Tag Archives: SAM D20 evaluation board

Please explain to Grandma: What’s the SAM D20 Xplained Dev Board?

My side of the family is very small. I have two parents and a sister, and it stops just about there. My girlfriend’s family, on the other hand, is quite the opposite. A large family means regular family events, and after close to ten years, I still haven’t met everyone. This is just one of those occasions, where I smile, and pretend not to be terrified.

There are a few people walking around the room, but the three mains congregation points are in front of the huge fireplace where apparently someone has attempted to put in a small tree, and just push it in as the end burns away. The table is full of food, and quite a few people are nibbling on delicious snacks. Then there is apparently a line of grandmothers at the back of the room. I hear my name spoken from this part of the room, and I turn around to see five grandmothers looking at me, as well as one or two unknown members of the family. I think I’m supposed to say something.

Excuse me?

– I said that you had just written a book.

Yes, indeed.

– What is it about? Asks one of the grandmothers. They all look at me.

We’ve all been there, a family reunion, where you suddenly become the center of attention. I am subjected to a two hundred kilowatt neon blue stare, the sort of look you get when you are asked the famous family questions; When are you going to get a haircut? When are you going to get a job? And when are you going to come over and see the neighbors because they have this fantastic son/daughter who is single and has just had this promotion at work! I think I’m losing weight just being subjected to this look. Here we go. It is a technical book—about ARM processors.

– Oh, that’s nice!

That one phrase says it all. I start counting under my breath. Two… Three…

– And, um, what exactly is an ARM processor?

I start to explain that it is a type of processor, the “brains” if you will of modern machines. A few weeks ago, I was asked to explain the IoT to someone, and that person is here, practically jumping up and down in excitement.

– Show them the Internet thingy!

Very quietly, from the privacy of my own head, I sigh. Internet of Things, not the “Internet Thingy”. Please excuse me while I go and fetch it. I also take the opportunity to drink an ice-cold glass of water.

Atmel's SAM D20  Xplained Development Board

Atmel’s SAM D20 Xplained Development Board

On returning, I show them the board, an Atmel SAM D20 evaluation board that I used for my book. I explain that the SAM D20 is based on an ARM processor, using Atmel’s technology, and that the entire board is used as a prototyping device, capable of hundreds of applications, depending on your imagination. I also point out the SAM D20 itself; this little black thing here, the size of a thumbnail that is the processor…

– That isn’t a processor.

I come from a very technology-phobic family. My mother spent weeks looking for a microwave with a single button because she doesn’t want to have to enter any information at all, not even the amount of seconds. My father’s grasp of computers is fairly limited; when asked how much RAM he has, his answer is “Enough, I suppose”. It’s the same for every single component. He uses them because he doesn’t have a choice. He still has a telex machine in his office. It’s almost a miracle I got into technology in the first place. With such a family, I’m used to translating, and I had already prepared myself for just about any question possible on my book, but I wasn’t expecting this. Excuse me?

– I said that isn’t a processor.

Umm… If you really want to be complicated, I suppose you could argue that it is a microcontroller, since it is based on the Cortex-M0+, but I don’t think that is what she means. What do you mean?

– I changed the processor on my computer a few weeks ago, and a processor is much larger.

The grandmother line has just shifted looks, and is once again analyzing m every move. My opponent is getting more approving nods than I am.

Well, yes, indeed, the processor on your computer is bigger, and if that is what you are looking for, it is better, faster, and just about everything you could imagine. The only problem is… bigger does not mean better. I’ve been in contact with Atmel for some time now, and I’ve been using their products for even longer. I know that they have an impressive range of processor families, and in each family is an even bigger list of members. There is a processor for just about every need. First things first, I need to sort out the Grandmother look.

Okay, so the processor on your computer is larger, indeed. The only thing is, you don’t use it for the same thing, do you?

– You mean that what you have in your hand isn’t powerful?

No, that isn’t what I mean. It is powerful enough. It all depends on what you need. The SAM D20 is an excellent microcontroller, and at 48MHz, it is more than powerful enough for most applications. That gives me an idea…

What kind of car do you drive?

– A medium range, why?

What, you don’t have a sports car? Why not? They are better!

– But I don’t need a sports car!

Exactly. There is a lot of choice, and you decided to go with a model that suits your needs; budget, comfort, utility. If you wanted better, you could have gone with a sports car. You might even have decided to buy a lorry, I mean, the engine is more powerful. It is the same thing with processors. You have a high-end processor in your computer, but do you really want a $500 processor on your wrist, using up so much power that you need a 5-pound battery on your back just to tell the time? The SAM D20 is ultra low powered, you could keep it on your wrist for weeks, maybe even months without a recharge, and it has more than enough power to display the time, and also some bonus features like a thermometer, UV sensor, heart beat monitor, and to record your physical activity and upload that onto your flashy fast computer. It doesn’t heat up as much, and won’t burn your wrist. Plus, it costs a fraction of the price.


I get a majority of approving nods. The granny stare now shifts back to the other person.

– Yes, but processors are getting faster, so why buy something that is slow?

It isn’t slow, not even close. It runs at 48MHz. Let me remind you that your first computer probably ran at 4MHz, and you were happy with that. Processors aren’t only based on their speed in megahertz, and ARM processors are exceptionally fast per megahertz compared to some other design. Also, Atmel added in even more intelligence, making this a very fast and efficient system. Atmel’s Event System makes this ideal for automation, allowing peripherals to react to external events without slowing down processing.

Now, I only have one more person to convince.

– So why would I need one?

Not only do you need one, but you already have several processors like this. Your microwave has one, your car has several to control braking, the radio, the on-board computer and even the different sensors. The world is full of tiny processors, helping us live our lives. And this tiny processor on the SAM D20 Xplained Pro board is one of hundreds of designs from Atmel. My book talks about just some of those designs, and also talks about the SAM D20 Xplained Pro, Atmel’s IDP (Integration Development Platform), and how easy it is to get a project up and running. Five approval nods. I won this one.

– I see what you mean. By the way, when are you going to marry your girlfriend?

Red alert! Five approval nods. I lost this one. Time to go!

How I explained the IoT to my parents

The industry has certainly gone through a lot of buzzwords, with some chronically overused or even distorted. However, the Internet of Things (IoT) is a buzzword with real impact, something that isn’t about to change. What exactly is the IoT? Members of the industry all know, and most are planning to either create or in some way help the IoT. Explaining the IoT to an engineer is simple enough, but explaining it to my parents was quite tricky.

Caen, France, one cold evening. A brief TV news article talks about a small company developing a new IoT project. Suddenly, I hear the question.

– James, what exactly is IoT?

I’m the residential geek of the family. I’ve blogged, I’ve written a book on embedded systems, and I’ve worked on dozens of embedded projects. I therefore am known as the PC repairer and iPad application installer, as well as the official family translator of “technical” to English or French. I clear my throat. IoT is short for the Internet of Things. Imagine lots of devices connected to the Internet, all of them together.

– What, like PCs?

No, not PCs. That’s classic, we’ve been there, we’ve done that. No, I’m talking about much smaller things. Things like, like… Well, take your thermostat over there! Imagine if it was connected to Internet. A roar of laughter. I wait patiently for them to figure out that I wasn’t laughing.

– Why would anybody want to have their thermostat connected to Internet?

Well, why wouldn’t they? I mean, look, the thermostat is set to 8, that’s pretty high. It is cold outside, and right now, France is experiencing some rather significant temperature variations, or at least for us. It was minus 3 Celsius a few days ago, now it is about 12. If your thermostat was connected to Internet, it would actually know if it was going to be hot or not. If it is a sunny day, there isn’t any point heating up that much. If, on the other hand, meterologists predict a cold spell, the thermostat might be able to adjust the heating, saving you energy.

– Well, that’s great, but why not just have a central heating computer?

Well, you could, and indeed some houses do have that, but why not put that intelligence directly into the thermostat, instead of having a separate computer? Why not let it make the decisions?

– But you can’t put a computer inside a thermostat! It would be huge!

I was expecting this. I had Atmel’s SAM D20 evaluation board with me, which is based on ARM’s Cortex-M0+. I show them the card, telling them that this card has all the power necessary to control a thermostat, and much, much more.

– That’s tiny!

Actually, it isn’t. This is pretty large. It is an evaluation board, designed to offer easy access to input and output pins, meaning that the board itself is larger than what you would find in a finished product. See that tiny little black thing in the middle? That’s Atmel’s SAM D20 microcontroller itself, about the size of a fingernail. This is what gives the board its intelligence. It is more powerful than your first computer and can run for years on a single battery.

– Well, I still don’t see why my thermostat should have access to Internet…

Put it this way. It can adjust the heating depending on the outside temperature, but the MCU is capable of much more. Imagine that you are on holiday, the device detects that you aren’t there, and it only keeps the house minimally heated. When it detects that you are coming back, it starts to heat again.

– How can it detect that we are coming back?

Well, it might look at your calendar, or detect that your car is coming back home.

– Well, how can it detect that the car is coming back home?

Because your car is connected to Internet too. Look, imagine, everything is connected. Everything. Your car. Your coffee machine. Your TV. Your alarm clock. Your morning meeting is delayed by 30 minutes, your alarm clock wakes you up 30 minutes later, the coffee machine knows to make your coffee later on, your car can start automatically to heat up at the right time. Everything becomes intelligent, and everything can talk to anything. I don’t know what will happen, I only know how. Just look at this board, the SAM D20 has it all! And when your thermostat suddenly needs to get some data from another sensor somewhere? It just updates itself! We are no longer limited by the technical side, these devices will be designed to be future-proof. We are only limited by our imagination, and we are getting very, very good at imagining the future.

– That is going to cost me a fortune in electricity!

No it isn’t, quite the opposite. By adding more electronics, you use less electricity, because your devices only consume precisely what they need.

– Wait a minute, is that actually possible?

Not only is it possible, but it has actually been done. We are only at the beginning of a digital revolution… Remember how Internet revolutionized the way you lived and worked? Well, you are about to live that all over again.

I leave them with that, and looking at their expression, I realize the short discussion is more than enough to get them thinking. I’ve barely scratched the surface. They might be thinking about the billions of devices creating data for the world to use, or possibly the sort of data their thermostat would solicit. Who would have thought a thermostat would want to talk to a car? That is only one example, and I can’t list them all, I can’t even think of them all. Who knows what the future will hold? IoT opens up an almost infinite amount of possibilities, and we will no longer create devices that only have one use, and can’t be changed. Rather, we will design devices capable of adapting to new inventions and a new way of living.