Everything for Electronics
Posted in: Developing Perspectives (June 2011)

SPECTRUM-ACE First Impressions

By Bryan Bergeron

One of the more notable products that I’ve been able to preview is a new microcontroller system from I2I Controls ([url=http://www.i2icontrols.com]http://www.i2icontrols.com[/url]). The system — called Spectrum-ACE — is actually a family of single-board computers and a set of development tools that works across the various boards. As with the Parallax Stamp or the Arduino family, you can move up in capability without having to learn a new set of tools. The boards have price points of $59, $79, and $99. There’s also a starter kit, evaluation package with proto board area, and a more fully-featured evaluation board — similar to those available from the major microcontroller manufacturers.

Where this family of microcontrollers differs from the other platforms on the market is in the processing power and real time operating system. It’s based on the 30 MIPS Dallas Semiconductor DS89C450 Flash microcontroller. The power of the chip and operating system enable you to add mass storage, drivers, communications, and other features normally associated with a microcomputer rather than a microcontroller with A/D conversion and digital I/O.
If you’re a regular reader of my column, you know that I’m a fan of the Parallax Stamp and Propeller chips, the Atmel AVR, as well as the Arduino line of microcontrollers. However, each line of processors and associated development suites has its limitations. For example, several years ago I developed a crawler robot that simply required more processing power than these chips — or those from TI or Microchip — could provide. I was forced to work with a much more expensive single-board computer running a real time version of Linux in order to process inputs from multiple sensors while keeping the robot moving and on course.

If I were building the robot today, I’d try the $99 Spectrum-ACE board before spending a grand on a license for RT-Linux and a 5” x 5” single-board computer. Whether this family of microcontrollers is best for your project depends on what you need to do and your experience with microcontrollers. For example, if you need something that fits in a thumb drive, you’ll have to look to one of the other microcontroller companies. These are solid boards designed for commercial applications. The large 60-pin Spectrum ACE 2s board measures 1.5” x 3.8”.

If you’re new to microcontrollers, don’t need a real time operating system, and need a library of code to handle the popular sensors, motors, and peripherals out there, you might find the Spectrum-ACE a bit daunting. There’s a lot of sample code for the established microcontrollers. However, if you’re limited by the processing power, memory, or communications capabilities of your current microcontroller line, the Spectrum-ACE is worth considering. If you’re more into the software side of development, it’s also an inexpensive educational platform to learn the basics of real time operating systems. NV