Sunday, September 2, 2012

Creating a test jig

Up 'till now I've done my breadboard testing using a Microchip PIC ® microprocessor to generate the signals. This works well for simple patterns, but even clocking the 16F876 at its maximum clock rate of 16 MHz I can just barely make documented i4004 timing. There are faster PICs, but there's a better solution.

One of my past acquisitions is this nifty little Xilinx Spartan-3E FPGA reference board from Digilent:

The Spartan-3E is more than capable of keeping up with the clock rates I need. In fact, one of my lesser problems is that the on-chip PLLs and digital clock managers can't generate clocks slow enough to drive the i4004 CPU, and I've had to resort to dividing the on-board 50 MHz clock using fabric logic.

Obviously there's no space on the reference board for user-added circuitry. The connector visible on the right edge of the picture is for attaching expansion boards, but the connector pitch is not conducive to connecting to a standard perf board. Fortunately, Digilent sells an expansion board for just this purpose:

There is a 32 x 65 hole prototyping area in the middle of the board. An astute reader of this blog will note that the larger connector on the my PCB has 32 x 2 pins on a 0.1" spacing, and the outer rows of pins of the two connectors are 6.3" apart. Sockets matching the IP board's connectors could be soldered to this board with plenty of room for level-shifting circuitry, allowing the FPGA to take the place of the rest of the i4004 circuitry. Quite a coincidence, eh? :-D

The only problem with this scheme is that, although the expansion connector has 100 pins, almost half are grounds. Only 43 signal pins come across, and five of those are input-only. There are 71 inter-board signals, so clearly I can't connect every inter-board signal to an FPGA pin. That's just enough to substitute for the Timing and I/O board, which is the last board I plan to build. But I'll start with a setup that allows me to drive the Instruction Pointer and Scratch Pad boards.

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