NRF51 – To Spend or Not to Spend…
Some years ago, development kits were expensive by definition
Some years ago, development kits were expensive by definition. As the “maker revolution” redistributed electronics development into smaller and smaller companies, prices fell. Whilst Boeing or UAC might not flinch at a 600€ PCB, some of our clients balk heavily. When dealing with Nordic Semiconductors, developers have the choice between a large amount of boards, all of which recently gained a lot of attention. Even when dealing with “super-low volume” such as development boards, distributors will and do charge more or less contango.
A few years ago, an event organized by WEKA Media raised attention – a speaker claimed that many semiconductor vendors create but one silicon design, and tailor the ICs to various wireless protocols only via the loaded firmware.
The NRF51 supports a set of so-called SoftDevices, which can be used to emulate various wireless systems – it can be used as both Bluetooth and custom wireless system. Finally, the product can even be used as a Bluetooth sniffer, thereby saving money.
Adding hardware to the above-mentioned dev board can be difficult – soldering to “eye side contacts” is not exactly a pleasure. Thus, the nRF52 DK was introduced, providing an Arduino Uno-like pinout which greatly simplifies the adding of various peripherals.
This is especially interesting for all working under time pressure; if the demands placed on the “edge device” are low, a bit of firmware run on the wireless module can eliminate the micro-controller. Incidentally, Nordic are not the only firm doing this – a variety of other companies deploy similar technologies, albeit under strict NDA.
In some cases, starting out with an advanced design can be helpful – the final revision can then be created by “eliminating” unneeded elements. The Thingy52 provides a set of sensors along with a GPIO extender, whose schematics are outlined in the second half of the PDF found here.
Nordic furthermore provides a set of example applications for Android and iOS – if you need to get started quickly, this is definitely the way to go.
The three above-mentioned products provide wide-band access to various wireless protocols; this is especially useful if you aren’t completely sure which way leads to the future. If you already know which chip to use, using one of the dedicated development kits for the specific chip can be a more attractive option.
In short, if work on an RF system is planned, purchasing the evaluation board definitely is a good idea. Knowing that the radio software works simplifies design verification – in addition to that, never underestimate the amount of software work needed. Buying developer boards allows the software team to get to work before hardware is ready to ship.