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EFM32™ Zero Gecko Starter Kit w/ Sensor Card - Review

Scoring

Product Performed to Expectations: 8
Specifications were sufficient to design with: 6
Demo Software was of good quality: 6
Product was easy to use: 6
Support materials were available: 6
The price to performance ratio was good: 6
TotalScore: 38 / 60
  • RoadTest: EFM32™ Zero Gecko Starter Kit w/ Sensor Card
  • Buy Now
  • Evaluation Type: Evaluation Boards
  • Was everything in the box required?: Yes
  • Comparable Products/Other parts you considered:
  • What were the biggest problems encountered?: Lack of SPI / SD-Card Support, Limited Application Notes for Zero Gecko, Difficulty with Simplicity Studio

  • Detailed Review:

     

    Background

    When I was selected for the Zero Gecko Road Test I was excited to get a chance to look at SI Lab's stuff.  I haven't had a chance to dive into their product line, but have been waiting for a project to do just that. 


    The board arrived the day before I left on a 3 week trip.  Which turned out to be great, because it gave me time to consider what to do with this new "Weather Station Demo" EFM32 Starter Kit I received.  Doing my research, I could see the EFM32 series is focused on low-energy performance.  The demo/starter kit (not sure which to call it) included an expansion sensor board with UV (Optical), Humidity, and Temperature sensors.

     

    As I waited for the EFM32 software to download, it hit me.  Why not build a data logger?  For some time I've thought it would be cool to use my GoPro to capture a day from sunrise to sunset, with a data overlay.  So my plan was to write the code, benchmark the energy necessary, provide enough battery, and let it all go.  But first, let's talk about the Hardware and Software.

     

    Hardware

    The entire board is made of surface mount components on the top-side only.  This includes the pin headers.  I really liked this because it meant the board sits flat on a workbench and means easier mounting.

     

    board_flexing.jpg

     

    However, as you can see above if you attach the included sensor board, there's bending and physical stresses in place.

     

    Sensor Board

    UV Sensor is a si1147

    Humidity/Temp sensor is a si7013

     

    The board has an expansion connection, which appears to pass through 5V, 3.3V, I2C, SPI, and a UART.

     

     

    Specs

    The processor is based on a ARM Cortex-M0 with 32k of Flash and 4k of RAM.  The LCD is 128x128 pixels with impressive readability.  The board has two physical push buttons and two cap sense buttons.  Power can come from the USB Port or a coin cell (CR2032) battery.  There's a JTAG debug header and an expansion header.  The pin out on the header is a little awkward to follow.  Here's the pin out from the documentation

     

     

    Now here's the EFM sitting on top of the sensor board.  Notice how you have to flip the board so that Pin 1 lines up with Pin 1 in the diagram.

     

    No-Silk-Pins.jpg

     

    Also, the expansion card, has no silkscreen on the expansion pins.

     

     

    Software

    When you open the box, there's a nice QR Code and Website that takes you directly where you need to download the software.  This is great.

     

    Updating.png

     

    After installing the software, I had to wait 10 minutes while it updated itself.  This was not great.

     

    The IDE

    This is the "Welcome" Screen for SimplicityStudio, which includes all of the resources necessary for developing with the EFM32 series.  The real issue I ran into here, it wasn't always obvious to me which things related to my board.  Oddly the package says its a SLSTK3201A, but the software clearly identifies the board as a EFM32ZG222F32 MCU.  So it can be a little confusing which to refer to.

     

    Simplicity Shot.png

     

    If you're familiar with Eclipse, then you'll be familiar with SimplicityStudio.  One of the great things about Eclipse is its flexibility.  One of the downsides of Eclipse is its flexibility.  I think SI Labs has done a good job of customizing their own environment, but there were still a few moments where I had to figure out what Eclipse was doing with the interface.  If you've never used Eclipse before, I think you're going have a larger learning curve than I did. I would have called mine a learning bump.

     

    Eclipse IDE.png

     

     

    Energy Monitor

    The real-time energy monitor is a first for me.  I see a lot of value here.  Well, I did, until I noticed something.  Here's a shot from a sketch where I was trying to interface to a SD Card.  Notice the current is shown as about 2.5 mA?

     

    Current Profiler.png

     

    I'm powering an Arduino Ethernet Shield from the board  (I'll explain why at the end), which draws almost 200mA.

     

    The limit for the current sense circuit, according to the instructions, is 50mA.  So, I'm not sure what that's telling me.

    Demos

    There is a small assortment of demos to help start a project.  There are even a couple of RTOS examples.  The most interesting to me were "energy" and  "weatherstation".

    Energy

    The cool thing about energy is that it gives you a way to see how much voltage and current the processor is using at different clock frequencies.

     

    Weatherstation

    This is a good chunk of code that displays the current UV, Humidity, and Temperature.  Each has a graphic display associated with them.  This seemed like a great starting point, because this demo is making all of the measurements I need, so all I need to do is save them to some EEPROM or a SD Card.

     

    Back to My Project

    Here's where I ran into my first major roadblock.  It never occurred to me, this processor and board don't include any nonvolatile user-storage.  What's worse, when I went back to the demos I realized there wasn't anything on SD Cards.  In fact, there wasn't even anything that showed how to talk SPI.

     

    Hm.  Okay, let's go back to the Welcome screen and check out that list of Application Notes.

     

    App Note List.png

     

    SPI Application Note

    So I dove into the App Note "AN0030 - FAT on SD Card."

     

    That's exactly what I want to do!

     

    Looks like there is a (free) FAT implementation, great!  Now I just need to add it to my project... but, uh, how?  I looked through the App Note multiple times, I couldn't find where that was explained, or where to download the code.  Thankfully I was able to use OSX's Spotlight to find a couple of instances of FAT libraries in the Simplicity install, but still wasn't sure which one to use with this board.

     

    A Google search later, and I was brought back to the element14 road test thread...  Jan Cumps had already done a write-up, basically providing the necessary SD-Card (SPI and FAT) support necessary for the Zero Gecko.  Of course, even with his excellent write-up, I had to fight Eclipse to get it to load his project.  (See the thread for my comments on what I had to do, with Jan's gracious help.)

     

    Eventually, I had compiled code, that was writing files to the SD Card.

     

    Now I was ready to start capturing sensor data, or was i?

     

    Expanding to sensor data

    So I took the weather station example and stripped it down to just the code that captures the data.  I'm not interested in using the LCD and would rather save the energy anyway.  I got the code stripped down to what I think I need and started to combine it with my sd card code.

     

    Then this error started happening.  Which I guess means I'm running out of RAM or something...

     

     

    ...Sigh.  After so many road bumps and a couple of road blocks, I just decided it was time to give up.  So...

     

    In Conclusion

    Clearly, I'm not the right audience for this board.  I was hoping to get a project up and going quickly, but I lack the extensive experience with SI Labs hardware/software necessary to do that.  The low power performance of the processor is enticing, and is a reason I would consider using the processor family again on a future project.

     

    If your application is focused on saving µW (or nW) of power, say like in an IoT powered by Energy Harvesting, I can imagine the man-months of studying necessary for this processor platform would be worthwhile.


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