Testing Dialog Semiconductor’s GreenPAK tools for customized IC design
Every day, we at Motius develop customized cutting-edge technical solutions to the challenges of our customers. In doing so, we are always looking for new tech that enables us to deliver the best solution possible.
For instance, embedded systems and many other hardware-related products that we develop rely on application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs). As the name suggests, ASICs are integrated circuits specifically made for a certain purpose, instead of being general purpose ICs. But despite the potential benefits, high production costs for ASICs have been a pain for a long time and call for alternative IC design tools.
Lately, Dialog Semiconductor’s GreenPAK NVM programmable devices have positioned themselves as such an alternative with their tools for customized IC design. Benefits include:
- flexible hardware design
- accelerated development cycles
- reduced hardware design complexity
- lower power consumption
Logically, these potential benefits got us interested and we decided to test GreenPAK tools for IC design during Motius Discovery. Here is what we found.
What are GreenPAKs, how can you create them and what can you use them for?
GreenPAKs are configurable mixed-signal ICs, meaning that they can process both analog as well as digital signals and are applicable in a wide range of use cases, especially consumer electronics. With its GreenPAK Designer Software and GreenPAK Development Kit, the company promises a cost-effective programmable device with which designers can create custom solutions within a few minutes. In simple words, these IC design tools enable you to program a mixed-signal IC according to your needs and then burn it into your hardware chip. Dialog Semiconductor visualizes it like this:
The programming itself is done graphically by connecting and configuring pre-defined function blocks like look-up tables, state machines, power switches etc. As different IC design tools in the GreenPAK lineup have different sets of available function blocks, you have to pre-select depending on your desired application.
For us, that meant choosing those products that would enable us to build an all-in-one robotic controller, a controllable LED driver and a keypad scanner. However, we soon noticed that the devices had extremely long lead times of at least six weeks which made it impossible for us to test them during Discovery. However, we still went on to try out the software part.
Doing so is facilitated through Dialog Semiconductor’s extensive and well-structured manual-like “cookbook”. It outlines techniques and applications that help designers to use GreenPAK tools as effectively on their own. Moreover, there is a huge GreenPAK online community that gives you instructions for all kinds of projects — from low power binary computers to a digital dice.
Risks, problems, pros and cons
The first problem that you might face when using GreenPAK tools is the long lead time which makes them unusable for short projects. Further, the ease-of-use of these tools could result in them being applied to tasks where simpler solutions are possible. This, in turn, could result in bloated, overengineered products.
Another important aspect is the vendor lock-in that you face once you have set a design. From then on, you cannot exchange that component anymore and have to rely on the supply and support from Dialog Semiconductor.
A big pro argument is that GreenPAK IC design tools shine whenever you want to build a custom printed circuit board (PCB). They allow you to create your own design and, for instance, different functions which would require multiple dedicated ICs or bigger circuits could be integrated in a tiny chip. Apart from that, they are especially suitable for:
- standalone hardware monitoring
- when you do not have software engineers
- optimizing costs
- optimizing board space
- mixed signal processing
- avoiding software overhead
Compared to ASICs and FPGAs, GreenPAK devices are much cheaper and easier to pick up, but they are significantly more limited in their possibilities. They are like a very lightweight version of ASICs and FPGAs with much less power at a much lower cost.
Further, GreenPAK devices outperform microcontrollers. Based on our tests, their response is always faster and deterministic, and specialized blocks like power switches can perform functions which are not possible with a microcontroller.
Should you use GreenPAKs?
All in all, our tests during Discovery showed that GreenPAK IC design tools deliver on their promises as long as they fit the project. So, if it is a long-term project in which you want a specialized technological solution and create designs that might not be possible otherwise, this technology is definitely worth a try. With its development kits and its cookbook, GreenPAK also makes it easy for you to start from scratch. However, be aware of the long lead time, the limited possibilities and a potential vendor lock-in.