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issue: October 2008 APPLIANCE Magazine

Technology Report
Portable Processing Power


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High-performance processors and patented battery technology let device designers achieve functionality, low power, and efficiency in a single-board solution.

Off-the-shelf, FireFly offers the majority of peripheral interfaces portable PC and mobile Internet devices need, including Ethernet, USB host and client ports, audio connections, battery charger, LVDS display interface, Wi-Fi, and more.

At a fraction of the size of a typical PC motherboard, the FireFly from InHand Electronics (Rockville, MD, U.S.; www.inhand.com) is designed as an energy-efficient, high-performance solution for OEM developers of ultramobile PCs, mobile Internet devices, and other mobile battery-operated devices. Built around a 1.6 GHz Intel Atom-series processor and system controller hub, the mobile device platform can be used by itself or with an expansion board for application-specific functionality.

Daniel Rowland, vice president of marketing, says the solution has been specifically designed with off-the-shelf features that are important to developers of mobile PCs and Internet devices. This includes an onboard battery charger with hot-swap capability, efficient power supplies with built-in power path controller, USB host and client ports, 10/100 Ethernet port, ExpressCard slot, microSD slot, and an optional wireless module supporting 802.11b/g, Bluetooth, and GPS. All of this fits snugly into a 95 × 114-mm motherboard without the need for a carrier board.

According to Rowland, the board’s performance and power benefits would not be possible without the Intel Atom Z500–series processors and the Intel US 15W system controller hub. “But that’s only half the story,” he adds. “Many various technologies make it possible to design a board as small and complex as the FireFly. Many of the components are BGA packages with 0.6-mm ball pitch or finer, and that takes a lot of expertise throughout the design cycle and manufacturing process. The routing of the signals required extensive simulation, and the manufacturing process included many blind and buried vias in order to escape the signals out from such dense complex components.”

The processor and system controller hub also made the board’s low-power x86 fanless design possible. However, Rowland says that efficient power supply components and designing for the targeted input voltage also helped efficiency, as well as selecting mobile or low-power components whenever possible.

Equipped with the company’s BatterySmart technology, the solution is said to offer designers 10–30% power savings. The patented technology includes an overall design approach to building battery-operated systems and a patented run-time software suite that allows users to tailor the power versus performance ratio for their systems. “The name of the game in mobile computing is SWAP—size, weight, and power,” Rowland says. “Out of those, power has always influenced the other two. Typically, the heaviest component in a wireless device is the battery. By reducing the run-time power consumption using BatterySmart, our customers achieve longer run times than their competitors without increasing the size of the battery.”

The technology’s intelligent use of the processor’s dynamic voltage and frequency scaling  (DVFS) is said to help extend the life of mobile devices. “Most high-end embedded processors on the market support some sort of ‘low-power’ mode,” Rowland explains. “This is typically accomplished by lowering the clock speed of the processor (frequency scaling) and/or lowering the core voltage of the processor (voltage scaling). The processors that BatterySmart runs on offer both dynamic voltage and frequency scaling.”

Rowland points out that it is how these tools are used that actually results in optimum performance. “A good way to think of it is to imagine DVFS as the transmission in a sports car,” he says. “Sports car transmissions are complex machines, but it takes much more to get peak performance out of the car. The car’s drive or computer needs to know exactly when to shift gears up or down in order to get the most performance out of the car; shift too early, shift too late, or choose the wrong gear, and precious performance is lost.”

Using InHand’s technology, device developers can tune the shift points and gear selection to optimize the performance versus power consumption ratio for their specific application. “It also allows this tuning to happen dynamically on the device, and our customers can even place adaptive logic around it so that different policies are used at different times,” Rowland says.

The solution is designed to easily drop into new or existing product designs that use Windows XP or Linux operating systems. If additional peripherals are needed, a daughter-card connector is available with industry-standard interfaces such as PCI express, USB, SMBus, and SDIO.

 

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