There's been quite a lot of talk in the FPGA group about cheap ways to get started so a couple of weeks ago I decided to forsake the professional setup I use for real work and try one of the cheapest routes I could find. The idea was to try something as general purpose as possible and to keep clear of as much proprietary hardware and software as possible. That basically means using a simple board with the FPGA and very little else on it and using the FPGA manufacturer's free software.
All the FPGA manufacturers offer development boards and some of the simple ones from Lattice and Altera are quite cheap. Xilinx and MicroSemi don't get down to quite the same price level. There are third party boards at just about any level and the cheapest I can find with a real FPGA are based on Altera's Cyclone2 device.
There are several vendors for these on Aliexpress - this one is typical : ALTERA FPGA Cyslonell EP2C5T144 Minimum System Learning Board Development Board-in Other Electronic Components from Elec…
You'll pay about £10 with free shipping.
I bought mine in a bundle with a programmer from Etang Electronics on Amazon for £32.58 for the lot including shipping.
It looks like this:
And the good news is that it all works !
The Cyclone2 is a rather old design and although Altera still recommend it for new designs it isn't supported by the latest version of their design software. So when you download the software to develop code for it make sure to get version 13.0sp1. The part on the board is a real FPGA with hardware multipliers, some embedded memory blocks and about 4000 logic elements. You get a voltage regulator, a 50MHz oscillator, a switch and three LEDs.
I've never used Altera's design software before so it took a little while to get round the quirks. There are one or two places where it seems to need to be told stuff it must already know (like where to find the simulator that was installed with it !) and it can generate test bench files but gives them an odd filename extension which you end up changing. There is a lot if support material on the web.
You get a free version of ModelSim for simulation and I found this to be the most difficult part - I expect mainly because I use a paid for version of a different simulator and have done for the last 10 years.
There is a free open source VHDL simulator (GHDL) but it's reputation is not very good - so if you go this route you are stuck with ModelSim.
These boards are down at Arduino price levels so perfectly affordable for building in to projects.
If any one is interested I'll post some actual code that does something and if any one has an idea of a project they fancy using this board I'll be happy to discuss it.