features and capabilities in detail. Smaller FPGAs, such as
those in the Spartan family from Xilinx and the Cyclone
family from Altera (Intel) are very suitable for use by
hobbyists. Many easy-to-use development boards are
available that contain an FPGA together with other useful
devices, such as memories, ADCs (not all FPGAs contain
analog-to-digital converters), clock oscillators, etc., in
addition to a few switches, LEDs, and seven-segment
displays. These development boards range in price from
less than a hundred dollars to thousands of dollars.
As an example, Terasic (a Taiwanese company) makes
a large number of FPGA boards using Altera (Intel) FPGAs.
Some — such as the DE0Nano
board pictured in Figure 3 — are
cheap (~$70) and very easy to use
for anyone who wants to learn
more about FPGAs. These boards
come with detailed documentation
on how to use them and exploit
their many capabilities.
Along with development
boards, one also needs software for
writing and compiling HDL code.
HDL compilers can be easily
downloaded for free from the
websites of all FPGA
manufacturers. Xilinx offers its ISE
and Vivado development suites,
while Altera (Intel) makes its
Quartus Prime software available
(Figure 4) free of charge to all
FPGA application developers.
These development programs can
be used for compiling either VHDL
For a novice, it is best to get hold of any good FPGA
development board and begin by writing simple Verilog or
VHDL code, compiling it, and downloading it to the
FPGA. In most cases, the compiler will flag syntax errors
and even logic errors — if any — which is a useful way of
learning an HDL.
Once enough practice has been achieved, one can go
on to write larger and more useful pieces of code that
actually accomplish real functions.
Examples of such
include an SD card
display controller, real
time clock, Ethernet
It’s possible to use
any small development
board inside a
complete project just
as an Arduino board,
for example, can be
embedded into a
(like Digilent) make
small pinned FPGA
modules that can be
28 November 2017
FIGURE 3. A DE0Nano FPGA development board containing an Intel
Cyclone IV FPGA. (Courtesy of Terasic, Inc.)
FIGURE 4. Quartus Prime FPGA application development software.
(Courtesy of Intel Corporation.)