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I want to begin with FPGA, but I've never worked with once before.

I want a cheap kit, but I don't know where to start. I can find cheap boards, but then I can't get no information about the programmer or compiler, so I hope that you can help.

I want something real cheap ($30-$40 max), preferentially with some non-proprietary way of programming and debug (perhaps JTAG?) that would be able to program using some languages like WinCUPL or VHDL.

I've found the Diligent Cmod board featureing a Xilinx CPLD on another thread, but I can't find how do I program/debug (software and extra hardware involved).

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That board is a CPLD board, similar but you state an FPGA board in the question. Programming will be by JTAG, and various vendors do things differently so there is no (satisfactory) "one programmer for all vendors" solution (let me know if you find one :-) ) There are things like OpenOCD and OpenJTAG and Presto, Wiggler, etc. You would need the Xilinx JTAG programmer (or a clone from eBay should work fine, or one of the Presto/Wiggler type things but then you are risking frustration..) to program this board.

However, many of the demo FPGA boards have the ability to program over USB (unlike the CPLD board above, which is only via a JTAG header) You will need the Xilinx IDE (ISE webpack I think - download here), which can be downloaded from their website, and the programming software. I am not completely sure of all the finer details as I use Actel (now Microsemi) FPGAs. Hopefully someone can confirm the above.

Although I have not used Xilinx, I know a few who got one of the Nexys boards and were happy with them, although they are above your budget. eBay might a few cheap ones floating about though. If you don't know much about FPGAs and are not sure where to begin, one of the USB based Digilent boards are probably your best bet, as they come with all that's needed to program, and plenty of documentation/tutorials/example designs.

You will program in Verilog or VHDL (or System Verilog, or a few other options)
EDABoard has a good forum on FPGA/CPLD for when you get stuck, and FPGAforfun is another decent site (with some boards available incidentally)

Prepare for a harder path with FPGAs than e.g. Microcontrollers, there is a lot less out there help/example wise, and the design tools (compile, simulate, synthesise, place/route/timing, etc) are very complex - prepare for a lot of reading :-) Having said that you should get some simple stuff up and running quite quickly with a good dev board.

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Cheapest entry point is probably one of these Cyclone II boards, the example is Altera Cyclone II EP2C5T144 FPGA Mini Development Board. You will need a JTAG interface which you can get from the same supplier. You will need the free Quartus II tools which can be downloaded from the Altera web site and support VHDL, Verilog, and schematic entry. I have one of those boards and it works very well. External circuitry has to be added via PCBs that are interfaced via one or more of the headers. I created this web page to help users get started with it.

Another board I have is this one from Digilent, which can be used with the free ISE software available from Xilinx. A JTAG cable is also needed with that board. This board is easier to use because plenty of examples are available.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I also have one of those "mini" Altera Cyclone II FPGA boards. I did run into a few weird things with mine. It came with 0-ohm jumpers (R1,R2,R9,R10) installed which are for the EP2C8 device not EP2C5; so I just removed 'em to restore those pins to user I/O functionality. The other thing I didn't understand (but left alone) is the 10K/10uF R/C filter(?) on pin 73; not sure what that's for. Other than those few weird things, I'd say it's a nice little barebones board. \$\endgroup\$ – Craig Aug 26 '11 at 1:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ That R/C on pin 73 might be there for a power-on delay function, if anyone needs it. \$\endgroup\$ – Leon Heller Aug 26 '11 at 10:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ The CycloneII is being phased out, so QuartusII will support it only up to 13.0. \$\endgroup\$ – Simon Richter Aug 11 '15 at 17:04
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While these boards would defenitely work, I would recomment getting this : http://www.aliexpress.com/product-fm/482507559-FPGA-Altera-Cyclone-EP1C6-NIOSII-FULL-Devlopment-Board-WB050-wholesalers.html

It's 44$ delivered, but have lots of stuff to experiment with on board.

To program this you would need Altera USB blaster, http://www.aliexpress.com/product-fm/473816005-USB-Blaster-ALTERA-CPLD-FPGA-programmer--wholesalers.html

13$ delivered. So for 57$ you will have everything you need to dig into FPGA. I personally ordered slightly more expensive version of this board, which have EP2C8 chip, other than that it's the same.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Probably a good choice, I'll try to find it in a near distributor (it's $60 shipping for Portugal) \$\endgroup\$ – rnunes Aug 26 '11 at 8:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ HongKond post shipment should be free. \$\endgroup\$ – BarsMonster Aug 26 '11 at 8:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ That's not an Altera USB Blaster, although it claims to be "100% compatible with Official ALTERA USB Blaster". I like clones, but illegally putting an Altera logo on the product is just too much. Makes me also wonder whether the other board really has an Altera FPGA, or it's also a clone. This "Terasic Blaster" is the clone I use, they're much more honest about being a clone and not official Altera programmer. \$\endgroup\$ – Ben Voigt Sep 1 '11 at 2:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Ben Voigt I can forgive all that for leaving 90% of the money in my pocket ;-) \$\endgroup\$ – BarsMonster Sep 1 '11 at 10:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ Did you get schematics in your order? With novel chinese clones, one needs to always check whereabouts of schematics -- particularly with weak Chinese knowledge. "cheap" matters none if it is poor quality, example. \$\endgroup\$ – hhh Apr 16 '13 at 23:38
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I would definitely recommend the Altera DE0-Nano. It has the latest Cyclone 4 FPGA, on-board LEDs and switches, an acceleromter, and ADC. It would be a good choice for beginners. It might be a bit pricey ($79 or $59 student) but I think its worth paying extra for the features it already has integrated.

Altera also has these tutorial/resources for beginners aiming at the DE0-Nano here: http://www.altera.com/education/univ/materials/comp_org/tutorials/unv-tutorials.html

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    \$\begingroup\$ Looks really good, but do I need to buy the USB Blaster (or another programmer) too? \$\endgroup\$ – rnunes Sep 1 '11 at 11:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ @rnunes No, you don't need -- source. Nb. I read Leon's writing on some forum-thread where one point was that it may actually be easier to have a board without USB-blaster, rumor: Altera's instructions outdated. \$\endgroup\$ – hhh Apr 16 '13 at 23:20
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I went through this free VHDL fpga course recently and it was great. It goes over a bunch of different projects and gives a general overview of the language. There is some go out and do it on your own projects which can be frustrating if you start and don't know where to go but it was a great challenge.

I used the Basys 2 board and it worked just fine for the course. I have not used anything else besides Digilent boards but I feel that their program has a great debug and bit file loader. enter image description here

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  • \$\begingroup\$ You can only buy Basys 2 from Digilent site. I really see no point with this: courier costs me the same amount as the board even with academic discount. I hope EP2C5T144 FPGA can be used to follow the course, +1. \$\endgroup\$ – hhh Apr 17 '13 at 21:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ @hhh Perhaps MLM was offering a suggestion to the original poster and not to you. The Basys2 is a good choice if you can get the student discount. \$\endgroup\$ – Joe Hass Apr 18 '13 at 2:05
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FreeRangeFactory.org offers a book about VHDL and some XuLA FPGA chip. The book is available online here, it looks relative high quality stuff. The price for the board and the book shipped is below 100USD.

I haven't bought this set but it may a good starting board, still investigating.

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I highly recommend the Open Workbench Logic Sniffer from Seeed Studio. Note the triple 'e' in Seeed.

Cost is US $50 and the board includes a Spartan3E XC3S250E-VQ100 FPGA as well as a PIC18F24J50 used to talk to the FPGA. There are 16- Input-only pins buffered with a M74LCX16245DTR2G (tolerant from -0.5V through +7V) and 16 more i/o pins brought out to headers along one edge of the board.

All of the Logic Analyzer code is open-source which gives you a really good starting point. When you are finished playing with the FPGA, you can turn the unit back into a really useful Logic Analyzer.

More documentation here

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