Single-board computers come in many sizes and shapes. Generally, the design engineer chooses the one that is best for his or her application. One form factor that’s in vogue today for reasons we will go into shortly is the Computer-on-Module, better known as the COM. Note that the COM is sometimes used interchangeably with the SOM, which is a System-on-Module.
While the COM contains lots of functionality, including the key processing elements and memory, it usually gets plugged into a carrier board, which hosts the external I/O and other components. The carrier board connects to a standard bus that interfaces with the outside world. In some cases, the carrier board can be modified for custom applications, yet still allows a connection to a standard COM. The key reason for this pluggable architecture is that it allows the OEM to swap in a newer (higher performance) processor COM when a system upgrade is required.
The latest COMs are densely packed, as the form factor is fixed, but the feature set continues to grow. For example, the WINSYSTEMS’ COMeT10-3900, which is built to the COM Express Type 10 Mini specification, measures 84 by 55 mm (3.31 by 2.17 in.). Designed for industrial applications, including automation and control, the COMeT10-3900 hosts an Intel Atom E3900 microprocessor (formally the Apollo Lake-I).
Other features of the COMeT10-3900 include up to 8 Gbytes of LPDDR4 2400-Mtransfer/s system memory, full-HD and 3D graphics acceleration, on-board discrete TPM 2.0 hardware security, a wide operating temperature range (-40ºC to +85ºC), and lots of I/O, with 4x PCIe lanes, 8x USB, and Gbit Ethernet.
The Origins of the COM
The first COM dates back about 20 years. Originally, the modules and baseboards were seen more as development platforms, used for prototyping. In fact, Apple claims to have used an original COM to develop its original iPhone concept back in 2005.
The technology really evolved about ten years ago, when the industry warmed to the idea of having standard modules that provide easy upgrades. Assuming all parties involved adhered closely to the specifications, you should be able to upgrade your platform with a COM from any vendor.
The common reasons cited for moving to a COM architecture are:
• Faster time to market
• Reduced development costs
• Potential for a scalable product range
• Reduced inventory cost
• A design that lets the systems integrator focus on specific system features, rather than the system
• Potential for second source options
There’s an extensive list of COM form factors besides the COM Express Type 10 Mini standard. The more popular ones include the COM Express Type 6 Basic (125 by 95 mm) and Compact (95 by 95 mm), the Qseven 2.0 (70 by 70 mm), the CoreExpress (58 by 65 mm), the ETX (95 by 114 mm), and the SMARC, which standards for Smart Mobility Architecture. SMARC is available in two different sizes, the 82- by 50-mm compact version and the 82- by 80-mm model for higher performance needs.
When it comes to the carrier boards, one good example is the WINSYSTEMS’ ITX-M-CC452-T10, which adheres to the industrial Mini-ITX small form factor Type 10 standard. One benefit of this board is that developers can start using it as a reference platform, but then take it all the way out to production as it contains all industrial-rated component. With the carrier board, OEMs can plug in any standard COM Express Mini Type 10 module.
As you can see, a big advantage to the COMs is that you don’t get locked into any one vendor or technology. But it does require you to make the right choices for your application. This is where it pays to have the right technology partner, and that would be the experts at WINSYSTEMS.