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New Linux-powered SoC taps an old ARM9 architecture

Mar 27, 2020 — by Eric Brown 2,001 views

Microchip has launched a 600MHz ARM9-based “SAM9X60” processor with a 2D GPU and -40 to 105°C tolerance along with a Linux-driven, $260 “SAM9X60-EK Evaluation Kit” with MikroBus and Raspberry Pi expansion.

Microchip has revised the ARM9-based AT91SAM9260 SoC that was introduced in 2006 by its subsidiary Atmel. The new SAM9X60 model has boosted the clock rate from 180MHz to 600MHz and has quadrupled the cache to dual 32KB cache. It has also lowered the voltage rate, among other improvements.

SAM9X60 and block diagram
(click images to enlarge)

The single ARM926EJ-S core on the SAM9X60 incorporates 64KB SRAM and adds support for external 16-bit DDR2 (up from DDR). It also supports 16-bit LPDDR, 32-bit LPSDR/SDRAM, NAND flash, Quad SPI, and eMMC flash. The SoC integrates Secure Boot capability with on-chip secure key storage (OTP), high-performance crypto accelerators (SHA, AES and TDES), and tamper pins.

Microchip revealed the SAM9X60 via SemiMediaEdit on Oct. 9, but we found out about it earlier this week when CNXSoft ran a story after spotting a mention of the SoC mentioned in the Linux 5.6 Linux kernel log. As noted by SemiMediaEdit, the operating voltage has been downshifted from 1.8V to 1.2V, “which allows for a lower power consumption level at higher performance.”


The SAM9X60 integrates a 24-bit LCD-TFT interface and a 2D GPU for up to 1024 x 768 resolution. The SoC has an enhanced I/O lineup with dual CAN, dual Ethernet, and camera support, and can operate at -40 to 105°C.

SAM9X60-EX Evaluation Kit

The open-spec SAM9X60-EX Evaluation Kit extends the SAM9X60 SoC with the help of a mainline Linux4SAM distribution. There’s also support for RTOSes and bare metal development.

SAM9X60-EX Evaluation Kit
(click images to enlarge)

The board ships with 256MB DDR2, 8MB QSPI, 512MB NAND, and an SD slot. Coastline ports include 10/100 Ethernet, 2x USB 2.0, and micro-USB power and serial debug ports. There’s also a connector for adding a WiFi/BT module.

SAM9X60-EX front and back detail views
(click images to enlarge)

The SAM9X60-EX Evaluation Kit is further equipped with an LCD connector, dual CAN interfaces, various audio headers, JTAG and serial debug interfaces, and various user buttons and jumpers. For expansion, there’s a MikroBus connector and a 40-pin, Raspberry Pi style GPIO header. The board has a power jack and a PMIC.

ARM9 background

The 32-bit ARM9 architecture played a major role in the embedded Linux market in the first decade of the Millennium, even more so than the higher powered ARM11 platform that powered the first Raspberry Pi. From 1998 on, semiconductor manufacturers including Atmel, Cypress, Freescale, Samsung, STM, and TI introduced ARM9 processors.

Atmel was a leading player in ARM9 with its SAM9 family of SoCs. Its last ARM9 model — the AT91SAM9G20 (SAM9G20) — arrived in 2008. The last time we saw a SAM9 based product was in 2014 with the introduction of Acme Systems’ SAM9G25-based Arietta G25 module. However, a SAM9260 appeared as a coprocessor on last year’s Banana Pi BPI-F2S board, which primarily runs Linux on a SP7021 (Plus1) SoC.

Other ARM9 SoCs included Freescale’s i.MX287, which appeared on Boardcon’s MINI287 module in 2016. Yet, as Freescale replaced its ARM9 and ARM11 i.MX models with the Cortex-A9 based i.MX6, Atmel switched to a Cortex-A5 foundation for its popular, Linux powered SAMA5 SoCs. Only last month, Arrow announced a Shield96 SBC based on the -A5 based SAMA5D27.

In recent years, Cortex-A7 has been the dominant architecture for power-efficient embedded Linux devices in products such as NXP’s i.MX7. Intel made a play for the low end with its Quark, but it never found a niche and was discontinued last year.

There has been increasing competition in IoT end devices from higher-end Cortex-M and -R MCUs that don’t run Linux. Meanwhile, embedded Linux seems increasingly focused on high-powered multi-core edge computers with local data analytics and AI.

Further information

The SAM9X60 is priced at $4.34 in 5K volumes. The SAM9X60-EX Evaluation Kit is available here for $260. More information may be found on the SAM9X60-EK Evaluation Kit product page, which includes a SAM9X60 CPU datasheet, as well as the Linux4SAM SAM9X60-EK wiki.


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