Just about all the embedded CPU manufacturers produce evaluation boards employing their devices with a suitable selection of peripherals.These boards are generally offered at a very reasonable price and are readily available, along with good software support from vendors like Mentor Embedded.
So, what use are these boards to the embedded developer, who may be looking at the design of custom hardware? …
The primary intention of an evaluation board is indicated by its name: it is a means for developers to evaluate a CPU in a realistic context [clock speed, memory configuration, peripherals etc.]. As such, these boards are ideal. However, there are number of other possible uses to which they might be put:
- They can provide a convenient and realistic execution environment for software developers to use while they await the availability of prototype hardware.
- The design specs for evaluation boards are often readily [and freely] available, which can make them a good basis for a custom design. This ties in very well with #1.
- For low volume applications, the evaluation board itself might be deployed, thus avoiding the need to develop any custom hardware at all.
The biggest benefit of evaluation boards to the embedded developer is quite subtle. They address one of the biggest challenges of embedded software development, compared with desktop computer programming: every PC is essentially the same, so programming one is a well-trodden path; whereas every embedded system is different and may be entirely unique. [Although I call this a challenge, IMHO it is one of the things that make embedded software development interesting.] An evaluation board is almost the best of both worlds: it is very standard, so programming should be straightforward and well supported; it is also very close to an embedded design.
Because these boards are shipped in large quantities, it is worthwhile for the major embedded software development tools and OS vendors [like Mentor Embedded] to provide extensive support. Indeed, a recent announcement illustrated our commitment to this approach. One of the key features of Nucleus ReadyStart is the ability to be up and running on [known] target hardware in minutes. A full list of evaluation boards that we support may be found here.