What’s The Best Xilinx FBGA Option For Beginners?

Estimated read time 6 min read

What’s the best Xilinx FPGA for beginners? It’s a common question, and it’s a serious one. You wouldn’t want to spend your hard-earned money on something that’s going to come up short or waste your time and dollars. Unfortunately, the fact that it’s a fair question doesn’t mean the answer is always that clear. In this article, multiple Xilinx FPGA boards are discussed among options on the market at the time of writing. The comparisons and analysis among them are restricted to what are considered good options for beginners and possibly intermediate designers. There are boards which cost many thousands of dollars and comparing them to hobbyist or starter boards isn’t really worth it since beginners are not likely to spend the money that enthusiasts from the hardcore crowd might. Still, prices and values do vary based on market conditions and product availability.

Still, cheap boards are good starting points for those new to the field. Having said that, not every cheap Xilinx FPGA board is a good one for a student or starter. Many won’t offer an RS232/VGA port, enough switches, LCD capability, or onboard 7-segment LEDs, along with other peripherals that beginners need to truly play around with their board to learn. As such, many users like Xilinx boards given how user-friendly they are how they offer a lot of onboard devices. Still, the prices are sometimes out of range to pay for the name and all the bells and whistles. Hopefully, some of the following boards will be affordable and useful development boards you or your student can use.

1) The Mimas V2 Xilinx Model Spartan 6 FPGA Board:

At the time of writing, this board was retailing for just under fifty dollars, and proving to be a common recommendation for students given its affordability. With 512Mb of DDR SDRAM, it packs some punch while powering up a trio of 7-segment LEDs, eight switches, six buttons, eight single LEDs, and 32 other user-defined IOs. It also has onboard audio codec, a JTAG/USB programming cable, a Micro SD card, and a VGA port. The strongest feature for students might be the robust documentation which includes sample coding students can use to test the board for great feedback.

2) The Embedded Micro Mojo Board:

This board was the product of a surprisingly successful campaign on Kickstarter that raised more than a hundred thousand dollars. This board is sleek-looking, and its heart is nothing less than a Xilinx Spartan-6. It has a handful of IO connections, but does require a separate power supply as well as a USB connection. However, that USB connection can interface into a microcontroller, so if you’re looking to play with a microcontroller and an FPGA simultaneously, this is a good board to use. With 84 IO ports, it beats out most other boards for the sheer number of connections. You also get 8 analog inputs if you need to interface that kind of circuitry. A possible downside is the Spartan-6 FPGA, though, as the ISE Design Suite becomes necessary, which is growing obsolete as Xilinx promotes their Vivado Design Suite. Although to be fair, Vivado is rather heavy-handed, and newer users are likely to get overwhelmed and not use most of its functionality.

3) Elbert V2 Xilinx Spartan 3A FPGA Board:

Coming at just thirty bucks from most retailers or suppliers, this board literally defines entry-level price. However, that doesn’t mean it sacrifices on potential and power. The onboard Direct Components Inc – Xilnx brand3A number XC3S50A-TQG144 joins eight single LEDs, six buttons, eight switches, and a trio of 7-segment LEDs. There are also 39 other IO connections, including a Micro SD card, VGA port, and onboard audio codec. One particularly useful tool from the supplier is a configuration programming tool used through the JTAG/USB programming cable, meaning this board can be programmed through traditional personal computers or even laptops, provided you have Xilinx ISE for generating a programming bitstream file.

4) The Papilio DUO:

This board as yet another Xilinx Spartan-6 that’s surrounded by a plentiful 54 IO connections. You also get 2Mb SRAM, so projects needed external static memory work out okay here. You can program this board using a microcontroller. Support is also strong for this board since it’s been around for several generations. It also has a high number of ‘wings’ you can use to interface with numerous peripherals. The wings aren’t much different than Arduino Shields. One potential drawback is the high price of the board, as it clocks in around a hundred dollars.

5) Xilinx Basys 3 Artix-7 FPGA Board:

This option retails often for eighty dollars and is designed with student and beginners in mind, which might explain why it shows up in so many college classes, university labs, and training courses. This board is also designed with the latest Xilinx Vivado design suite in mind, and a Free Webpack Version is available. The board has a JTAG-USB port to handle FPGA programming its 16 single LEDs, 16 switches, five buttons, four 7-segment LEDs, onboard XADC, and four PMOD ports, as well as USB hosting for mice and keyboard peripherals. It also has a USB-UART bridge to handle serial communications and a VGA port. The price might not always show up as listed though, as it is sometimes doubled for anyone not getting a student discount. This reliable and easy-to-use board is a great way to learn programming.

Which of these boards is best for you is honestly up to your budget, your access to getting one of these boards, and your specific needs. Regardless of which one you choose, especially if something greater comes along later, FPGA design ought to be fun anyway. All these works out great for those new to the arena, and prove great balances of price, fun, and features. The five boards listed here aren’t the only ones which are great to use or at the best price points, but you can’t go wrong looking for this handful of models whether you’re studying this formally or just learning it on your own time.

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