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Tiny open source board runs Linux on i.MX6

Nov 18, 2013  |  Eric Brown
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Slovakia-based Fedevel and its Voipac manufacturing partner are prepping an open source computer-on-module and baseboard built around Freescale’s dual-core i.MX6 system-on-chip. The credit-card sized i.MX6 Rex module is equipped with up to 4GB of soldered DDR3 RAM, as well as I/O including gigabit Ethernet, SATA, HDMI, USB, and PCI Express.

Embedded development and training firm Fedevel chose to embark on an open source board project for a variety of reasons, as explained farther below by managing director Robert Feranec. Yet the main reason was that it needed a hardware platform to support its online Fedevel Academy Schematic & PCB Design Courses. Just as the Raspberry Pi has numerous applications beyond its initial education focus, the i.MX6 Rex module and baseboard can be used for a wide variety of embedded prototyping applications.



iMX6 Rex COM, top and bottom views
(click images to enlarge)

 

The module and baseboard are being manufactured by fellow Slovakian firm Voipac, and is expected to ship in the first quarter of 2014. Both products will be available with a Linux SDK, schematics, PCB plan, BOM, and complete documentation. The Altium Designer project documentation is licensed under Creative Commons 3.0 and is free to users for personal use, but commercial vendors may need to pay a $4 to $9 license fee.

The iMX6 Rex module is equipped with a dual-core Freescale i.MX6 SoC clocked to 1.2GHz, with one- and four-core versions available as options. The widely used SoC also offers 3D video and graphics acceleration.



iMX6 Rex COM block diagram
(click image to enlarge)

 

The iMX6 Rex COM ships with 512MB of DDR3 RAM, but you can expand that up to 4GB. A gigabit Ethernet PHY is also available. All I/O is expressed via a 60-pin connector, although the COM offers a second 60-pin connector for future expansion opportunities. Interfaces include HDMI and LVDS for display, as well as SATA and SD/MMC for storage. Other I/O includes USB, I2C, JTAG, PCI Express, and more.

Specifications listed for the iMX6 Rex module include:

  • Processor — Freescale i.MX6 (2x Cortex-A9 cores @ 1.2GHz, 1x or 4x core models optional)
  • Memory — 512MB soldered DDR3-1066 (533MHz) RAM, expandable to up to 4GB; up to 32MB SPI flash
  • Networking — 10/100/1000Mbps Ethernet interface
  • Other I/O via 2x 60-pin connectors (only 1x standard and required):
    • HDMI
    • LVDS
    • SATA
    • SD/MMC
    • 2x USB
    • 3x UARTs
    • 3x I2C
    • SPI
    • Digital audio
    • JTAG
    • PCI Express expansion bus
  • Other features — user and power LEDs
  • Power — 7 to 24V DC
  • Operating temperature — 0 to 70°C
  • Dimensions — 70 x 40mm
  • Operating system — Linux

 

iMX6 Rex baseboard

The optional baseboard for the iMX6 Rex offers a variety of real-world I/O connectors, split up between different sides of the board, as shown in the diagram below. Dual microSD slots are available, with the second slot inaccessible from the panel, and sealable. It’s linked to the activity LED, but can alternatively be used to load up another operating system.




iMX6 Rex baseboard photo, block diagram, renderings
(click image to enlarge)

 

The 135 x 110mm baseboard offers dual SIMs and dual Mini-PCIe slots, along with gigabit Ethernet, USB, serial, and HDMI ports, to name a few. An optional debug package offers a SATA connector, micro-USB OTG port, and a third PCIe slot.

Key features listed for the baseboard include:

  • Socket and mounting position for iMX6 Rex COM
  • Memory/storage slots:
    • 2x microSD slots (1x sealable)
    • CFAST slot
    • SATA connector (optional with debug package)
  • Display support:
    • HDMI port with audio
    • LVDS with backlight and touchscreen support
  • Wireless support — 2x SIM slots
  • Networking — gigabit Ethernet port
  • Other I/O connectors:
    • 2x USB host ports
    • USB host via header
    • Micro-USB OTG port (optional with debug package)
    • RS232 port (COM1/DB9)
    • Audio Line-In, Line-Out, Mic-In
    • JTAG port
    • Header I/O — speakers/mic; TTL serial, SPI, 8x GPIO
  • Expansion — 2x Mini-PCIe sockets on bottom (1x for WiFi, Ethernet, modem, etc., 1x with USB/SIM/voice for HSPA+, GSM, GPS, etc.); third PCIe slot with optional debug package)
  • Power — 7-24 DC input; optional ATX support
  • Other features — RTC clock with battery; reset, on/off, and user buttons; 4x holes for optional heatsink
  • Dimensions — 135 x 110mm

 

Project background

In response to email queries, Fedevel’s Managing Director, Robert Feranec, told us that his company decided to develop its own open source board for its schematic design and PCB layout training classes. Previously, the company had used a third-party embedded board for training but it was too limiting.

“You cannot really point out errors in a third party design and was not possible to share the whole design,” said Feranec, who previously worked at Fedevel’s manufacturing partner Voipac. “Also, it gets very complicated with licensing. So we decided to develop our own board. Because we do not sell boards, there was no reason to keep it within the company, so we opened the project. Doing so, we also can present the way we work and if people like it, we can teach them how they can do it too.”

The decision to go open source was also affected by a personal encounter. “A couple of years ago, I was watching a blind person walking with a big device around his neck that was helping him to move in space,” said Feranec “I knew it was not so difficult to make the device smaller and much better, and I decided I wanted to design something that helped people. I have not found any idea by myself yet, but I see the iMX6 Rex project as a good opportunity for other people to come up with something great to help people.”

During the development of iMX6 Rex, Fedevel hired a new employee who needed training on the board. “We made a lot of notes about all the questions he asked and the mistakes he made,” said Feranec. “Based on those notes, we have developed courses, videos, and blog posts.

Feranec will be speaking about porting Linux to a custom ARM board, as well as providing tips and tricks for designing with the iMX6 Rex boards, at a free seminar to be held in Silicon Valley, hosted by Hacker Dojo. The seminar will be held later this month or in December. Feranec will soon update a survey page on the seminar.
 

Further information

Full documentation and source code is available now for the iMX6 Rex COM, and will soon be available for the Rex baseboard. More information may be found at Fedevel’s iMX6 Rex module and iMX6 Rex baseboard product pages.

The iMX6 Rex COM, baseboard, as well as a development kit that offers both, along with cables power supply and DVD, are now available for pre-order at Voipac, with availability expected in the first quarter of 2014. Pricing starts at 169 euros ($228) for the COM, 199 euros ($269) for the baseboard, and 399 euros ($539) for the development kit. More information may be found at Voipac’s iMX6 Rex product page.
 

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