It arrived. The postman came and said there was a parcel for me, and I signed for it. I knew what it was, it was covered in Atmel tape, with a beautiful Atmel logo on the side. A while ago, a friend from Atmel asked me if I would like to write something on the SAMA5D3 evaluation board. Of course I said yes, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it!
I’ve been using Atmel components for some time now, and I’ve also got some other Atmel evaluation boards at home. I used the SAM D20 Xplained Pro boards as an example for my book, both because of their professional design and ease of use, so I know the brand fairly well. I was already impressed with the SAM D20s, so I was expecting something good from Atmel. I wasn’t disappointed.
A few minutes later, a smaller box was on my desk. The SAMA5D3 Xplained. Opening it up revealed the card. It is bigger than what I had previously, but at the tame time, so is the configuration. The SAMA5D3 is Atmel’s conception of the Cortex-A5. Running at 536MHz, it provides excellent processor power for a very low power usage. This isn’t a simple microcontroller, it has everything needed to run a complete operating system. It opens up a whole new world; powerful applications with extensive graphics, advanced control and monitoring application were heavy calculations are needed… I can see one of these in my car controlling the entertainment system, but also the car’s vital systems. I’m getting ahead of myself. First things first.
The board. It is beautiful. That isn’t a criterion for choosing systems, I will admit that, but this is also all about first impressions. The board looks great, and it feels extremely professional. Has anyone here had one of those evaluation boards where you are extra careful because you get the feeling that it will fall apart? You won’t have that feeling with Atmel’s SAMA5D3 Xplained board. I wouldn’t have any issues handling it in a lab, or even placing it inside an industrial system. It looks and feels solid, the exact quality you expect from Atmel. The next time I train people in the art of bootloaders, I’ll be using this board.
First, a talk about the processor itself. As I said, it is a Cortex-A5 device, but Atmel rarely makes “basic” processors. They prefer to create rich designs, with enhanced I/O and communication, and the SAMA5D3 goes even further than that. I’ve worked on a lot of industrial designs, and we have often been limited by the communication peripherals. One particular design forced us to change some peripherals from UART to SPI simply because there weren’t enough ports. No, it wasn’t an Atmel design.
The SAMA5D3 has 7 UART ports, making me wish we had this MPU on that particular project. Of course, if you prefer SPI, then you have 6 SPI ports. Other serial communication devices haven’t been forgotten either, this device has 3 I2C controllers, 2 CAN ports, and one of the many reasons why I can see this particular processor used in automobile applications, it also has 4 LIN ports. If you thought that all of those ports reduces the amount of I/O, you would be mistaken; the SAMA5D3 still has 160 I/O ports, all with interrupts.
Enough of the processor, now the board itself. It comes with three USB connectors; two host and one device. There is a 10-pin JTAG connector, an SSD slot and a header for a micro-SD slot. And those connectors around the board? They are for Arduino shields, and are R3 compatible. The only Arduino shield that I have readily available is an Ethernet shield, but I won’t need that; the SAMA5D3 Xplained Pro has two Ethernet connectors, one 10/100 and one 10/100/1000. Both have a PHY and connector.
Slightly harder to see are the internals. Atmel’s SAMA5D3 has 256MBytes of NAND flash, and 256MBytes of DDR-II memory. When I said that this board could run an entire operating system, I wasn’t joking. This has enough power to run just about any OS; Linux and Android both work exceptionally well on this design, and the board can support just about any application, both from a software point of view and hardware. I’ve already talked about the impressive amount of serial communication ports, but I haven’t talked about the 12, 12-bit ADC channels, the LCD and camera interface, the resistive touch-screen interface, and the embedded crypto-engine. This is only about first impressions, and the word that comes to mind is “Wow”. Just, wow.
Usually, when buying a board, people asked “What can I use it for?”. Today, that question seems to be “What can’t I do with this?”, and to be honest, I can’t answer that right now.
Of course, devices cost money, and the more complicated they are, the more they cost. Add to that the exceptional build quality, and you might expect this evaluation board to be prohibitively expensive, but it isn’t. The board itself is available for under 70€.
A friend at Atmel asked me to write something on this board. Well, that’s what I’m doing. No, really. I have a full Linux distribution on an SD card. I’ve connected it to my home network through an Ethernet cable and I’m connected via SSH. The board itself is sitting on my lap, powered by a 9V battery. He wanted me to write an article on the board? That’s what I’m doing; I’m writing this review on the board, through SSH. I’ve been playing about with Atmel’s SAMA5D3 Xplained for a few days now, and I love it. Decades ago, I dreamed of having a small-factor computer, and that is when I got into the original Maker scene; we created home electronics, and controlled them from desktop computers. This board, sitting on my lap, is more powerful than that machine by an order of magnitude. The evaluation board itself has impressive potential, but that only reflects a fraction of what the processor itself can do. I’ll be having a lot of fun with this.