The STAMP journey began in 2009 as a quest to create a low-cost multimedia device for applications like Internet radio, Internet photo frames and home energy management consoles. They developed their previous IP—a reference design for Internet radio and digital photo frames—to make a low-cost tablet.
Darshak Vasavada, CEO, Stamp Computers, spoke to Abhishek Mutha of EFY about technical challenges while designing a tablet, resistive versus capacitive screen, the latest trends and applications for tablets
Q. Could you give us an overview of Stamp Computers?
A. Stamp Computers is a company incubated in AllGo Systems, an IP-led services company where we invest in certain IPs that go to our customers and provide them services based on the IP that we have. One of the IPs that we had, which was a reference design and was planned on taking to Internet Radio and Digital Photo Frames, ended up into a low cost tablet. Tablets were just on the horizon at that time. When we took this and presented it to a few companies in India, they were pretty excited because they would be able to use a device produced locally. That is when we realised that there was space for an Indian product company which can manufacture and sell products like tablets.
Q. What prompted the spin-off of STAMP Computers?
A. Services and product companies have very different DNA. In order to isolate the two from each other, we spun of Stamp as a separate company, and begun Stamp Computers. Our vision here is to provide local products for local solutions. We believe that import is not an answer to every need of the country. We want to provide indigenous solutions for the issues and requirements in India.
Q. How do you see the role of tablets evolving, especially in India?
A. People are figuring out more and more new things to do with the tablet, and it is finding use almost everywhere. If we look at the rural market where PCs couldn’t go due to power issues and accessibility problems, cell phones and other mobile devices have penetrated easily. Now even tablets are making their way into rural India. In fact, tablets are available at price points similar to phones. Every day we are seeing more and more creative uses for tablets, and I am sure the market is going to be very exciting.
Q. What are the technical trends in tablets?
A. Most tablets today use ARM Cortex-A8 processor. The next processor that holds promise for tablets is Cortex-A9. A9 is a multi-core processor, which allows a dual-core or quad-core functionality while running at 1 or 1.5 GHz.
There is another new trend called ‘big little architecture.’ In this architecture, there is one big processor and one small processor for optimising the battery usage. When the load on the processor is low, the small processor kicks in, allowing the device and memory to be kept alive while not consuming too much power.
Q. What to expect on the application front?
A. Consider a tablet for field work. It gives an extension to enterprise resource planning (ERP) system of the company. Today, ERP system is limited to computers within the company. Use of tablets allows companies to stretch their ERP system, so their sales force can convert deals right at the client’s office without having to come back to the office to finalise it. For a device like this, a very long battery life and a variety of connectivity options are required so that the user is not bogged down by charging or connection issues. It also has to support a lot of peripherals so that connection to external devices is easy and as required.
Q. What are the specifications of Stamp tablet?
A. We designed a rugged casing since this device is targeted at field applications. We have also incorporated a full USB port, which is a necessity for connectivity with other devices. It provides full 50 mA of current, so multiple devices can be connected to it simultaneously. A cellphone can also be charged through this USB port.
The tablet uses an ARM Cortex-A8 processor clocked at 800 MHz, and we plan to over-clock it to 1 GHz pretty soon. It has a capacitive multi-touch screen with a 24-bit RGB display, which provides full-size video at WVGA resolution. Moreover, it has a provision for SD card and power and headphone connectivity options. It is a pretty simple tablet that can play five hours of video on a single charge.
Q. What technical challenges did your design team face while working on this device?
A. We came across a problem whose solution finding process was pretty interesting. In our motherboard, there are two signals that are exchanged between the processor and the memory—row-address strobe (RAS) and column-address strobe (CAS).
SDRAM is notationally organised into a grid-like pattern with rows and columns. Data stored in the SDRAM comes in blocks, defined by coordinates of the row and column of the specific information. During design, RAS and CAS were flipped, which brought up some problems. When we got the board from the factory for the first time, we had no idea whether the board was fully functional or not. The first thing to do was to bring up the memory. Due to the issue with the flipped RAS and CAS, the memory didn’t come up. The processor tried talking to the memory, but it always read back zeroes.
It sounds very simple at this point, but considering the fact that nothing else was working at that point, isolating the issue to its true cause was quite a challenge—given that it was unknown whether the layout was done improperly or there were issues with the PCB, impedance matching and so on.
To find a solution, we started off by first checking whether all the signals were okay or not. We began by using a megahertz oscilloscope to make sure that every signal works out. Then we had to go through the DVR controller, which had 25 registers, with each register having around ten parameters. So there were a total of 250 various bit settings to be checked. Even after doing all this, the message displayed was ‘Ok.’ So we went back to the papers and did one more review. That’s where one of our very experienced designers spotted this particular flip. The second problem was how to fix it. Pins were located pretty close to each other, and we had to cross two of those. So we took an extremely thin wire, connected it in and pulled off a criss-cross right there. Once we did this, the tablet booted up to Android.
Q. Between resistive and capacitive types, which screen did you choose and why?
A. We chose a capacitive screen because resistive screens require a certain amount of pressure to work. The pressure causes a certain amount of resistance, and that is how the screen works.
Capacitive screens, on the other hand, work by sensing a distortion in the field. When you place a finger on the screen, it creates a distortion in the electrostatic field, which is measured internally.
Now if a protective glass on top is desired by the user, a resistive screen will not work as it is not possible to press it through the thick glass. Whereas, a capacitive screen will still sense distortion in the field because glass is a dielectric. The capability to improve the strength of the tablet by placing glass on the display while still allowing touch-screen functionality is what made us select a capacitive screen.
However, there is one particular scenario where resistive screens would score over capacitive screens: When the humidity is high, such as when it is raining or you are in a high humidity area, capacitive screens lose their response. This is because humidity makes the field distortion difficult to detect. In such cases, resistive touch-screens perform better.
Another example where resistive screens are better would be when you are wearing gloves, such as in an industrial environment.
Q. You are targeting systems integrators, aka solution providers, for STAMP tablets—why?
A. While the tablet is not basically different, the needs of a solution provider are different from the needs of a consumer. Typically, consumers buy tablets for enjoying multimedia, gaming, reading e-books and browsing the Internet. Then there are people who want to provide solutions based on tablets—menu cards on tablets, home control panels based on tablets and so on. They need to run a very specific application, which means they do not need all the frills and features of a consumer tablet. What they really need is a relatively simple and more reliable tablet that can be used in a robust environment.
We are catering to the needs of these users. For instance, if a tablet is to be used for home control or appliance control, hardware and interface need to be added to it. On the other hand, if it is to be used in retail or e-commerce application, a credit card swiper, thermal printer or bar-code scanner needs to be included depending on the requirements. This level of customisation and support is not easy to find in imported tablets.
By producing a tablet that is fully developed by us, we have total control over it. We can do a lot of customisation so that it fits the clients’ needs.
Q. What kind of Operating Systems do you use in your tablets?
A. The current one runs Android, since it is the most popular one and a lot of people are writing all the applications for Android. Earlier, we also ran Linux and Windows CE. If the need arises, we can also port it in. Ultimately, we do this based on what our customers want their solutions to be based on.
Q. Are all your operations, both design and manufacturing, handled in-house?
A. Yes, the tablet has been fully designed by us all the way from circuit design, schematics, and board layout to the entire board and it’s mechanical design for the casing.
Q. There are talks of utilising tablets extensively for the education sector. What are your views on that?
A. There’s no doubt about it, and it will be extremely useful. On the other hand, it is not going to be easy either. It is one thing to give a tablet to someone and ask them to make it useful, while it is another to provide the entire infrastructure such that the system has to accept it. For instance, teachers would have to be comfortable with it, the content from the curriculum should be supported, and the students also have to be comfortable using the device, which they will. However, there will also be the concern of students misusing the tablets, which parents and teachers do not want them to do. Over all, it will be a tremendously empowering device.
Q. What kind of marketing strategies do you use at Stamp Computers?
A. We seek companies and firms who are developing solutions based on tablets, such as firms who conduct examinations, provide tools for a mobile team like a sales force, companies involved in health care applications and so on. We approach these companies and tune our tablets to their need. They would then be the ones who will take it to the final market.
Q. Do you hire freshers at Stamp Computers?
A. We love hiring freshers as they come with a lot of energy and a lot of passion which the seniors lose out over the years. A lot of innovation does come from them, so we spend a good effort in training and working them, and getting them to be productive. Apart from a few senior people who are working here, a large part of our team had joined us as freshers.
Q. What kind of skill sets do you look at?
A. We hire through selected colleges with whom we have a relationship. While hiring we focus on the basics of what they know, because as technology keeps changing it is only students who are fundamentally strong who would be able to make it through. We being an embedded systems company prefer those who have some hardware knowledge, thorough understanding of the architecture and software programming capabilities.