First Thoughts on the iCEBreaker FPGA

Alasdair Allan
3 min readDec 13, 2018

This year has seen the coming of age of the FPGA board. Driven, amongst other things, by the availability of an open source toolchain for the Lattice family of FPGA chips, the long standing problems holding back widespread adoption of the FPGA in the community seem now to have gone away.

However, despite accessible platforms like the TinyFPGA starting to appear on the market, getting started is still viewed as the biggest hurdle for adoption. Which is where the iCEBreaker FPGA, now raising on Crowd Supply hopes to make a difference.

The iCEBreaker V1.0b. (📷: 1 Bit Squared)

Field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) are a very different to a regular microcontroller board. With a microcontroller you have control over is the software, the code that runs on the chip, but with an FPGA you start with a blank slate and design the circuit rather than write the code that runs on it. There is no processor to run software, at least not until you design it.

Aimed at teachers and students, the iCEBreaker FPGA is built around the Lattice iCE40UP5k FPGA, capable of hosting CPU soft cores such as picorv32, picosoc, and RISC-V. It has an on-board FPGA programmer and USB-to-serial adaptor compatible with IceStorm’s programming tools.

An open source iCE40 FPGA development board for teachers and students. (📹: 1 Bit Squared)

Alongside the iCEBreaker board itself, the campaign includes a collection of Pmod boards developed for the project which are available as part of some bundles.

A Pmod, or “Peripheral Module,” is small I/O interface board standard by Diligent. Communicating with system boards using 6, 8, or 12-pin connectors that can carry multiple digital control signals, including SPI, I²C, and UART serial protocols, Pmods are yet another “standard” way to connect peripherals to microcontrollers.

A seven-segment display Pmod (top), and a DIP switch Pmod (bottom). (📷: 1 Bit Squared)

Combining these Pmod boards and the iCEBreaker, the board had a test run ahead of the crowdfunding campaign at Hackaday’s Supercon last month.

“…we used early prototypes of the iCEBreaker to teach a new version of Joe Fitz‘s WTFpga workshop at the Hackaday Superconference in Pasadena, California. Joe had originally developed his WTFpga workshop around a Xilinx development board. We were able to convert his workshop to the iCEbreaker quickly by adding two Pmods to the board: a seven-segment display Pmod and a DIP switch Pmod.”

iCEBreaker V1.0a playing Nyan Cat video from on-board flash (📷: tnt)

The iCEBreaker FPGA board is currently on Crowd Supply. An individual board costs $69, with free shipping inside the United States and an additional $16 for worldwide shipping. Other bundles are available with a WTFpga Kit, including a seven-segment display Pmod and a DIP switch Pmod, at a price of $79 and a “everything kit” with all the accessories costing $159.