugged locations such as a train station or on board a vehicle. In the medical field, COMs are used in cart-mounted patient monitoring medical systems and lower-end portable ultrasound systems. These are all diverse areas that share a common thread—they are likely to evolve applications and exceed end-user expectations based on improved graphics performance.

Design Options

COMs with advanced integrated graphics capabilities offer a simplified yet very powerful performance option, best illustrated in contrast to alternative design choices. For instance, graphics control can be delegated to the carrier board, however OEMs would need to develop the customization and design it directly into the carrier board. This would limit the flexibility of the system, and upgrading or adding new graphics functionality would require custom attention.  

While add-on graphics cards are another choice, they add cost and are a less than ideal option for a robust system. Designed to sit at a right angle next to the COM, add-on graphics cards take up space and may become a potential failure point as vibration can affect signal integrity if the card were to shift in its slot. An MXM card offers an alternative that sits next to the board, but the fact that it is connected via sockets similar to those used for memory can result in a failure point within the system. Neither option offers the most robust or rugged connection. Beyond this, graphics cards are manufactured primarily for the fickle commercial market that expects frequent change via improved features and performance every few months rather than the seven years commonly required for embedded systems.  

Further, the Type 6 COM Express pin-out is another new consideration for designers, enabling a performance jump from devices incorporating an earlier pin-out option and enhancing fourth generation graphics architectures used in advanced video applications. Type 6 is essentially based on pin-out Type 2, the most widely adopted COM Express pin-out type to date. Type 6 reallocates legacy PCI pins from Type 2 to support the digital display interface and additional PCI Express lanes. 

Improved patient care is just one of many areas primed to reap the benefits of the Type 6 pin-out.  Systems equipped with more powerful graphics display and processing features give medical professionals the ability to simultaneously use multiple displays that contain different forms of patient information. For example, general health information or records could be accessed and viewed on one display, while a second showed vitals such as blood pressure or respiration. This type of system would eliminate the need for a costly workstation while providing all the interactive, real-time data access required for proper treatment.

The Type 6 pin-out also considers future design options; the pins formerly assigned to the IDE interface (pin-out Type 2) are now reserved for future technologies still in development. This gives designers more to work with including broader native display choices and higher serial bandwidth than previously available. 

The addition of native support for the newest display interfaces simplifies carrier board design, which reduces time-to-market and TCO for graphics-intensive applications. PCI Express support for Type 6 is extensive and underscores the trend to migrate from legacy parallel interfaces toward pure serial embedded system designs for higher bandwidth and reduced latency. System designers have a smooth transition to next-generation devices via faster drives and peripherals.

PC104 and Pico-ITX Offer Additional Platforms 

While COMs are suitable in certain situations, there are additional viable options that should be considered to meet other application requirements. PC/104 is a standard, off-the-shelf form factor with all customization done through standard add-on cards that stack. A good fit for low volume and any range of life, PC/104 is easy to obtain, quite simple to work with, and available from many different sources. These boards are stackable—six high—suitable for applications that are not limited in height. PC/104 is optimal for industrial control and industrial automation (e.g., a user interface such as a control station). The correct combination of programming and peripheral boards can manage a range of operations in a single system, and provide even greater performance with integrated graphics features that offer increased design flexibility and options. 

For example, a sophisticated graphics environment could incorporate a module based on the accelerated processing units of the AMD Embedded G-Series, and include a 64-bit CPU, programmable graphics unit and a DDR3 memory controller. Supporting the latest 3D graphics libraries such as OpenGL 3.2 and DirectX11, the MSM-eO is well suited as an upgrade for existing PC/104-Plus designs that demand greater graphics performance with low power consumption. Its integrated, unified video encoder takes the load off the processor when displaying high-resolution videos such as 1080i/p, enabling designers to manage extremely compact multimedia applications, such as mobile infotainment systems, vending machines and mobile battery-operated systems (Figure 2). 

Figure 2
With up to 4 Gbyte DDR3 RAM, the Kontron MICROSPACE MSM-eO offers enough resources to speed up memory-intensive applications. Along with LVDS and VGA, the module also has a digital display interface (DDI) for DisplayPort, HDMI or DVI signals, allowing the flexible connection of a wide variety of monitor types. A total of two independent full HD displays (up to 1920 x 1080 pixels) can be controlled.

Pico-ITX is an alternative standard platform; while it can use standard or custom add-on cards, custom add-ons cards are used more frequently. With most of the integration already on the board, add-ons are executed through pin headers compared to the stack-up connectors on PC/104. While there are also fewer vendors supplying this form factor, it is an excellent choice when higher volume and longer life are key considerations. Pico-ITX is well suited for small boxes—for example, point-of-sale or point-of-information systems such as kiosks or digital signs (Figure 3).

Figure 3
The Kontron 2.5-inch Pico-ITX embedded single board computer (SBC) KTA55/pITX is the smallest SBC platform based on the AMD Embedded G-Series with Fusion technology. With an extensive range of dedicated interfaces, extremely small footprint (100 x 72 mm) and low power requirements, this embedded SBC is the fastest and most cost-effective entry in the development of graphics-intensive small form factor applications.

In brief, PC/104 is a good choice when looking at low volume, short life and minimal customization. Pico-ITX is a good fit if not much customization is required, a very small footprint is desirable, the inclusion of cables is not an issue, and the design can go into a box. However, for a great deal of customization, long life and high volume in a very thin package, COMs are a more suitable solution. With all three platform options, however, add-on graphics cards are unnecessary because newly integrated graphics features are more than sufficient, even for demanding embedded applications.

The growth of multimedia content requires support for enhanced graphics functionality that is not only rugged and reliable, but can also protect design investments for long-term deployment and provide a continuous upgrade path for OEMs. COMs are well suited to these design challenges and are making the most of new pin-out options, updated specifications, and a range of new features and functionality embedded in the latest silicon alternative such as AMD’s Embedded G-Series platform. Other small form factor platforms such as Pico-ITX and PC/104 integrate improved graphics technology as well—ensuring ready access to increased graphics performance across a range of platforms, and driving designers to expand their knowledge of embedded small form factor options to select when and why one platform is more appropriate than another.  

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