Pico ITX Boards

Compact and Complete: One Board to Suit All Purposes

Industry 4.0 is transforming infrastructure requirements. As a consequence, there is rising demand for compact industrial computers, such as those based on the Pico-ITX form factor, that can execute tasks reliably and also handle connectivity, from use in the field up to the management level. Standardization enables high volumes across a wide range of applications while ensuring that devices offering industrial reliability remain affordable.

Because modern computer architectures provide an extensive set of features and powerful interfaces such as PCI Express, Serial ATA or USB 3.0, mass-produced standard single board computers (SBCs) can often fulfil developers’ requirements. However, what may at first glance appear cost-effective can quickly prove to be an expensive solution when considering full system costs. Components that are optimized for inexpensive mass production often fail to meet the demanding requirements for 24/7 use in harsh industrial environments. In addition, as soon as the next chip generation is introduced – which happens every twelve months or sooner - these components tend to become obsolete.  When that occurs the costly choice is to either stock up on components or to continuously adapt products to the latest chip generation. Anyone who also requires support for customization, such as special industrial protocols, will quickly find himself left to his own devices.

It is much more efficient to use boards that provide a relevant range of integrated interfaces and functionalities, supplemented by optional pre-integrated legacy ports and special embedded features such as a real-time clock (RTC), and available  for purchase for many years with flexible logistics. That this is indeed possible has been proven quite successfully in recent years by the manufacturers of standardized computer modules (COMs). So, what is better than to transfer the benefits of standardization from the world of computer modules to SBCs?

While the familiar Mini-ITX form factor with a footprint of 170x170 mm dominates in the desktop processor market for the middle and upper power range of up to 65 Watt Thermal Design Power (TDP), many modern applications require only a TDP of 10 Watt or less. This requirement can be adequately addressed by the latest ultra efficient embedded processors. The well-known Qseven standard has shown that a footprint of 70x70 mm is large enough to produce extremely reliable computers in this performance class. When factoring in some extra space for the additional "external" connectors required for SBCs, the 100x72 mm footprint of the Pico-ITX standard seems virtually ideal.

congatec AG, a leading COM manufacturer and co-founder of the Qseven standard, has for some time been providing professional all-in-one (AiO) SBCs based on Thin Mini-ITX in addition to COM Express and Qseven modules. Leveraging the synergies with the corresponding module standards even more fully, congatec recently added the Pico-ITX format to its offering, thereby combining years of experience in building high-quality COMs for 24/7 industrial use for periods up to ten years with the cost advantages of high-volume SBC production.

The new conga-PA3 Pico-ITX SBC is equipped with embedded processors ranging from the single-core Intel Atom E3815 with 5 Watt TDP up to the quad-core Intel Celeron N2930 with 7.5 Watt TDP. Both processors are from Intel’s 64 bit Bay Trail family and are full system-on-chips (SoCs), which are characterized not only by high efficiency, but also by a very good price/performance ratio. Additional CPUs can easily be implemented as customized versions, given the appropriate production quantities.

Table of processor choices for the conga-PA3 Pico-ITX SBC

ProcessorCoresCache (MB)Clock (GHz)TDP (W)
Intel® Celeron™ N2930422.007.5
Intel® Atom® E3845421.9110.0
Intel® Atom® E3827211.758.0
Intel® Atom® E381510.51.465.0

The integrated Intel Gen7 HD graphics runs at a constant speed of 400 MHz with the Intel Atom E3815 and, depending on the load, between 688 MHz and 854 MHz with the Celeron N2930. It also supports two independent displays in Full HD resolution (1x LVDS, 2x24bit via an internal connector; 1x DP++; and HDMI1.4). The hardware supports or directly accelerates DirectX 11.1, OpenGL 3.2 and OpenCL 1.2.

The RAM memory is soldered directly to the SBC. The Atom E3815 options include 1, 2 or 4 GB of DDR3L-1067, for the Celeron J1900 it is 2 or 4GB DDR3L-1333. Depending on the processor, a total of up to 4GB DDR3L-1666 is available. The I/O panel provides two USB2.0 ports, an RJ-45 connector for 10/100/1000 GB of Ethernet plus a 12V DC power supply.

Also integrated are an additional USB 2.0 port, a USB 3.0 SuperSpeed port, a backlight connector for the LVDS socket, fan control, HDA audio, two COM ports (1x RS232, 1x RS232/485/422), a SATA connection, a half-size slot for shared mSATA/miniPCIe plus another half-size miniPCIe slot and various feature connectors. ACPI 5.0, I2C bus and LPC bus allow easy integration of legacy I/O interfaces. A real-time clock (RTC) and Intel High Definition Audio complete the feature set.

Supported operating systems include Microsoft® Windows® 7 (32bit and 64bit), Microsoft® Windows® 8.X, Microsoft® Windows® Embedded Standard 7 (WES7), Microsoft® Windows® Embedded Standard 8 (WES8), Microsoft® Windows® Embedded Compact 2013 (WEC2013) and Linux. For additional operating systems, particularly real-time systems, congatec offers support for the development of specific driver BSPs (Board Support Packages). 

The compact design with a footprint of 70x102mm makes the systems highly versatile. Real-time capability and support of multiple operating systems allow use in even the most demanding industrial applications such as mechanical engineering or automation and control systems; the Atom version is also suitable for use in the extended industrial temperature range. Thanks to their low power consumption with a TDP of between 5 and 10 Watt, the single-chip Bay Trail solutions are particularly well suited for passively cooled and enclosed systems that can be used in harsh environments. If there is no need for high-performance graphics with extensive 3-D capabilities, and if two independent displays with full HD resolution are enough, this is a reliable and cost-effective solution. Typical applications include control of large machines with decentralized, distributed intelligence, robotics, all types of intelligent measurement and analysis devices, and high-performance IoT computers with low power consumption.

With the conga-PA3, congatec has released a powerful, low-power SBC with embedded qualities. The widespread and highly compact Pico-ITX form factor, plus the convincing AiO concept with additional embedded features and proven legacy interfaces such as COM and LVDS, enable high volumes at low prices. For a moderate premium compared to the cost of standard mass-produced goods, the customer can acquire robust computer boards with a guaranteed long-term availability of at least 7 years. The versions with an Atom processor are all suitable for 24/7 operation in harsh environments. Optional versions for the extended industrial temperature range of -40° to +85° C are also available.

The customer benefits from congatec's years of experience as a manufacturer of high-quality computer modules. Synergies reduce development time and costs; existing know-how and proven infrastructure allow outsourcing of individual developments and solutions to the manufacturer where necessary. This way, a single supplier can cater for the complete spectrum from low-cost standard solutions to individual EDMS projects (Embedded Design and Manufacturer Services), while also covering a wide variety of technology platforms with form factors ranging from computer modules to complete single board computers.

About the author:

Martin Danzer is Director of Product Management at congatec. He studied electrical engineering at the University of Deggendorf in Germany and has more than 10 years of experience in embedded computer technology, product development and management.