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SMALL FORM FACTOR FORUM

Type 10? Not Again!

BY COLIN MCCRACKEN

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Our board-level standards organizations have really outdone themselves this time. The PICMG trade group wins the prize for the first to reach a double-digit pinout type for a standardized off-board interface. COM Express Type 10 wins by a landslide over a stackable architecture from the next closest purveyor of pinout proliferation. Incompatible signaling definitions on the same connector pins comes with a “plug-n-pray” user experience. Here is the part where Skype users and text messagers can drop in a “dull” (eye-rolling) or a “face palm” (head-shaking) emoticon. The Homer Simpson-inspired “D’oh” works too.

Okay, there’s some smoke and mirrors here. Several numbers were skipped on the way to this great achievement. As engineers and developers, we like to leave room for “future expansion.” While Type 10 is the single connector migration path for Type 1, more or less, Type 6 is the two-connector quasi-compatible migration path for Type 2. The thinking is that in another few years when the chip buses change again, Type 6 can post-increment by 1 (“6++” for you application developers) and the same goes for single connector usage (“10++”). Let’s use the more generally abstracted variable form, “COM++.”

While at first it appeared that Type 10 was too expensive and too tall (Z-height) compared to the latest crop of DIMM-PC card edge form factors that were poised to kill it, Intel’s new Bay Trail platform is giving Type 10 a big shot in the arm.

This year, Bay Trail stacks up as a strong retort to AMD’s eKabini SoC launch for applications requiring modest or no graphics. Scalability from single core 1.46 GHz to quad core 2 GHz in the same package allows a Type 10 module to hit a broad part of the market. Half a megabyte to 2 Mbyte of L2 cache and fast DDR3L 1333 memory speed combine with blazing I/O bandwidth from four PCIe Gen 2 lanes to dual SATA II 3 Gbit/s to USB 3.0 to give OEMs a large performance boost over previous Atom and Celeron processors.

Module manufacturers stuff 1 Gbyte to 4 Gbyte of RAM on Type 10 boards, and many of these models also cram in 4 Gbyte of affordable eMMC single-chip flash on board, which can hold most embedded operating systems. One Gigabit Ethernet interface is the norm, and the low 5-10 watt power dissipation allows a simple low-cost flat heat spreader plate to be the thermal solution. Some manufacturers provide more features via a board controller IC, such as dedicated I2C controller, hardware multi-stage watchdog timer, and non-volatile storage for anything from encryption keys to manufacturing data.

In PICMG vernacular, it’s actually inadequate to refer only to a module’s pin assignment type. While the electrical characteristics are critical, so are the mechanicals. Type 10 modules are implemented in the newest “Mini” size: 84 x 55 mm. They come with mostly new mounting holes, so be sure to buy the COM.0 R2.1 spec before launching into a re-layout of carrier boards based upon Basic (125 x 95 mm) or Compact (95 x 95 mm) sizes.

Although at this time there aren’t as many off-the-shelf Type 10-compatible carrier boards as for Type 6, more will come, especially after the launch of an award-winning carrier board the same tiny 84 x 55 mm Mini size with rich I/O and locking headers. The thin, light COM + carrier approach is poised to steal market share from the stackables community, where size, weight, power and now cost are important.

As usual, system OEMs have more product choices due to this additional form factor fragmentation. Reducing system size and weight has its benefits, certainly. Why not just let the market decide what modules will win? Already, many of the highest volume embedded computer module manufacturers are shipping Bay Trail with commercial and I-Temp alike in both this +12V rectangular Mini shape and in the +5V square Qseven form factor. With rapidly growing production quantities of each shape, there won’t be a VHS – Betamax shakeout; rather both form factors will achieve their cost and profit targets and thrive.

With Mini, the Million Module March may move massively into the market mainstream of modular manufacturing. Say that 20 times rapidly.