Review – Digilent chipKIT Uno32

In this review we consider a Digilent chipKIT Uno32 development board made available by element14.

Introduction

This is a development board that is based on the Arduino Uno, however uses a Microchip PIC32MX320F128 microcontroller instead of the Atmel ATmega328 we are used to:

Digilent’s decision to use the PIC32 introduces some interesting changes to the Uno format, and the largest change to take note of is the clock speed – 80 MHz instead of the Uno’s 16 MHz. That certainly took my attention, and we can see this demonstrated shortly.

When shipped the board arrives alone in a cardboard box, without a USB cable:

All documentation is found on the Digilent website. There is also a support forum to discuss libraries, IDE updates and so on. The board itself is quite familiar upon initial inspection:

You can see that Arduino shield will physically fit onto the board, and the extra I/O pins are accessed through the second rows of jumpers inside the board. With some crafty PCB creation skills you could make your own Uno32 shields, or consider one of the boards available from element14 or Digilent.

As for the other specifications of the Uno32:

  • Clock speed – 80 MHz
  • 128K flash program memory
  • 16K SRAM data memory
  • I/O pins – 42 (12 used as analogue inputs or digital I/O)
  • Five PWM pins
  • FTDI chip for USB interface
  • Two user LEDs
  • Same form factor as Arduino Uno boards, which allows physical shield compatibility
  • Five interrupt pins
  • On board real-time clock (external crystal required)

You will need a new IDE, and you can download Uno32-modified versions of the Arduino v22 and v23 IDE from here for Windows, MacOS and 32-bit Linux (no 64-bit…). The bootloader is preinstalled on the Uno32 and after installing the special IDE it works just as our normal Arduinos do in terms of editing and uploading sketches. The board also is compatible with the Microchip MPLAB IDE and PICkit3 in-circuit debugger if you want to use the Uno32 as a normal PIC32 development board. There is a row of holes between the USB socket and the DC socket that will need header pins soldered in for PICkit3 use.

Speed comparison

Naturally you want to see the speed test. The following sketch was run on an Arduino Uno and the Uno32 boards using IDE v1.0 for the Uno and the MPIDE v23 for the Uno32:

And here are the results of running the sketch four times on each board:

speedtest1

Well that’s pretty impressive – over sixty times faster than the Arduino Uno. Therein lies the major reason to use this board over the Uno. The eagle-eyed among you may have also noticed the difference in the compiled binary sketch size – 6432 bytes for the Uno32 vs. 2540 bytes for the Arduino Uno. That’s interesting.

Nevertheless there are many things to take note of when moving from Arduino to Uno32, or in other words – you can’t just swap out an Arduino Uno for an Uno32, recompile and run your sketch at the faster speed. The Microchip PIC32 is very much a different beast to the Atmel AVRs we’re used to, so it is important that you understand the differences in hardware and software to take advantage of the Uno32. So let’s run through those  now.

Power Differences

The Uno32 is a 3.3V board due to the PIC32. You can still power it via USB, or connect between 7~15 VDC to the power socket on the board. You can change a jumper and feed 5V directly into the board bypassing the 5V regulator. External power is regulated to 5V then to 3.3V. From a total of 1A current, the PIC32 uses 75mA, so you can draw up to 925mA from the 5V bus or 425mA from the 3.3V bus (or a mixture from both). It would pay to determine your current load before testing to avoid damaging the board, however  the  manual notes that the regulators will become hot at high current loads but do have thermal protection. Finally there is also a jumper that chooses between a 5V or 3.3V voltage feed to the shields. As always, consult the manual first.

I/O Differences

Although the PIC32 being a 3.3V part, the manual states that the digital I/O pins are 5V tolerant, so applying 5V to a digital input won’t damage the PIC32. Logic on the other hand is a different kettle of fish. According to the manual a digital ‘high’ when sourcing 12mA of current will only reach close to 3.3V. This may be too low in some situations so check your threshold voltages when choosing external parts. Furthermore, the analogue reference voltage (AREF) is restricted to 3.3V.

One stand-out difference is that you can only source 18mA from a digital pin, which is OK if you’re blinking some LEDs. However for logic output to keep the voltage range below 0.4V for ‘low’ and above 2.4V for ‘high’ the current must be restricted to -12~+7mA – another different limitaion. Finally, the maximum current you can source over all the I/O pins at once is 200mA.

There are two UARTs, number one where we expect it (D0/D1) and another on pins 39 and 40. I2C is on A4/A5 but needs to be activated with a jumper. Note that unlike an Arduino there aren’t any inbuilt pull-up resistors for the I2C bus, so add your own. There is also an SPI bus at the usual position (D10~13) and interestingly you can change the board between SPI master and slave via another set of jumpers. There are five pulse-width modulation outputs, however one is on D10 which is also part of the SPI bus. Finally there are five hardware interrupt pins.

Shield Compatibility  

Arduino shields will physically fit onto the Uno32 – but you need to be aware of the I/O differences listed above, the voltage and current specification and also the software side of things. Again – do your research before making the commitment to the hardware.

Software Compatibility

The Uno32 is compatible with a variety of Arduino sketches, but not all. This in a large part is due to the libraries which will need to be sourced from the community or rewritten yourself if not provided with the MPIDE software. There is a community on the support forum which is contributing their own, such as the real-time clock library – but again, research needs to be done before use. When trying to use an existing Arduino sketch and hardware, you will need to spend some time checking for compatibility. Again – it’s much easier to design a new project around the Uno32 than rejig an existing one.

Open Source? 

One of the things many people love about the Arduino ecosystem is that the entire system is open source hardware and software. Without causing a pro/con argument about software licensing you should note that not all of the software toolchain for the Uno32 is open, nor the USB or TCP/IP stack. There is some interesting discourse about this here.

Conclusion

A lot of work needs to be done to ensure compatibility with existing Arduino applications. The Uno32 is tempting due to the raw clock-speed increase, however the sketch/library and hardware differences may introduce a few road blocks. However, when designing a project from scratch and understand the licensing limitations, the Uno32 would be great as you know what you have to work with – a much faster board with much more I/O. And it is very inexpensive, less than ~$35. You can order your new Uno32 from element14.

Finally, if you’re looking for a very inexpensive PIC32 development board to use with Microchip MPLAB, the Uno32 is a great deal that can possibly interface with a wide variety of shields from the Arduino world.

Disclaimer – The Chipkit Uno32 board reviewed in this article was a promotional consideration made available by element14.

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John Boxall

Founder, owner and managing editor of tronixstuff.com.

6 Responses to “Review – Digilent chipKIT Uno32”

  1. pixel_k says:

    Thank you for this review.

    Just my 2c. here : I bought one when they were first available and was disappointed, none of my projects ran on it. As you very well wrote, you have to check very carefully which library you use. It’s too bad because the chip is powerful, has a lot of I/Os and is not very expensive. It would be really nice if all the “stock” libraries were supported (I’m looking at you, pgmspace.h), but for now it isn’t the case.

    In summary, I’ll totally agree with you : a very powerful chip, but nowhere near a drop-in replacement for a “real” Arduino.

  2. James says:

    Hi, I just ran the same test with a pinguino pic32 and STM32(a maple clone) both from olimex. The pinguino done it in 93ms and the maple in 209ms. Oh and the arduino duemilanove is also 4212ms, as you would expect. :)

  3. guest says:

    Hi, what is the operating range temperature for this board? Can it run in a outdoor environment where temperature is very low (under zero degrees)?

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