FPGA Beginner’s Series, 2: Opening the Package

From May 29, 2012:

I have to admit that I am intimidated by FPGAs, but it looks as if this development board will be an easy way to learn and explore the programmable device world. The package itself, which just arrived, is about the same size as a paperback book.

Inside we find the MicroBoard, two USB cables (micro-USB to USB-A, and USB-A to USB-A), DVD containing the Xilinx ISE design tools, and some paperwork that includes "Getting Started" instructions.

[Note that the 2015 version will have newer software, but will otherwise largely be the same]

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It's always exciting to receive a new development board

This board is a serious device, but it's been designed in such a way that even folks who are new to FPGAs can learn with it. If you’ve thought about adding programmable device skills to your bag of tricks, you can purchase one of these boards from Avnet for $89.00, and then we can share hints, tips, and techniques as we go. (No. I don’t work for Avnet or Xilinx, but Xilinx did give me the board to learn on.)

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The Avnet Spartan-6 LX9 FPGA MicroBoard

To start, connect the board to your computer with the Micro-USB cable as shown below. It doesn’t seem to matter if you plug the board in first or if you install the driver first, but it's important to note that the ISE design software will be locked to one computer, so choose your machine carefully. The other cable (USB-A to USB-A) will deceptively power the board up, but you won’t be able to talk to it and perform the initial tests.

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Make sure you use the Micro-USB cable

The driver brought me to my first stumble. The download Website URL for the driver is found at the bottom of the “Getting Started” sheet. Easy enough, but I somehow missed that this is an Avnet Website. It took me three tries with my recently created Xilinx account login and password to realize that I wasn't logging onto the Xilinx site. Once I'd straightened this out, I went through the registration process, but the site gave me an error page upon completion. Fortunately, the system did actually register me, so if you see an error page, simply pretend you didn’t and return to the download page. You should be fine. Hopefully this is just a temporary issue.

Once logged in and on the download page, use your browser’s “Find on this page” function and search for “CP210x.” The driver you need is a long way down the page, so using the search function will get you there faster. That link then takes you to the “CP210c USB to UART” setup guide, which, on Page 3, has a link to the actual download page at Silicon Labs. Go there and select “VCP Driver Kit.” From there, the instructions are clear. After a few more clicks the driver is installed. The yellow LED D6 (closest to the mini USB connector as shown in the image) will light up, indicating that this stage is done and working.

So far so good. Now it’s DVD time. The installation has seven options, and I didn’t really know which to pick. I finally settled on Option 1: “ISE WebPACK” instead of the default of Option 5, “ISE Design Suite: System Edition.” One of the fliers in the MicroBoard box says that the WebPACK edition is included, so the default threw me off. I’d like to know if the WebPACK is the only working choice, or if the others are good as well. Does anyone have the final word on that?

Okay. The design software is installed and the board works, so my next step is diving into code. Stay tuned for my next column in which I hope to bring up the software and implement an FPGA-based equivalent of the “Hello World” program. Meanwhile, have you ever brought up a new FPGA development board? If so, what usually trips you up?