Why did we need a new module standard for x86 and ARM in credit card size? Because new technologies couldn’t be implemented with existing standards. That’s why SGET created the new SMARC 2.0 specification which is a perfect fit for utilizing the latest Intel® Atom™ and future feature-rich processors. Moreover, SMARC modules are expected to be the flagship for the high-end sector of credit card sized modules for many years to come.
When looking at the amazing new Intel® Atom™ processors (codename Apollo Lake) one can see that this low power technology offers very attractive features for Small Form Factor (SFF) applications. It is the first new really rugged processor launched in several years that includes support for the extended temperature ranges from -40°C up to +85°C as well as ECC support and real-time capabilities. Because the advancements of not only one but two processor generations are added up, it brings massive improvements in processor performance, memory bandwidth and power consumption plus increased battery life to these SFF applications. It also offers massive improvements in security, such as Secure Boot, BitLocker, Device Guard and Credential Guard, to ensure that devices are comprehensively protected from power-on to power-off. And it offers improved graphics performance that is estimated to be three times higher compared to the previous Intel Atom processors supporting extended temperature range options, which were codenamed Bay Trail and made available in Q4 2013. This is now more than 3 years ago – a really long period for the prospering IoT and embedded markets.
The perfect fit for SMARC Computer-on-Modules
With such extensive features, designers are now looking for the best approach to integrate these processors most efficiently in their applications. But do embedded designers need to develop everything from scratch? Using powerful Computer-on-Modules (COMs) offers massive benefits compared to full custom design for board level and system design engineers. Here are some of the key advantages of using COMs:
- They offer the entire core, application ready and with full support of all specified drivers.
- The carrier board for the modules provides dedicated interfaces wherever they are needed.
- Design guides help engineers to design these boards properly and circuit diagrams, that often are made available for free, deliver a perfect blueprint to start a dedicated design.
- The scalability provided by modules secures NRE cost in carrier board designs in the long term, consequently offering maximum payback on investments for decades.
- The community helps with competitive pricing and provides a rich ecosystem of accessories for the designs.
- Independent bodies such as SGET e.V, one of the standardization groups for embedded technologies, ensure the vendor independent development of the standards.
But which credit card sized form factor standard is the best? COM Express Mini cannot transport all the features of the new Intel Apollo Lake platform due to its comparably limited interface options with only 220 pins for the Type 10 pin-out. How about Qseven? Unfortunately it does not offer full feature support for up to three 4K displays with resolutions up to 4096 x 2160 @ 60 Hz? Nor is this expected for the future as Qseven is more dedicated to deeper embedded solutions not requiring so many graphics interfaces. So, to utilize these benefits also for the high-end sector of credit card sized modules, the embedded module vendor community came together within SGET and defined a new revision of the SMARC specification which previously used some outdated parallel interfaces and was somewhat proprietary due to the undefined function block which was often used to route vendor specific interfaces. Now, new SMARC 2.0 modules are available with Intel Atom processors that bring massive improvements to the high-end class of SFF modules.
Mobile support including wireless interfaces
It is quite amazing to see how many features, vendors such as congatec have implemented on SMARC 2.0 modules. One example is the standardized RF connectors for antennas of wireless interfaces, which can be integrated on the module via a M.2 1216 slot. This is a brand new feature for modules and unique to SMARC. It is a big help for designers as the antenna design is specified and verified to be used with various protocols such as WLAN and Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). Now designers can get this functionality, which is a perfect match for many handheld applications, on an off-the-shelf module.
But SMARC 2.0 modules are not only a perfect choice for this application area. Providing two Ethernet interfaces, they are also ideal for in-vehicle applications requiring a single cable to string systems up, like pearls, and for the horizontal as well as vertical integration of the systems in IoT gateway and edge server applications as well as industry 4.0 installations.
With the big step from SMARC 1.1 to 2.0, one focus of SMARC is now also on multimedia. Via the 314 pins of the MXM 3.0 connector numerous multimedia interfaces are available, allowing up to four independent video outputs which is amazing for many digital signage applications. Imagine: OTC displays at fast food restaurants powered by a single SFF computer; outdoor digital signage with one display at each cardinal point; four HMIs in larger machinery; gaming computers with four different displays. Fantastic! This broad video output set is combined with 2x MIPI camera interfaces and two audio interfaces via HDA and I2S, enabling stunning user experiences up to brilliant 4K. It goes without saying that all the common interfaces are offered as well. SMARC 2.0 features up to 6x USB including 2x USB 3.0, four PCI Express Gen 3.0 lanes and 1x eSPI. Even USB-C connectivity is made available for the first time for SMARC designs.
What else counts?
Talking about latest technology trends like USB-C, engineers highly welcome any application-specific, hardware-related software support from the COM manufacturer enabling them to quickly create new reliable custom specific applications. So OEMs should definitely glance at what is offered here. It is not always the cloud itself that is a must, because each customer has its own demands. What counts is far more often what is offered directly in conjunction with the modules, such as USB-C support or a standardized cloud API that elevates a COM to an IoT gateway managing communication with smart sensor networks as well as the clouds. And with optional Embedded Design & Manufacturing Services, even complete custom specific system platforms can be made available quickly.
A final note
Some vendors suspect that SMARC 2.0 will substitute Qseven. We do not think so, because Qseven only features 230 pins, which means it is by far a better option for smaller, low-power designs with fewer interfaces. As a result, it can also represent a better cost alternative to the fully featured SMARC 2.0 modules. Furthermore, Qseven is very well established in the embedded market and has a broad range of supporters, ensuring Qseven will remain the better design candidate for deeply embedded and cost effective embedded system designs.
The credit card sized congatec SMARC 2.0 modules are available with either the Intel® Atom™ processors x5-E3930, x5-E3940 and x7-E3950 for the extended temperature range from -40°C to +85°C, or with the Intel® Celeron® N3350 or quad-core Intel® Pentium® N4200 processors.
The SMARC 2.0 specification makes full use of the interfaces provided by the Apollo lake Platform and additionally integrates wireless interfaces on the module as an option.
The congatec carrier boards for SMARC offer everything embedded design engineers desire: 1x USB‑C, Wifi, Buetooth, 2 GbE as well as 3 graphic interfaces and many other features to make a perfect basis for evaluating the new SMARC 2.0 COM standard.