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Ultra low-power i.MX7 ULP SoC ships on NXP EVK and two compute modules

Jul 12, 2019 — by Eric Brown 1,926 views

NXP’s 28nm, FD-SOI fabbed i.MX7 ULP SoC has arrived along with a Linux-powered eval board. The power-sipping SoC is also being showcased in F&S’ PicoCore MX7ULP and SoMLabs’ ActionSOM-7ULP modules.

In June, NXP began volume shipments of its super power-efficient i.MX7 ULP, which it announced in 2017. The SoC is billed as the most power-efficient processor on the market that also includes a 3D GPU.

Just as the i.MX6 UltraLite (UL) and similar i.MX6 ULL and headless i.MX6 ULZ were lower-powered, IoT-oriented versions of the Cortex-A9-based i.MX6, the i.MX7 ULP brings the already power-efficient, Cortex-A7-based i.MX7 to even lower power states optimized for battery-powered devices. Like the i.MX7, the i.MX7 ULP combines Cortex-A7 and Cortex-M4 cores. The i.MX7 ULP lacks the dual-core -A7 core version available with the i.MX7 and appears to top out at 800MHz instead of 1GHz.


Unlike the i.MX7, however, the ULP version includes a 3D graphics capable Vivante GC7000 NanoUltra GPU in addition to the previous 2D GPU (GC320 Composition Processing Core). There’s also a 256 KB L2 cache and security features for both cores that include eFuses, RNG, encrypt/decrypt, tamper detection, and secure RTC and boot.

i.MX7 ULP block diagram
(click image to enlarge)

Like the i.MX7, the i.MX7 ULP (or i.MX 7ULP) was fabricated in a 28nm process and offers a heterogeneous domain computing architecture for optimizing the coordination of the -A7 and -M4 cores. Yet, it also implements Fully-Depleted Silicon-On-Insulator (FD-SOI) technology to deliver “a deep sleep suspend power consumption of 15 uW or less, 17 times less in comparison to previous low power i.MX 7 devices,” said NXP in its 2017 announcement.

FD-SOI is designed for the bursty operations of low-power IoT edge devices that spend most of their time in idle mode. The i.MX7 ULP’s dynamic power efficiency is improved by 50 percent for the real time -M4 chip, claims NSP. Extreme low leakage and operating voltage (Vdd) scalability “is attained through reverse and forward body biasing (RBB/FBB) of the transistors and its smart power system.”

NXP has already used FD-SOI in its up to quad-core, Cortex-A35 based i.MX8X SoC. Rockchip is using FD-SOI in its dual Cortex-A35 based, AI-enhanced RK1808 SoC.

Below, we’ll examine NXP’s recently released, $199 i.MX 7ULP Evaluation Kit, as well as the similarly Linux-focused F&S’ PicoCore MX7ULP and SoMLabs’ ActionSOM-7ULP modules, which recently began shipping in volume. Embedded Artists is also promising an i.MX7 ULP module, but had no further details. We imagine we’ll see more ULP-based boards in the coming months.

NXP i.MX 7ULP Evaluation Kit

NXP’s i.MX 7ULP Evaluation Kit for the i.MX7 ULP SoC is shipping for $199 with support for Linux and Android, as well as FreeRTOS for the Cortex-M4 chip. As described in Element14’s July 9 unboxing report, the i.MX 7ULP Evaluation Kit (MCIMX7ULP-EVK) is a COM-and-carrier offering with a 5V/2A universal power supply, a USB cable, and an 8GB SD card preloaded with a bootable Linux distro and demo. There’s also an optional i.MX7ULP1 MIPI Display Touch Panel.

i.MX 7ULP Evaluation Kit
(click image to enlarge)

The compute module portion of the EVK might even qualify as an SBC. It’s equipped with an i.MX 7ULP SoC plus 1GB LPDDR3, 8MB quad-SPI flash, and support for NAND, eMMC, or eSD storage. The module has a wireless module with 802.11 b/g/n and Bluetooth 4.1, as well as an onboard antenna and external antenna connector.

The compute module also provides a microSD 3.0 slot and a USB 2.0 OTG Type C port. An NXP PF1550 power management IC (PMIC) is available, as well.

The i.MX 7ULP Evaluation Kit carrier board adds a full-sized SD/MMC 3.0 slot. Media features include an HDMI port, a MIPI-DSI connector, an audio jack (Wolfson WM8960 codec), and a speaker interface. The board provides a micro-USB OTG port, a power jack, and a battery connector.

Additional EVK features includes USB HSIC, Arduino, MFI, and ADC/DAC interfaces. Both JTAG and UART/USB-based debug are available. You also get a 6-axis accelerometer/magnetometer, a gyroscope, and an I2C pressure sensor with altimetry.

F&S’ PicoCore MX7ULP

Germany-based F&S Elektronik Systeme announced its PicoCore MX7ULP back in Feb. 2018, and the i.MX7 ULP based module now shipping with a Yocto/Buildroot Linux stack. It’s available as part of a 180 Euros ($203) StarterKit PicoCore MX7ULP. In our earlier story, we mistakenly labeled it as an i.MX7-based module.

PicoCore MX7ULP, front and back

The PicoCore MX7ULP is the first of a family of pin-compatible PicoCore branded modules that feature a tiny 40 x 35mm footprint. Unlike F&S’ larger efus form factor, interfaces are expressed via 2x 80-pin Hirose DF40C plug connectors instead of an edge connector.

Specs have changed slightly since the original announcement. The PicoCore MX7ULP ships with an i.MX7 ULP clocked to 720MHz plus up to 1GB LPDDR3 RAM, 64MB SPI NOR flash, up to 32GB eMMC, and an optional micro-SD slot. F&S also provides a special request PCore MX7ULP-V4-LIN variant with only 512MB LPDDR3, 1MB SPI flash, and 4GB eMMC

There’s an option for a wireless module with 802.11b/g/n and Bluetooth 4.2. For displays, you get a touch-enabled MIPI-DSI interface. Additional I/O includes USB OTG, SPI, 3x I2C, up to 72x DIO, audio interfaces, and 5x UARTS.

The under 10-gram board runs on 5V DC power or a 4.2V battery and consumes a typical 1W. You get long-term availability (2028) and can choose from 0 to 70°C and -20 to 85°C models.

StarterKit PicoCore MX7ULP
(click image to enlarge)

The StarterKit PicoCore MX7ULP incorporates the 512MB RAM PCore MX7ULP-V4-LIN variant, which is available only with 0 to 70°C support. There’s a micro-USB 2.0 OTG port and an SD card slot. Onboard interfaces include MIPI-DSI, SPI, 6x serial, 4x I2C, and audio I/O.

SoMLabs ActionSOM-7ULP

Pollish embedded firm SoMLabs, which is a part of BTC, is the only other company we found that has posted a product page for a i.MX7 ULP module. The now shipping ActionSOM-7ULP (SLS27) module clocks the SoC at up to 800MHz and offers Linux and Android support, as well as FreeRTOS for the Cortex-M4 MCU.

ActionSOM-7ULP and block diagram
(click images to enlarge)

The 80 x 40mm ActionSOM-7ULP is equipped with 1GB LPDDR3 RAM, 256kB SRAM, and up to 32GB eMMC. There’s also 128Mb (16MB) QuadSPI NOR flash dedicated to the Cortex-M4.

The module offers a 10/100Mbps Ethernet PHY and an Murata WiFi-n/Bluetooth 4.1 module. The block diagram suggests that the LAN, wireless, and an audio codec are optional.

Interfaces expressed via the MXM314 connector include 2-lane MIPI-DSI, 24-bit Parallel camera, and USB 2.0 OTG. You also get up to 4x I2C, up to 4x SPI, 2x 12-bit ADC with up to 16 input channels, and audio interfaces including 3x I2S/SAI and S/PDIF.

The 5V module supports -40 to 85°C temperatures and ships with a PMIC. You get long-term availability (2028), and Altium Designer files are said to be available

SoMLabs, which is new to LinuxGizmos, also offers Linux-driven, 67 x 32mm VisonSOM-6UL and VisonSOM-6ULL modules showcasing the i.MX6UL and ULL SoCs. The SODIMM-style modules are supported by industrial or commercial-grade VisionCB carrier boards.

(click image to enlarge)

In addition, SoMLabs sells a VisionSOM-STM32MP1 module that runs OpenSTLinux on ST’s Cortex-A7/Cortex-M4 based STM32MP1 SoC. Finally, there’s a VisionSOM-RT module with NXP’s 600MHz, Cortex-M7 based i.MX RT “crossover” SoC. Although the i.MX RT can run uClinux, SoMLabs supports it only with FreeRTOS.

Further information

NXP’s i.MX7 ULP is now shipping in volume starting at $7.29 apiece in 1K volume. More information may be found on NXP’s i.MX7 ULP product page. NXP’s i.MX 7ULP Evaluation Kit (MCIMX7ULP-EVK) is available for $199. More information may be found on the i.MX 7ULP EVK product page.

F&S’ PicoCore MX7UL module is available in a StarterKit PicoCore MX7ULP evaluation kit for 180 Euros ($203). More information may be found on the PicoCore MX7ULP product page.

SoMLabs’ ActionSOM-7ULP (SLS27) is available now at an undisclosed price. More information may be found on the ActionSOM-7ULP product page.

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