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The People’s Dev Kit

Altium NanoBoard 3000

Opening the box of the new NanoBoard 3000, one is immediately pleased that Apple can’t patent “happy out-of-the-box experience.”  The newest Altium NanoBoard’s packaging and design aesthetic have a high-end pro-sumer feel that few commercial products attain, and which is certainly unique in the development kit world.  In the (vast) supporting materials Altium provides with the NanoBoard 3000, the company goes beyond how to simply connect up the bits and busses, espousing the philosophy that we all should be transcending traditional product development and creating “user experiences” instead of just features, functionality, and benefits.   In the development kit and its supporting ecosystem, Altium is practicing what they preach, and giving us in the design community an engineered user experience of our own – something that might be frightening at first if you’re not expecting it.

Beyond the slick packaging, there is everything functional you’d want in a new high-tech consumer product, right down to the “Quick Start” guide.  If you have the kit and a computer, you can start designing a new electronic product – without so much as a trip to Radio Shack.  

OK, I’m ready to plug mine in and start designing something, but we should take a step back and try to understand what is going on here.  The NanoBoard 3000 truly represents an interesting and unique confluence of market pressures, technology progress, history, and corporate motivations.  

First, let’s admit that, by and large, development boards themselves are commodities.  For anywhere from the price of a family meal at a chain restaurant to a nice business dinner out – you can buy a development board with a bunch of hardware on it that you can use to develop a prototype of your next engineering masterpiece.  Everybody, it seems, is in the development board business.  FPGA companies make development boards so people will design in their chips. Distributors make their own development boards – trying to incorporate as many of their line card items as possible.  Both the vendors and the distributors make development boards as a means to an end.  They understand that we often go to production with the same parts that were on our dev board, and they want us to buy their parts.  These companies can afford to subsidize their development boards, or at worst sell them at very small margins because what they’re really after is the big production orders that will follow.  

Altium’s motivation is obviously different.  The have no interest in selling us parts.  Altium is an EDA company (albeit a very unconventional one), so what are they doing here putting this box on our desk?  They too must be selling us something besides a bunch of FR4, copper, silicon and solder.  The answer, of course, is design software.  Altium’s roots go back to when the company was called ProTel in the desktop PCB layout business.  Co-founder Nick Martin was frustrated with the cost and complexity of EDA software and decided to develop his own – parlaying that into a business selling PC-based design software at a much lower price than the workstation-based, enterprise-class, EDA solutions of the time.  Fast-forward that philosophy a few years, a few acquisitions, several Moore’s Law iterations, and a few million lines of EDA code, and we find Altium Ltd. wearing a new suit, but still working to bring high-powered design tools to the masses at affordable prices.

Today, the company reasons, designing a new electronic product requires an integrated solution of both hardware and software.  FPGA technology allows us to put together complex embedded systems on a chip – complete with a wide variety of peripherals.  If we plop one of those down in the middle of the board and pre-wire it to most of the popular interfaces a product developer might want to use, we end up with a generic electronic product, just waiting for the designer’s secret sauce.

Design Tools for the Rest of Us

As development boards go, the NanoBoard 3000 is a very nice one.  Amazing, actually, considering the price.  The real differentiator here, however, is not the board itself.  It is the software, IP, and ecosystem that comes along with the board.  As we’ve discussed before, Altium’s “Altium Designer” suite is probably the most comprehensive integrated tool suite on the market – including system design, logic design, embedded software development, IP integration, FPGA design (mostly via the FPGA vendors’ tool suites running behind the scenes), and PCB design and layout.  The NanoBoard 3000 comes with pretty much everything except the PCB design components of that.  

Altium has thought through the whole product design cycle with the new kit – from concept through design and debug, and even into prototyping and low-volume deployment.  The NB3000 is cleverly designed so you can pop off the desk stand and slide it into one of several pre-made production enclosures, letting the development board serve as the final product implementation for many applications.  The only time you need to do more is if you want to cost-reduce for high-volume and/or better form-factor, and that’s where you come back to Altium for the higher-cost suite that includes PCB design software.  The nice thing about this packaging is that it is essentially pay-as-you-go.  With a minimal investment (the cost of the NB3000 kit), you can develop, debug, and prototype your product.  Once your design is solid and you’re ready to step it up for volume production, you step up your investment with Altium (still quite a bit cheaper than comparable solutions from traditional EDA companies) and go about your final production design work. 

Altium wants you to get to that point as quickly, easily, and certainly as possible, so they’ve really put a lot into the “user experience” of the NB3000.  In addition to the board and the software, there is a rich set of online training videos that walk you through the whole process from setting up the board to getting your design up and running.

There’s an IP for that!

In today’s design world, most of the work is done by plugging together pre-made IP blocks from various sources.  Altium has capitalized on that philosophy, making a broad portfolio of IP available.  In fact, the primary design metaphor in Altium’s environment is based on stitching together IP – in much the same fashion as designing a board with standard parts.  HDL-based design is possible, but it’s not the primary mode, so you won’t start your project with a blank text editor and a blinking cursor staring you in the face, taunting you with “go ahead, design something, I dare you.”  In Altium’s case, the IP generally also comes with the software stack to drive it as well.  This acknowledges the fact that most systems people design with the NB3000 will include an embedded processor, some peripherals, a bus, and some embedded software or firmware component – all integrated in an FPGA-centric system.

Altium’s philosophy seems to be to get our design thinking up a level – and in the training and intro materials, they talk about designing a user experience instead of a product.  For many engineers, that requires somewhat of a mindset shift – as discussed in Jim Turley’s latest piece in Embedded Technology Journal Design Crappy Products.” Altium is clearly going after the market with a grass-roots initiative.  The theory seems sound.  If they can enable a large population of talented engineers to create new, innovative products with minimal investment of time and money, they can build a following not just of their tools, but also of their philosophy.  An ideological match can build fierce loyalties.

Here in FPGA Journal labs, we’re putting the NB3000 through its paces.  In a future article, we plan to document and share a bit of our experience bringing up an application using the kit.  If you don’t want to wait, grab one and try it yourself – it’s about the price of a nice dinner.


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