Overview of Altera Quartus
Altera Quartus is a design software produced by Intel (formerly Altera) for programmable logic devices. It allows engineers to design, analyze, optimize, and program Intel FPGAs, CPLDs, and SoCs using system-level design techniques and advanced place-and-route algorithms.
Some key capabilities offered by Altera Quartus:
- FPGA design entry using schematic, HDL, block diagrams
- Timing analysis, power analysis, design optimization
- IP core integration, parameterization
- Advanced place-and-route algorithms
- Device programming and configuration
- System-level integration and co-simulation
- Support for Intel and third-party tools/IP
Altera Quartus works across the entire Intel FPGA product range and provides a unified environment for FPGA and SoC development. It includes tools for the complete development cycle from design to test, programming and debug.
The Quartus software runs on Windows and Linux operating systems. A free version is available for small FPGAs with limited features.
Key Features of Altera Quartus
Here are some of the major features provided by the Altera Quartus suite:
- VHDL, Verilog, SystemVerilog support for RTL design
- Schematic capture editor
- Block diagram design with memory mapped interconnect
- Import from math software like MATLAB/Simulink
Simulation and Verification
- RTL simulation engine for functional verification
- Timing analysis for design optimization
- Power analysis for low-power designs
- SignalTap logic analyzer
- Formal verification support
Synthesis and Place-and-Route
- Advanced synthesis optimizes for speed, area or power
- Physical synthesis optimizes post-layout netlist
- Timing-driven incremental place and route
- Support for automated optimization strategies
- Floorplan editor for constraint-driven layout
Program and Debug
- Program Intel FPGA devices via programmer
- In-system source-level debugging
- Signal probe to tap internal signals
- Device configuration via PCIe, Ethernet, JTAG
IP Library and Third-party Integration
- Extensive library of Intel FPGA IP cores
- Parameterizable IP core generation
- Third-party tool integration e.g. MATLAB, Synopsys
- Co-simulation with various simulators
- Support for industry standard interfaces
Applications and Use Cases
Altera Quartus can be used across a wide spectrum of applications that utilize programmable logic chips. Here are some common use cases:
Prototyping and Pre-Silicon Validation
Quartus allows quick prototyping of system architectures on FPGAs for early validation before ASIC designs are finalized. Reduces risk by proving the design before manufacturing.
Networking and Telecom
Used for implementing algorithms in networking gear like switches, routers, base stations, transmission systems etc. Provides rapid upgrades via reprogramming.
IoT and Embedded Systems
Ideal for implementing logic in smart sensors, industrial controls, motor drives, automation systems etc. that require flexibility.
Used to design engine control units, driver assistance systems, infotainment systems etc. which require reliability and safety.
Aerospace and Defense
Suitable for mission critical guidance systems, navigation electronics, signal processing etc. that demand precision.
HPC applications leverage FPGAs for parallel processing. Used in data centers, supercomputers, artificial intelligence.
Quartus supports embedded ARM cores for designing entire systems on a programmable chip.
Widely used in universities and research centers due to low cost, flexibility and rich feature set.
In summary, Altera Quartus serves any application that benefits from FPGA capabilities like rapid prototyping, hardware acceleration, low latency, power efficiency etc.
Quartus Editions – Comparison of Features
Intel offers different editions of Altera Quartus based on the FPGA model size and features required. The key variants are:
Quartus Prime Lite
- Entry-level design for low-end FPGAs
- Limited to small designs
- Only supports Verilog/VHDL
- No advanced analysis or debug
- Free edition for Intel MAX series
Quartus Prime Standard
- For mid-range FPGAs like Cyclone series
- Full HDL support with advanced synthesis
- Timing/power analyzer, SignalTap logic analyzer
- Supports Device Programming
- Costs around $2,500 per year
Quartus Prime Pro
- Highest performance FPGAs like Stratix/Arria
- Advanced place-and-route algorithms
- Floorplan Editor, PowerPlay power analyzer
- Formal verification, design security features
- Subscription around $5,500 per year
SoC Embedded Design Suite
- All Quartus Prime Pro features
- Multi-core design with ARM cores
- Platform Designer system integration
- Nios II embedded processor design
- Subscription – $9,000 per year
So developers can choose the edition with capabilities matching their design requirements. Entry-level projects can leverage the free version whereas complex designs require advanced features of Pro or SoC editions.
How to Choose the Right Edition?
Here are some key considerations when selecting the Quartus edition for your project:
Pick an edition that supports your target FPGA architecture – MAX, Cyclone, Stratix etc. Entry editions have FPGA size limits.
Higher complexity needs more advanced place-and-route, analysis and debug features only available in Pro/SoC.
System-level, visual designers benefit from Embedded/SoC edition capabilities. RTL designers can stick to Standard or Pro.
Tool Integration Needs
Projects needing to integrate MATLAB, C/C++ and verification tools require Pro or Embedded editions.
Free and Standard editions are ideal for academic and hobbyists. Commercial users should evaluate the design productivity benefit of the premium editions.
Paid editions include Intel technical support which can be useful for mission-critical projects. Free and academic editions have community forums only.
For most hobbyists and engineering students, the free Quartus Lite provides an abundant feature set. Enterprise users require the premium editions to access Intel’s latest architectures, place-and-route innovations and technical support.
Typical FPGA Design Flow Using Quartus
Here is a typical FPGA design flow using the Altera Quartus suite:
- Design Entry – Use schematic entry, VHDL/Verilog coding or block diagrams to define the RTL or system-level design.
- Functional Simulation – Verify functionality by simulating the design in ModelSim integrated with Quartus.
- Synthesis – Synthesize the RTL to convert to logic gates. The Compiler optimizes for speed, area or power.
- Place-and-Route – Place logic blocks and route signal connections using timing-driven algorithms to meet design constraints.
- Timing Analysis – Verify timing performance to ensure clock frequency requirements are met. Optimize critical paths as needed.
- Power Analysis – Estimate power consumption and optimize power saving options like clock gating.
- Programming – Configure the FPGA by programming it with the compiled design files via programmer.
- Debug – Debug the design on the development board via SignalProbe, SignalTap or Logic Analyzer.
- Timing Closure – Iterate between place-and-route, timing analysis and optimization until timing goals are met.
With these steps, designers can implement their digital systems on Intel FPGAs using the Quartus integrated environment.
How is Quartus Different from Xilinx Vivado?
Here are some key differences between Quartus and Vivado:
Supported FPGA Vendors
- Quartus supports Intel (Altera) FPGAs
- Vivado supports Xilinx FPGAs
- Vivado has tighter integration between analysis, implementation and debug tools
- Quartus offers broader third-party integrations like MATLAB/Simulink, Synopsys tools
- Both have exhaustive IP libraries tailored to their FPGAs
- Vivado includes embedded ARM cores while Quartus supports Nios soft cores
- Vivado provides command line Tcl interface
- Quartus offers GUI and Qsys system integration tools
- Vivado WebPACK is free for small FPGAs
- Quartus Prime Lite is free for Intel MAX series
So in essence, the two serve the same purpose but are optimized for their respective FPGA architectures. Users typically prefer using the vendor provided toolchain. But designs can be migrated across platforms with some effort.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Quartus
Here are some of the major pros and cons of using the Altera Quartus suite:
- Unified design environment for Intel FPGAs and SoCs
- Advanced timing/power analysis and optimization
- Mature scheduling, placement and routing algorithms
- Extensive optimization strategies to meet constraints
- Simulation, debug and programming in one suite
- Broad support for standards and third-party tools
- Huge library of Intel FPGA optimized IP cores
- Effective for both RTL designers and system architects
- Only supports Intel/Altera FPGAs
- Less intuitive compared to GUI-driven Vivado
- Steeper learning curve than schematic/block design flows
- Primarily targets RTL designers rather than system architects
- Limited support for latest high-end EDA standards
- Can be slow for optimizing large hierarchical designs
- Expensive licenses for full-featured editions
In summary, Quartus provides a very capable design environment tailored for Intel’s FPGAs but has a learning curve for new users. The free edition is an easy way to get started for Intel-based designs.
Top 5 FAQs about Quartus Lite
Here are some frequently asked questions about using the free Quartus Prime Lite edition:
Q1: What FPGAs are supported in Quartus Lite?
Quartus Lite only supports small FPGAs like the Intel MAX 10 series. Larger devices require Standard or Pro editions.
Q2: Can I simulate my design with Quartus Lite?
Yes, Quartus Lite includes ModelSim-Intel Starter Edition for RTL simulation and functional verification.
Q3: Does Quartus Lite allow timing analysis?
No, Quartus Lite does not have timing analysis, power analysis or formal verification capabilities.
Q4: Can I build a PLL using Quartus Lite?
Unfortunately PLLs are not supported in the free version. You would need Quartus Standard or Pro.
Q5: Is there technical support for Quartus Lite users?
No official support. You would need to rely on community forums and knowledge bases for assistance.
In summary, Quartus Lite has limited capabilities but lets you get started with Intel FPGA design at no cost. It works well for academic projects but commercial users require the Standard or Pro editions.