In June Atmel announced the Customizable Atmel Processor (CAP), a family of customizable microcontrollers, and two initial devices. Customization in the CAP is achieved via a gate array block in which users can implement functions ranging from processor cores and peripherals to algorithm accelerators. Atmel intends the CAP devices to be used in industrial, consumer, medical, and automotive applications, as replacements for the microcontroller-FPGA combinations often used in these applications.
CAP devices are manufactured in a 130 nm process and feature a pre-fabricated ARM7 or ARM9 core, peripherals, and busses. In addition, the devices include a metal-programmable gate array block providing around 250K-500K ASIC gates, and available to users as masked programmed logic. Atmel provides users with pre-verified hardware IP blocks for various I/O interfaces and peripherals, such as CAN, Ethernet MAC, and USB, and engines for cryptography algorithms. Users can also incorporate their own logic into the gate array block, for example to implement DSP algorithm accelerators or custom interfaces. Atmel provides users with an emulation platform to validate their designs.
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Figure 1. Atmel's CAP7 device featuring an ARM7 core and a metal-programmable block.
Atmel maintains that CAP offers significant time-to-market and cost benefits over traditional ASIC solutions: Once the user has completed his design, CAP designs require 10 weeks for prototypes and 16 weeks to begin production, according to Atmel. Customization charges are $150k including mask, engineering charges, and prototypes. In contrast, ASICs can require a year or more and cost millions of dollars to develop. Like ASICs, logic implemented using the CAP gate array will likely achieve better throughput and energy efficiency than FPGA solutions, despite using a less advanced fabrication process. According to Atmel, the CAP gate array logic can operate at up to 400 MHz.
CAP devices cost $6-13 each in 100 K quantities. (They are significantly more expensive in smaller quantities, due to minimum order sizes of $250k for the ARM7-based version and $1M for the ARM9-based version.) If Atmel's performance claims hold, then the CAP devices may offer significant cost, throughput, and energy efficiency gains over the CPU-FPGA combinations employed in a variety of medium-volume applications.
For more analysis of Atmel's CAP devices, see InsideDSP.