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i.MX8 “eCockpit” SoC arrives, with media and IoT versions coming

Oct 7, 2016 — by Eric Brown — 1,332 views

NXP unveiled its automotive i.MX8 Quad with four Cortex-A53 cores, two Cortex-M4F cores, and two GPUs. The QuadPlus and QuadMax add one and two -A72 cores.

Freescale teased its automotive i.MX8 family in 2015 before the company was acquired by NXP, a process that may have contributed to the SoC family’s delays. The first three i.MX8 models are now due to sample in Q1 2017, says NXP, which has already built a development kit for the SoC, shown farther below. In addition, plans have leaked for future i.MX8 models for multimedia and low-power IoT applications, including dual-core models (see farther below).

The i.MX8 is designed to create a “digital eCockpit,” featuring “stunning graphics and automotive-grade reliability for the display of safety-critical information, as well as outstanding performance to support multisensory features like intuitive gesture control, natural speech recognition and audio acceleration,” says NXP.



i.MX8 Quad block diagram (dashed lines indicate model-specific features)
(click image to enlarge)

The three i.MX8 Quad SoCs represent NXP’s first 64-bit i.MX SoCs, up from the Cortex-A9 i.MX6 and Cortex-A7 i.MX7. The three models’ core complements are tabulated below.

  Cortex-A53 cores Cortex-M4F MCUs GC7000XS/VX GPUs Cortex-A72 cores
i.MX8 Quad 4 2 2
i.MX8 QuadPlus 4 2 2 1
i.MX8 QuadMax 4 2 2 2

The SoCs are fabricated with a 28nm FDSOI (fully depleted silicon on insulator) process touted for improved MTBF and decreased soft error rates. While quad-Cortex-A53 designs have become nearly ubiquitous in multimedia capable ARM SoCs, the more recent Cortex-A72 has seen less uptake. Featuring twice the performance of the Cortex-A57, the Cortex-A72 is found in SoCs such as NXP’s QorIQ LS2088AMT8173 and Helio X20. Qualcomm uses its own -A72-like Kyro cores on its Snapdragon 820. The -A72 designs will start to give way next year to faster Cortex-A73 SoCs, such as the upcoming MediaTek Helio X30.



i.MX8 feature tables showing common (left) and model-specific features
(click images to enlarge)

The i.MX8’s two Cortex-M4F microcontrollers should help support time-critical tasks such as backup camera display, and system monitoring and wakeup, says NXP. Together with the -A72 cores and HIFI4 DSP, the MCUs also support multi-domain voice recognition.

The i.MX8 also stands out with its two GC7000LiteXS/VX GPUs, the better to drive up to four HD screens, including front and rear automotive displays, plus instrument clusters and heads-up displays. (Alternatively, you can focus the i.MX8’s multimedia firepower on a single 4K display.) The i.MX8’s multi-screen approach is further enabled with controllers for dual Gigabit Ethernet ports that offer audio video bridging (AVB) capability.

There was still no product page for the GC7000 series GPUs, which appear to extend the Vivante brand from the GC2000 GPUs found on the i.MX6 Quad. The GPUs provide dedicated, software-agnostic vision processing hardware instructions, enabling up to 800 percent better efficiency than a non-optimized GPU, claims NXP.

The i.MX8’s complex visual and audio processing can also extend the SoC beyond automotive, suggests NXP. The company notes applications such as mobile service robots that can see and hear, wearable devices that can scan and speak, autonomous drones, and modern industrial automation with multimedia interfaces.

 
Multiple-OS designs wanted

The i.MX8’s redundant design, hardware based virtualization, and domain protection help to simplify the development, testing, and deployment of multi-OS platforms on a single SoC. Supported OSes include Android, Linux, FreeRTOS, QNX, Green Hills, and Dornerworks XEN. Developers can easily assign one GPU and display controller to one OS, probably Android or Linux, and the other set to an RTOS. This enables “deterministic performance without risking the complexity inherent to paravirtualizing a monolithic GPU and display controller pipeline,” says the company.

Every silicon IP resource, “from GPUs to serial ports,” has built-in resource protection, ownership rights and access permissions,” says NXP. This approach is claimed to increase platform reliability and reduce the risks associated with software-based sharing techniques.

The platform is compliant with ASIL-B, ensuring that screens “stay up” even in the event of a system crash, says NXP. The i.MX8 supports up to 16 hardware-based firewall domains engineered to isolate crashes, external attacks, and other system level issues, says the company. The SoC’s “SafeAssure Fail-Over” display controllers monitor the system’s graphics pipeline in order to automatically transition to a fully isolated display path if necessary.

Other security features are said to include encrypted boot, elliptical curve cryptography, secure key storage, and support for AES, SHE, and other automotive security standards. The SoCs are said to be AEC-Q100 Grade 3 qualified, and support AEC-Q100 Grade 3 temperature ranges of -40 to 125°C, -40 to 105°C, and -20 to 105°C.

The i.MX8 supports 64-bit DDR4 or LPDDR4 RAM, as well as one NAND and up to three SD 3.0 or eMMC interfaces. Like the i.MX6, there’s SATA support, in this case SATA 3.0. You can also turn your PCIe 3.0 interface over to SATA duty. The QuadMax part has a 2-lane PCIe 3.0 interface for higher bandwidth expansion.

For displays, the i.MX8 supports one HDMI 1.4 Rx and one HDMI 2.0 port. The latter can alternatively be assigned to DisplayPort 1.2 or eDP 1.4. You also get dual LVDS interfaces and dual 4-lane MIPI-DSI links. A pair of 4-lane MIPI-CSI camera interfaces is also available. For audio, which is a key function in automotive, you get SPDIF, 2x ESAI, and 5x I2S/SAI connections.

The i.MX8 features USB 3.0 and dual 2.0 interfaces, all with PHY. There are dual 12-bit ADCs, 3x CAN, 4x SPI, and 5x high-speed and 8-x low-speed I2C interfaces. Other features include keypad, MLB, and even a dedicated FPGA interface (4x data, 1x clock lanes). The block diagram also indicates 8x PWM and 5x UART I/Os.

 
i.MX8 MEK kit and future i.MX8 models

An i.MX8 Multi-sensory Evaluation Enablement Kit (MEK) that was originally unveiled in May is available for the i.MX8. The boardset includes a processor board, an expansion board, and up to 8x camera inputs for 360-degree vision.



i.MX8 Multi-sensory Evaluation Enablement Kit
(click image to enlarge)

The kit is designed to prototype “i.MX8 and i.MX8X systems,” says NXP. Indeed, CNXSoft discovered a PDF slide deck from NXP that indicates a whole range of i.MX8 chips waiting in the wings.

The slide deck shows an i.MX8X family for low-power applications that is limited to Cortex-A35 and -M4 cores. The 8QuadXPlus has four Cortex-A53 cores while the 8DualXPlus and 8DualX have two. There’s also an i.MX8M family for audio/video applications that features 4K VP9/H.265 and HDR support. The 8M family will have Quad and Dual Video, as well as Quad and Dual Audio models. The slide deck also shows upcoming i.MX8 Dual and DualLite models with dual Cortex-A53 cores. Like the 8X and 8M models, the dual-core parts are limited to a single GPU per SoC.

Speaking of slide decks, we located two interesting presentations about the i.MX8’s virtualization, media, and vision capabilities in eCockpit applications:

 
Qualcomm continues to bid for NXP

By the time these new i.MX8 SoCs reach production, NXP may be under the Qualcomm umbrella, if persistent acquisition rumors are to be believed. Although Qualcomm will soon ship a Snapdragon-based Qualcomm Connected Car Reference Platform, this is one area where the company has fallen behind Nvidia, which has increasingly focused its Tegra SoCs on automotive platforms like Drive PX 2. TI, meanwhile, has its Jacinto platform, and Renesas has its R-Car SoCs, among other automotive contenders.

The addition of NXP would greatly improve Qualcomm’s automotive positioning, and not only in application processors, given that NXP bills itself as the “number one provider for automotive ICs.” Should the Qualcomm deal go through, however, the future of the non-automotive models, and especially the multimedia 8M models, may be in jeopardy, as these may compete too directly with Snapdragons.

 
Further information

The first three i.MX8 Quad SoCs will begin sampling in Q1 2017. More information on the i.MX8 Quad family may be found on NXP’s i.MX8 product page, and more on the currently available i.MX8 MEK development kit may be found here.
 

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