Small-Form-Factor Platforms Propel Evolution of Tablet Applications

Intel® Atom™ processor-based designs have become an application-enabling force for mobile and tablet devices

By Christine Van De Graaf, Kontron

There was a definite opportunity for new small-formfactor platforms based on the low-power Intel® Atom™ microarchitecture. In order to match embedded market requirements, these small form factors needed to deliver high performance that could withstand harsh operational demands. They also had to provide the low-power envelope considered necessary to support a broad range of power supplies and batteries. Market need coupled with available advanced technology has spawned the development of new, ultra-small and efficient computer-on-modules (COMs).

One of the primary evolutionary factors in compact/ultrasmall platform development is the availability of the Intel Atom processor. It is rooted in an advanced hafnium-based, 45-nm microarchitecture, which is comparable in processing power to the Intel® Pentium® M and Intel® Celeron® M processors. Due to its compact design and energy-efficient technology, the power dissipation of the 1.66-GHz, second-generation Intel Atom processor totals between 8 and 18 W. Compared to other ultralow- voltage processors that offer similar central-processing-unit (CPU) performance its physical dimensions are significantly smaller and require a fraction of the power dissipation.

The use of computer-on-modules in the compact COM Express ™ Type 2-compatible form factor has become an optimal method to integrate a core solution for interface-rich, ultra-lowpower, semi-custom designs. It also provides developers with the highest design security and long-term availability. A new ultra COM form factor is being considered, which is compatible with the COM Express® pinout Type 1 and Type 10 with respect to pin definition and connector location (see Figure 1). Several embedded-computing suppliers are supporting the new 55-x-84-mm COM. Both platforms are optimal building blocks to achieve maximum power savings in applications that require mid- to high-performance x86 technology.

These specifications very much define the requirements for today’s small tablet-based applications. The primary difference between the compact and ultra modules and the original COM Express module is the overall physical size and the performance envelope supported by each. Both modules have the same pinout at the same position as all of the other COM Express Basic modules. In addition, they follow all of the PICMG guidelines.

 

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Connectors count
A number of ultra-small embedded modules based on the Intel® Atom™ microarchitecture have entered the market. While all of them boast small size, they aren’t created equal in terms of performance, ruggedness, and scalability. For tablet application designers, it’s key to remember that only those COMs that are compatible with standardized COM Express pinout Type 1 through 10 connectors can offer the highest level of cost, performance, and scalability benefits—along with improved shock and vibration resistance.

These rugged and space-saving PICMG COM Express standard pinout types are used by both the compact and proposed ultra COM Express form factors. The COM Express specification offers significant advantages compared to other connector standards. For example, the Type 1 pinout creates less signal damping than a card-edge connector, thus enabling longer trace lengths on the motherboard. Interface support is another plus. Type 2 adds a second connector and supports the 32-bit PCI interface plus IDE ports needed for legacy PATA devices and CompactFlash memory cards. There also are more PCI Express lanes available that support PCI Express Graphics (PEG) with the Type 2 pinout. Type 10 addresses the requirements of newer and extremely compact processors, providing support for serial ports and the latest display interfaces.

Significant for the mobility requirements of tablet-based designs, COM Express connectors also are more mechanically robust and offer increased impact and vibration resistance. It may be difficult to meet the higher ruggedization requirements for tablet applications with other types of connectors. There also are considerable advantages regarding electromagnetic compatibility (EMC). This is particularly important for second-generation PCIe interfaces. Here, the clock rate and frequency are doubled, increasing the interference level.

Tablet Applications Win
The number of fist-held or tablet applications that can take advantage of new compact and ultra-small modules is sizeable. Designers now have an ideal, compact, and energy-saving COM platform to develop ultra-mobile applications that require energy- saving x86 processor performance, high-end graphics, PCI Express, and Serial ATA combined with longer battery life.

Tablet-based applications are being developed for varied and diverse markets. Tablets are useful solutions for portable measurement and test devices, medical devices, decentralized industrial-control systems, vehicle-diagnostic devices, gaming machines, point-of-sale and point-of-information systems, and telecommunication and transportation systems. Healthcare is one of the fastest-growing markets for mobile tablet solutions. Medical professionals are already using handheld tablet devices to access and manage patient information.

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Intel Atom processor-based small form factors, such as the nanoETXexpress and microETXexpress, are serving as a catalyst for the evolution of tablet applications in the healthcare sector based on size and their compatibility with electronic medical records (EMRs). Smaller-form-factor, tablet-based systems are simply easier to use for hospital rounds or during patient appointments. In addition, they give physicians and other healthcare professionals a streamlined approach for EMR documentation.

Future generations of smaller and more highly integrated Intel® processors and chipsets will help drive smaller-form-factor platforms. Such platforms may be an application-enabling force for mobile and tablet devices. Facilitating emerging tablet applications that weren’t previously possible due to size or powerconsumption restrictions, for example, the microETXexpress®-PV is pinout Type 2-compatible. It incorporates the new secondgeneration Intel® Atom™ processor D510, which delivers 2 x 1.66-GHz performance (see Figure 2). With its highly integrated two-chip design, dual-core option, and cost-efficient processors, microETXexpress®-PV modules vow to accelerate the development of ultra-low-power embedded applications.

For more space-constrained designs, COMs like the creditcard- sized (55 x 84 mm) nanoETXexpress-TT feature an Intel® Atom™ processor E6xx. The nanoETXexpress-TT is designed with industrial-grade components that are fully functional even at the extended temperature range (E2) from -40° to +85°C. This ultra-small COM takes full advantage of the COM Express type 10 pinout. Its on-board memory, micro-SD card socket, or optional SATA Flash memory make this COM platform ideal for harsh-environment tablet designs.

 


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Christine Van De Graaf is the product manager for Kontron America’s Embedded Modules Division located in Northern California’s Silicon Valley. Christine has going on a decade of experience working in the embedded computing technology industry and holds an MBA in marketing management from California State University, East Bay, Hayward, CA.