PragmatIC Takes Us Back to the Future

Article By : Nitin Dahad

PragmatIC Semiconductor manufactured a flexible version of the iconic 6502 processor in just two weeks.

PragmatIC Semiconductor is taking us back to the future. First the company embedded an Arm Cortex-M0 on a flexible substrate. Now the company has gone back further back in time, producing a flexible version of the iconic 6502 processor.

The 6502 brings back memories of forking over my savings in the 1980s to buy a BBC Micro. I already owned a Z80-based ZX81 from Sinclair Computer, but the computer nerd I was back then had to have “The Beeb,” as it was affectionately called, based on the 6502 processor.

The 6502 was developed at MOS Technology by a team of designers led by Bill Mensch, who had left Motorola because the company was convinced the high cost of its 6800 chip was a barrier to high volume adoption. Launched in 1975, the ground-breaking 6502 devices cost a fraction of the price of competing chips, prompting Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak to base their Apple-1 computer on the 6502.

The chip and its variants went on to become the brains of seminal computers like the Apple II, Commodore PET, Commodore 64 and BBC Micro, as well as pioneering gaming platforms like the Nintendo and Atari 2600. The design is still supported by Western Design Center (WDC), which estimates licensees have shipped over 6 billion embedded 65xx processors, a total that grows by hundreds of millions annually.

PragmatIC 6502 flexible wafer_lr
PragmatIC’s flexible 6502 was laid out and manufactured in less than two weeks. (Source: PragmatIC)

PragmatIC said its flexible 6502 was laid out and manufactured in less than two weeks, demonstrating the “game-changing” ability of its FlexIC Foundry to support rapid development of semiconductor hardware. A second iteration has already been taped out to optimize pinout, footprint and speed, leveraging an agile design approach that would be impossible given the high cost and long lead times required for silicon fabrication.

Said WDC Founder Bill Mensch, who created the original 6502 with Chuck Peddle, “I see what PragmatIC is doing to be as transformational as what we did at MOS Technology back in the 1970s. In validating the 6502 design on their FlexIC Foundry, we can now extend the original goal of the design to support embedded processing for the internet of everything.”

Having made its flexible 6502 processor in a fortnight, what’s next? Are customers and applications lined up? A Pragmatic spokesperson said the company would soon disclose applications that take advantage of the Flex6502 circuit. “Our primary objective is to support an IP core that our FlexIC foundry customers can leverage to easily add compute functionality to their designs. The commercial opportunity here is significant, particularly when combined with sensors and/or RF communications that we have previously demonstrated–delivering embedded microcontrollers for the internet of everything.”

The spokesperson added, “The other thing we wanted to demonstrate with this is how quick and easy it is to transfer existing digital circuit designs into our process, paving the way for other standard blocks.”

The company has issued a netlist for an enhanced 6502 design with additional instructions. Even more important, it can run slow or paused and still retain its place mark until it is restarted. “This allows it to run at any speed as opposed to exactly 1 megahertz for the 6502.” That allows users “to take advantage of this function to slow right down and reduce operating power until it’s needed.”

This article was originally published on EE Times.

Nitin Dahad is a correspondent for EE Times, EE Times Europe and also Editor-in-Chief of embedded.com. With 35 years in the electronics industry, he’s had many different roles: from engineer to journalist, and from entrepreneur to startup mentor and government advisor. He was part of the startup team that launched 32-bit microprocessor company ARC International in the US in the late 1990s and took it public, and co-founder of The Chilli, which influenced much of the tech startup scene in the early 2000s. He’s also worked with many of the big names—including National Semiconductor, GEC Plessey Semiconductors, Dialog Semiconductor and Marconi Instruments.

 

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