Embedded Systems Conference 2005

Posted September 16, 2005

The good old Embedded Systems Conference was back in Boston this week, and as usual I couldn't avoid dropping by to wander the exhibit halls and pretend that I'm in a position to place an order for a million nifty chips instead of begging companies to sell me one or two. There was a lot to see, but I'll just mention a few things that struck me as especially interesting or new.

Nordic Semiconductor announced a new model of their 2.4 GHz transceiver chip. Various Media Lab groups have been using this family of chips for a while, with good results: they hit a sweet spot between letting the chip manage the details of the communications and letting you code to the metal when you need to (as opposed to being a prisoner of the Bluetooth protocol stack, for instance). The new L01 model is just a good all-around improvement: smaller, lower-power, and more features, in particular a very cool ability to deal with up to six other devices on different radio channels simultaneously. Sweet.

Also in radio news, Chipcon had their CC2430 on display, which is a single chip containing both a decent 8051 microcontroller and a ZigBee radio module. This sort of all-in-one solution is great for doing sensor nodes, since you always need some computation and some communications on board, but having separate chips for each is a needless complication in a lot of cases.

The XPort and WiPort devices from Lantronix fill another nice niche. The XPort looks like just a beefy ethernet socket, but actually has a microprocessor hidden inside: the idea is that you slap this on your simple boards to network- and web-enable them. The XPort talks serial to your legacy equipment and can, say, throw up a web page for you to monitor the output of your sensor or whatnot. The WiPort is the equivalent for 802.11 wireless, and is certainly the smallest, easiest way I know of to add WiFi functionality to a device.

I ran into Pico Computing, whose FPGA CompactFlash card I'd previously written about. It's a great device, but it's horrendously expensive, and it seems that they've been hearing the same thing from a lot of people they met at the conference (myself included). Fortunately, there is a substantially cheaper FPGA chip available in the same form factor, so they're now considering making an economy device based on that. Great!

Along similar "good reaction to my suggestion" lines, Kent Displays also seemed to absorb my advice to get their stuff on Digikey. Apparently they had avoided it in the past because they feared they'd end up spending a ton of support costs dealing with small-time users wrestling with their displays' nonstandard driver circuitry. But now they have some new panels which are much easier to interface to (just via SPI), so it's a lot more feasible for them to expand the distributor network. Can't wait... I've always wanted to play with their stuff, but they don't even have a price list on their site, let alone an ordering system.

And the special Best Schwag award goes to Atmel, who were falling all over themselves to hand me free (and useful) stuff, up to and including a whole AVR microcontroller development board! Unfortunately I already had bought one earlier, so I declined, but I'm happy to give them a mention since the AWare team has been very complimentary of their product lines. Strangely enough, the PIC guys weren't even at the show, so I guess they're running a little scared of the well-deserved competition from Atmel. Heh heh.