Developers of applications with sophisticated graphics (for example: medical and industrial imaging, gaming and entertainment machines, POS/POI terminals, commercial outdoor broadcasting, public facilities and high-end residential gateways) have always had a problem with graphics. If they were looking for powerful graphics cards with long-term availability for their embedded designs they found that such cards simply do not exist. Standard cards from Asus or MSI are often discontinued after just a few months, this being the typical lifecycle for standard computer boards intended for the consumer market. And that is just the beginning of the problems associated with using consumer graphics cards. If OEMs rely on products from the mass market, they will incur significant expenditure during the products’ lifecycle: frequent driver updates, extremely high energy use (sometimes up to 150W), and in some cases limited MTBF due to fan failures. Additionally, the proportions of the consumer cards and their cooling designs often conflict with the embedded principles of compact dimensions, simplified cooling, and standardized form factors.
The option of designing in proprietary graphics capabilities can be even more problematic: the design process is subject to the risk that the components used could be discontinued before the finished design goes to market. At the same time, the expense and design risks involved in implementing the latest graphics chipsets are enormous. In order to eliminate both problems, Kontron and XGI have elected jointly to develop the first embedded graphics card standard – the first universal graphics-on-module standard, UGM, which was introduced in February 2007.
UGM defines an 84 mm x 95 mm PCB, supplying monitors with the most up-to-date range of high-end graphics card signals. Unlike conventional graphics cards that are plugged in at 90 degrees to the baseboard, UGMs are connected parallel to the baseboard. This saves space and thereby allows for extremely flat and very scalable designs. Even more importantly for users, UGMs offer availability of at least three to five years and the graphics functions, including drivers, are particularly quick and easy to implement in custom designs. UGM cards receive PCI Express signals and video signals via the 220 pins of the connector, which is also used for COM Express/ETXexpress Computer- On-Modules, over 1, 4, 8 or 16 lanes (PEG), and process them – including video capture functions and up to 1 GByte of video memory – and then deliver the converted signals back to the baseboard, also via the connector. The UGM 1.0 specification currently supports Dual LVDS, Dual DVI, and Dual VGA as playback sources.
On the baseboard itself, the developer can decide which signal combinations will ultimately be made available to the external connection. For example, a combination of sound, USB, and DVI can be implemented via the HDMI interface. In terms of the graphics layout and driver development, all the developer has to do is to allocate the appropriate circuits, plugs, and any peripheral components needed for additional features, such as HDCP copy protection for the display of high-resolution, protected video material. The graphics processing core is already finished and all necessary drivers are already implemented. This design also does away with cables completely. Thus, UGM stands out from current standard graphics cards where interfaces are led out via breakout cables because the narrow expansion card slot bracket does not offer enough room for external interfaces. Furthermore, with a 12 to 22V DC power supply and a maximum amperage of 6A, the UGM specification allows for up to 132W thermal design power. As a result, UGM can effectively support even the most high-end games with the highest frame rates and all graphics optimization algorithms.
With the launch of the first graphics module, the UGM-M72, Kontron has set a new benchmark for high performance embedded graphics. The R600 GPU from ATI is currently top of the field for demanding desktop and mobile graphics. For optimized energy efficiency, the current UGM-M72 – based on the mobile edition of the R600 core – does not push the processor to its desktop limits, but it demonstrates Kontron’s claim to offer the latest, future- proof embedded graphics solutions with long-term availability. The graphics module features the R600 GPU with a variable clock speed of 450 to 700 MHz, depending on the workload. It delivers visualization and multitasking features beyond integrated chipset graphics, combined with power-saving features and long-term availability. It is designed for embedded and rugged mobile applications that call for short time to market.
High-end PEG features include support of DirectX 10 and Shader Model to accelerate even the latest high-end 3D graphics for Windows Vista Aero, and beyond. The UGM-M72 presents full HD visualization, with smooth surfaces, sharp images and stunning color fidelity – the result: truly realistic graphics. Fully hardware- decoded streams, up to full HD 1920×1080 pixel resolution, will be supported by up to 512Mbytes / 128 bit / 500-800 MHz GDDR3. The first available variants are equipped with 256 Mbytes / 64 bit GDDR3. The graphics module with not more than 25W power dissipation is equipped with hardware- managed dynamic power modes and integrated Powerplay 7.0 power management technology, which offer best performance-perwatt ratios for embedded applications and long battery life for mobile rugged applications.
Time will tell whether the UGM standard will be used only for custom designs or if it may also be an alternative for standard boards with PEG graphics. Kontron assumes that UGM will first be adopted by companies that are already familiar with modular COM technologies. In addition to these early adopters, new users who have previously avoided modular designs because of the lack of high-end graphics COMs will have confidence to work with modular designs for CPU and graphics. Also designs may appear that utilize modular graphics but realize the core design on a baseboard without a CPU module. For solutions that use UGM on a standard graphics board format, the volume of the UGM-to-PEG-slot market has to be evaluated. Kontron does currently not have such a solution on its roadmap, but it might be an interesting additional area of business for a value-added reseller who could offer PEG graphics with long-term availability, based on UGM cards.
XGI and Kontron officially published the complete Universal Graphics Module design specification. Anyone interested in the new UGM embedded graphics module standard, which is designed for high-end PEG graphics and long term availability, can download Version 1.0. XGI and Kontron have made the UGM graphics module specification freely available to third party vendors. In the future, the specification and use of the UGM brand will be controlled by the forthcoming UGM interest group, whose independent development of the specification will particularly benefit users.
Article was written by Daniel Piper, Kontron