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It’s not all about dumb output devices!

It’s not all about dumb output devices!

Posted by Daniel Burke | 27 March 2020

It’s not all about dumb output devices!

The importance of appearance…

First impressions last. A customer’s first look at a product often forms an opinion that stays with them for a long time. We’ve all done it; wandered into our local electrical retailer, glanced at the TVs on display and made a decision based solely on how a particular set has been set up (or even positioned). It’s the ‘we’re not buying that ‘cos it’s rubbish’ syndrome. As an industrial manufacturer its vital that the first impression of your product is a good one. The aesthetic of the case plays a big part, as does the piece of glass on the front. Industrial manufacturers traditionally place high regard (not unreasonably) in the display on the front of their product. However, achieving best results invariably lies behind the glass.

It’s not (always) the number of pixels; its how you drive them…

When specifying an LCD for a product most people are drawn to a panel’s resolution, it’s brightness and its refresh speed. This, as you’d expect is a good place to start, however it’s not the whole story when it comes to getting the best out of your product. BOE (the Chinese based, largest LCD manufacturer in the world) produce hundreds of thousands of sheets of glass every week. Identically sized and spec’d glass go to most of the universally known TV manufacturers the world over, however the difference in their finished products can be startling.

Put bluntly, its all down to how you drive your panel. You can have the finest 65”, 4k, 1600 cd screen on the planet, but if you feed it slow, low bit rate information, from a basic specification board, through an unsuitable driver card down a low bandwidth cable, the end results will be dramatically underwhelming… it’s all about partnering the right panel with the right hardware and, potentially most important of all; matching the hardware to your source software...

While we will cover potential system OS in more detail further on in this article, its worth pointing out that different graphics engines handle images differently. Anyone who has used an NVidia 1080 pc gaming card to process HD still images, or used a Quadra graphics card to play high intensity games will know all about this: both cards are superb at their chosen field, just don’t try and mix and match – the end results invariably lead to disappointment…

Additionally, be mindful of how you compile your code; most graphics engines like compiled code in a certain format, draw your digital shapes in the wrong format and again, the results just won’t look right.

Bespoke versus off the shelf…

In creating the engine for your system, you will always face a number of questions; how much physical space do I have? How many interfaces will I need? How much compute performance will be needed to get the job done? How much memory and storage are required? What budget do I have to get this done? How much time do I have to complete the system? All of these conundrums have been faced by countless engineers over many decades.

In years gone by, when businesses employed large design and development teams, the accepted approach was to set a group of engineers lose on a project… their tasks were to find a processor, design and lay out a board, develop code, work out the relevant memory requirements & finally get prototypes manufactured. Then, more often than not, you put your creation on test, sat back, hoped, prayed, swore a lot, and then found yourself re-laying out the board, added more memory, edited the code stack changed some connectors, re-built a couple of interfaces and sending the whole thing back to be prototyped again… if this sounds painfully familiar, I assure you; you were not alone!

Now, in the days of shrinking design and development departments, and the depleted all important time to market constraint, the increased pressure of delivering your own new from the ground up has never greater.

Of course, I realise that there is a place for bespoke hardware and software design. Smaller systems where absolute size (both physical & code) is paramount, where absolute compute power is less of a consideration and where mass production volumes will allow significant economies of scale, will always endear themselves to bespoke systems. But you may be surprised at how cost efficient an off the shelf system can be…

Cost, in its self is a funny thing… such it can be measured in so many different ways. The price of an off the shelf industrial mainboard is of course only one part of a long and complex equation. In buying an off the shelf main board, you invariably obtain any number of things: External interfaces & ports that provide instant plug and play functionality, processors that have all the bus routings worked out, memory interfaces that allow simple upgrade paths. Driving an LCD (and driving it well!) can become as simple as plugging in an DVI or HDMI cable. Even the simple act of powering an Industrial mainboard; simply providing it a 19v DC supply rail, pails into insignificance against either designing a power supply then creating multiple power rails to allow your bespoke system to work, or paying for 3 or 4 isolated DC/DC converters and hoping that your board layout doesn’t spring any nasty surprises on you! It’s worth noting that Industrial mainboards sold in the UK also come CE marked; giving a great platform to start getting your end product approved and certified. All of these ‘bonuses’ in buying an off the shelf mainboard have a dramatic impact on the alternative cost; that of the time, effort and stress(!) that an engineering team have to go through to create their bespoke system.

Speed, power and performance…

Of the many benefits in designing with an industrial mainboard, is its hard to overlook the compute power of an x86 based processor. Yes, I appreciate the (very valid) arguments that an ARM based system will be more code efficient, and the purchase price per bit will be cheaper, but the simple fact remains; a low end Intel J5005 Pentium, with 8 gig of DDR4 will deliver truly astonishing real world performance in a multitude of multi-tasking operations. Moving up to a multi-core i3 or i5 processor with a Q370 chipset, will deliver performance that was unthinkable only a few years ago, and at a total system cost that will surprise. Combining an Intel processor with industrial mainboard from say Aaeon or Kontron allows you to harness all of the power and flexibility of the CPU in a truly reliable, fully integrated and scalable solution that provides you with a solution to tackle the most demanding tasks.

A proven track record…

Software has always been something of a conundrum. The unique delight in finding an undocumented additional feature in the operating system of your product has the ability to send shivers down the sternest of spines… Undoubtedly, taking a fully supported off the shelf software OS removes a deal of the stress from the whole procedure. However, off the shelf OS packages often contains useful and helpful additional software that you really don’t want or need. What would be ideal in this scenario is an off the shelf OS that has support for 10 years yet is fully customisable and contains all the drivers, codecs & language packs that you could ever need. Well, whisper it quietly, but Windows 10 IoT Enterprise gives you all of the above…

Microsoft, in enabling Windows 10 IoT Enterprise LTSC 2019 to be elegantly customisable have given Embedded manufacturers and developers the flexibility to create a custom OS (which can look as much, or as little like a Windows OS as you prefer), while retaining the interoperability of the Windows operating system. Add in the option of scheduling any Windows updates to coincide with system downtime and the small but vital addition of the remarkably effective Windows Defender and you end up with a very practical alternative to developing your own software stack. You even get a reduced footprint & a reduction in processor overhead due to the absence of Windows store, Cortana and the games pack!

Conclusions…

Setting forth to develop your businesses next range of product can be a daunting and emotional experience; but it needn’t be quite so daunting as you first thought… By making use of certified platforms, with accredited software, your design cycle can be shortened dramatically. By taking an x86 based industrial mainboard, which you know delivers the performance and interfaces you require, allows you to focus on the parts that make your product unique. By utilising a hugely capable off the shelf OS to cut development time, allows you to spend more effort on delivering the something that makes your product vital to your customers.

By utilising what’s already been developed, adding in your own special ingredients to make it unique and getting a respected, highly experienced partner involved from the outset, your future product is closer than you think. Give us a call; it could fundamentally change your outlook on system building for life!


 


 

Olly Wainwright

Embedded Systems Business Development Manager

Review Display Systems

The Crown, London Road, Westerham, Kent

+44 (0) 1959 563 345