Choosing FPGA parts

I spent some time this weekend looking into different FPGA options for potential future projects; I’ve been using the Spartan-6 on my Nexys3 board, and I created a simple breakout board for it, but I started to learn more about the limitations of staying within that single product class.  The Spartan-6 is limited on the high-end, though Xilinx will happily advertise several alternative lines such as their 7-Series, of any of their Virtex chips, which can cost up to $20k for a single chip.  One thing I was interested in, though, is what options there are on the lower end of the Spartan-6.

Cheaper options

There are two sides to this: the first is that the cheapest Spartan-6 is about $11 on Digikey, and the second is that the smallest package (both in terms of pin-count and physical size) is a 144-TQFP which has nominal dimensions of 20mm x 20mm (not including lead length).  You can see from my breakout board that it took me about 2 in^2 of space to fit the 144-TQFP with its connections, and I didn’t even break out all the pins in order to save space.  This puts the minimum cost for a one-off Spartan-6 board at around $20, which would be nice to bring down.

So, at this point I started to look into other lines.  Doing some searching on Digikey, there are only a few parts that come under the $10 mark: older Spartan parts such as the Spartan-3A, and Lattice FPGAs such as the ICE40.  The Spartan-3A seems pretty promising, since it’s quite similar to the Spartan-6 both in terms of toolchain and electrical properties.  The smallest Spartan-3A costs $6 and comes in a 100-QFP package, which is about half the size and cost of the smallest Spartan-6.  I haven’t gone through and created a breakout for this part, but assuming the size scales somewhat linearly, it should come in at about 1 in^2 for a total cost of about $11.

Once I started to think about this, though, I noticed that the cost driver seems to be the fact that Xilinx puts so many IOs on these parts.  Maybe for “real” purposes the minimum of 102 IOs on the Spartan-6 (68 on the Spartan-3A) doesn’t seem like that much, but for simple boards that I want to make (ex: VGA driver on an SPI interface) this is way more than I need.  So, let’s look beyond Xilinx FPGA parts and see what else is out there.

As I mentioned, the other sub-$10 FPGA parts on Digikey are Lattice parts.  I don’t know much about that company, but some of their parts are quite interesting: they offer an ICE40 $1.65 FPGA (which apparently costs $0.50 in volume) that comes in a 32-QFN 5mm x 5mm package, or a slightly larger $4.25 part in a 84-QFN 7mm x 7mm package.  They also offer a large number of cheap BGA parts, but the pitches on them are 0.4mm or 0.5mm, and I calculated that the OSH Park design rules require about a 1.0mm pitch (also that if I use a two-layer board, 256 balls is about the max).  Anyway, the $1.65 part seems interesting; it seems like an interesting competitor to the CoolRunner-II CPLD, the smallest of which is a $1.15 part that also comes in a 32-QFN package.  The ICE40 lacks a lot of the features of the Spartan line, but that’s probably a good thing for me since I am not planning on using gigabit transceivers in the near future.  I downloaded the Lattice software to test it out; people complain a lot about the Xilinx software, but at first glance the Lattice software doesn’t seem any better.  I’m still trying to figure out how to program a Lattice FPGA without buying their expensive programmer; I’m sure their programmer is a standard JTAG driver, but I’m still trying to figure out how to have their software output SVF files so I can use other hardware.  Overall, I haven’t been that impressed by the Lattice software (the installer never finished) or documentation (there are lots of links to Lattice employee’s home directories, infinite redirect loops in local help, etc), so I’m not sure it’s worth learning this whole new toolchain in order to have access to these parts that I may not need.

But now that I had compared the Lattice parts to the Xilinx CPLDs, I was interested in how much you can use those parts.  To test it, I took the ICE40 sample program of a few blinking LEDs and ran it through the Xilinx tools for the CoolRunner, just to get a quick comparison of the relative capacities.  The sample program takes somewhere between 10% and 20% of the ICE40 part (not exactly sure how to interpret the P&R results), but it takes about 90% of the CoolRunner — apparently the large counter, which divides the external clock into something more human-visible, is a bad match for the CoolRunner.  There are larger CoolRunner options, but it seems like once you start getting into those, the Spartan-3A line looks attractive since it has way more capacity for the same price.  The CoolRunner does feature non-volatile configuration memory, which does seem nice, but I don’t quite understand the cases where the expensive CoolRunner parts make sense.

Larger options

On the other side of the spectrum, I was also interested in larger options.  Specifically, I was interested in options with the best logic-capacity-per-dollar ratio; I’m sure for some use cases you really need a single chip with a certain capacity (I guess that’s where the $20k FPGA comes in), but for my purposes let’s look at the ratio.  To do this, I downloaded the list of FPGA prices from Digikey, and ran them through a script that divides the “Number of logic elements” field by the cost for one unit.  The “number of logic elements” has different meaning between manufacturers or even product lines (for the Spartan 3A, it’s the number of 4LUTs, and for the Spartan 6, it’s 1.6x the number of 6LUTs), so it’s not really apples-to-apples, but this is only a rough comparison anyway.  Here’s what I got, selected results only:

$228.00 with 301000 LE, the Altera 'IC CYCLONE V E FPGA 484FBGA' is 1320.2 LE/$ [overall best]
$186.25 with 215360 LE, the Xilinx 'IC FPGA 200K ARTIX-7 484FBGA' is 1156.3 LE/$ [best xilinx]
$158.75 with 147443 LE, the Xilinx 'IC FPGA SPARTAN 6 147K 484FGGBGA' is 928.8 LE/$ [best Spartan]
$208.75 with 162240 LE, the Xilinx 'IC FPGA 160K KINTEX-7 484FBGA' is 777.2 LE/$ [best kintex]

Those are some pretty cool parts, but looking at the packages, unfortunately I don’t think I’ll be able to use them. I have a reflow toaster that I’ve had some mild success with, so I feel like BGA parts aren’t off-limits as a whole, but these particular packages are definitely pushing it.  Luckily, these are 1.0mm-pitch parts, which means that according to OSH Park design rules we can fit vias in the ball grid, but unfortunately we won’t be able to route between those vias that we make!  So we’re going to have to not have vias for every ball; regardless, if I use a two-layer board, I’m not sure how many of the signals I’ll actually be able to route out of the grid.  So let’s rule anything larger than a 256-ball BGA (the smallest kind for most families) as off-limits.  Here’s what we get:

$115.11 with 101440 LE, the Xilinx 'IC FPGA 100K ARTIX-7 256FBGA' is 881.2 LE/$ [best]
$34.25 with 24051 LE, the Xilinx 'IC FPGA SPARTAN 6 24K 256FTGBGA' is 702.2 LE/$ [best spartan]
$39.50 with 24624 LE, the Altera 'IC CYCLONE III FPGA 144EQFP' is 623.4 LE/$ [best non-bga]
$23.96 with 14400 LE, the Altera 'IC CYCLONE IV GX FPGA 148QFN' is 601.0 LE/$ [best qfn]
$15.69 with 9152 LE, the Xilinx 'IC FPGA SPARTAN-6 9K 144TQFP' is 583.3 LE/$ [best xilinx non-bga, and the one I made a breakout for]

Unfortunately it seems like you really do have to go to BGA packages if you want to use anything larger than 25k logic elements, so it looks like my plan might be to first test my ability to use this BGA part by creating a Spartan-3A breakout board, and then using the Artix-7 256FBGA part when I want a large FPGA.

3 responses to “Choosing FPGA parts”

  1. Hi. Very nice experiment sharing. Thanks.
    One question for your experience. We have pcb manufactures that deliver 2 layer pcb board (top-layer & bottom-layer only!) in a few days and to make multi-layer pcb we have to send it out of the country so it will take 1~2 months. I was wondering if it’s possible to make a 2-layer pcb for BGA FPGAs? for more information on our project, we need about 200 IOs and good performance. so buying a costly BGA FPGAs is not an issue here. the only thing is to have it on 2 layer pcb.


    • I think this is it. I don’t think I ever assembled this board — I went ahead and added a couple features to it, built that instead, and then talked about it in another blog post. I created+used my own arduino-based JTAG programmer — you’re welcome to use it if you’d like but it was done mostly as an educational exercise (plus the $250 Xilinx cable was a good thing to avoid). If I were doing it again I would probably buy a bus blaster.

      Probably a good thing to check out is that someone out there, crazily enough, actually built this board (even without the eagle source) and then wrote a blog post about it.


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