Arrow’s $30 FPGA Board Reviewed

We like cheap FPGA boards. It isn’t just that we’re cheap — although that’s probably true, too — but cheap boards are a good way to get people started on FPGAs and we think more people should be using FPGAs more often. One inexpensive board is the Max-1000 from Trenz and Arrow. At $ 29, it is practically an impulse buy. [ZipCPU] did a great write up on his experience using the board. He found that some of it was good, some was bad, and some was just plain ugly. Still, for $ 30, it seems like this might be a nice board for some applications or for getting started.

Billed an IoT Maker Board, the tiny board sports a Intel (formerly Altera) MAX10 device with 8,000 logic elements, a USB programming interface onboard, 8 MB of SDRAM, and both PMOD and Arduino MKR headers. The MAX10 has an analog to digital conversion block (with an analog mux for up to nine channels) and the ability to host a 32-bit soft controller onboard, too.

On the good side, the board is cheap and powerful. It doesn’t have a lot of I/O on board, but it has enough expansion options that you shouldn’t have any problems. The bad side was mostly documentation and driver issues. [ZipCPU] kindly linked to the documentation he’s found. He also mentioned it was hard to tell where pin 1 was on the board. However, we noticed in photographs the PCB has square pads to indicate pin 1, so maybe he had an earlier version and this has been corrected. Still, if you were a beginner, this is the kind of thing that could put you off.

The biggest problem, though, was the lack of Linux drivers. This was later fixed, but he found the Linux drivers didn’t work, and required him to remove other FTDI drivers which was not convenient. The good news is that the open source libsvf driver worked fine. If you are planning on using this board with Linux, you really need to read these instructions. We tried the same drivers and noticed, however, that they will work, but they are flaky. As mentioned in the review, you have to unload the FTDI drivers, but you also have to kill the jtagd server so it will find the adapter if it ever starts with the wrong drivers. We’ve also had jtagd just lose the adapter and require a reboot to find it again. So the libsvf drivers are better, although it is certainly less convenient.

By the way, Trenz has other versions of this board that cost a little more but have more memory and logic elements. You can find them on their site along with the one Arrow is selling, although last time we checked they were out of stock.

We’re always looking for small cheap FPGA boards. If you want really tiny, check out this design over on Hackaday.io.

Hackaday

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