A major growth area in medical device technology, medical imaging is gaining momentum in the number of clinical applications for which it’s being prescribed. Now, new COM Express technology enables multi-display functionality for healthcare applications. This article reviews the new technology. 

Based on the COM Express (COM.0) standard, COMs (computer-on-modules) deliver simple upgrade paths, scalability, and customization that can last through multiple device generations. Originally five pin-outs were defined by the standard and have provided medical imaging designers a foundation for signal assignment and design layout for nearly twelve years (Figure 1). The recent introduction of the COM.0Type 6 pin-out in the second revision of the standard has great relevance for medical designers, extending graphics processing and functionality to the point of enabling compelling new medical imaging devices.


Figure 1: The COM.0 standard offers medical OEMs ideal support in their quest for medical imaging market share by driving faster time-to-market, reducing development cost and minimizing design risk. This image illustrates the evolution of size differences in basic, compact, and ultra form factor COM.0 compatible modules from Kontron.

Opening up a new world of graphics-based applications, PICMG has added the Type 6 pin-out to the COM.0 standard. This new pin-out better utilizes the expanded graphics possibilities of new processor families. Pin-out Type 6 is essentially based on Type 2, the most widely adopted COM.0 pin-out type to date. Legacy PCI pins from Type 2 have been reallocated in Type 6 to support the digital display interface and for additional PCI Express lanes. For example, the Kontron ETXexpress-AI (Figure 2) implements a Type 2 or Type 6 pin-out, incorporating Intel 32 nm architecture with Core i7 processors. Designers have greater flexibility based on the processor’s advanced functionality, improved energy efficiency, wide graphics support, customizable PCI Express configuration, and ECC dual-channel RAM to ensure data accuracy. Both computing and high-end graphics performance are improved, enabling a performance jump from devices that may use an earlier Type 2 COM, such as ETXexpress-CD, designed for fourth generation graphics architectures used in advanced video applications.

Figure 2: The performance of the Kontron Computer-on-Module ETXexpress-AI is scalable using four Intel Core i7 and Core i5 processors—from the 1.06 GHz Intel Core i7 620UE, the 2.0 GHz Intel Core i7-620LE and 2.4 GHz Intel Core i5 520E up to the 2.53 GHz Intel Core i7 processor 610E. All versions support up to 2 x 4 GB Dual Channel DDR3 ECC SODIMM memory modules and offer a comprehensive set of interfaces via the COM.0 Type 6 connector—1x PCI Express Gen 2 Graphics (PEG) also configurable as 2 x PCIe x8, 7x PCI Express x1, 4x Serial ATA, 8x USB 2.0, Gigabit Ethernet, and Intel High Definition Audio. All graphic interfaces of the new COM.0 module can also be used in parallel. In addition to dual-channel LVDS and VGA, developers can draw from the Kontron ETXexpress-AI Type 6 exported interfaces DisplayPort, HDMI, and SDVO. The integrated Intel Active Management Technology Intel AMT 6.0 offers extensive remote management capabilities, including out-of-band management. An 8 to 18 V wide range power adapter for simplified power supply rounds out the feature set.

Medical systems illustrate the potential of these new graphics features for improved patient care. For instance, systems enabled with more powerful graphics display and processing features allow medical professionals to use multiple displays of patient information as they provide care. A technician could be charting current health information or accessing records using one display, while a second display is showing the patient’s current health status, such as blood pressure or respiration. From a design perspective, the system eliminates the need for a costly workstation and still provides all the interactive, real-time data access required for proper treatment protocols.

The Type 6 pin-out builds in future design options, as the pins previously assigned the IDE interface in pin-out Type 2 are now reserved for future technologies still in development. Such possible future technologies could be the implementation of SuperSpeed USB, with 16 free pins offering sufficient lines to implement four of the eight USB 2.0 ports as USB 3.0 ports instead. The Type 6 pin-out definition also offers configurable Digital Display Interfaces (DDI) SDVO, DisplayPort, and HDMI/DVI along with 23 PCI Express Gen 2 lanes. As a result, designers have more to work with—including greater native display options and higher serial bandwidth than previously possible.

Perhaps most importantly, the addition of native support for all the newest display interfaces simplifies carrier board designs, reducing time-to-market and total cost of ownership for graphics-intensive applications. The extensive PCI Express support for Type 6 underscores the trend of moving away from legacy parallel interfaces towards pure serial embedded system designs for higher bandwidth and reduced latency. Medical system designers have a smooth transition to next generation devices, enhanced with faster drives and peripherals.

Security and management technology integrated into the Type 6 COM is also an important part of the design equation for medical electronics. Technologies such as Intel vPro, which offer hardware and software enabled management, virtualization, and security technology platform, are important tools for medical OEMs. Systems that are Intel vPro-capable must have a Dual Core or better CPUs, Ethernet LAN connectivity, Intel Active Management Technology, Intel Virtualization Technology, and Intel TXT (Trusted Execution Technology), as well as TPM (Trusted Platform Module). Intel vPro technology is gaining ground in the embedded marketplace, with medical product OEMs and others that need trusted platform architectures. Kontron’s ETXexpress-AI is Intel vPro capable, allowing OEMs to take advantage of new Type 6 or traditional Type 2 COM capabilities, as well as integrated security and management technology.

COMs with the Type 6 pin-out leverage Intel vPro technology by integrating up to 8 GB of secure ECC DDR3 system memory and an optional TPM module. Designers creating graphics-intensive applications, such as those found in the range of diagnostic and treatment applications, are able to move even more quickly since the application-specific carrier board can be simplified based on the features already built into the new Type 6 COMs.


Figure 3: This image illustrates the range of COM.0-compatible form factors, including basic, compact, and ultra options.

Medical imaging, particularly with small form factor devices, is one of the most aggressively growing medical design arenas. The use of computer-on-modules at the core has become a recognized technology staple in this area of medical electronics, carving out a significant role in high-performance, small form factor devices and systems. Portable devices are leading the way and COMs have proven to be an ideal match for this industry need—enabling a high-performance punch in a “take anywhere” device. In a fast-moving medical electronics market, COMs are well-positioned to further support designers as portable evolves to ultra portable (Figure 3) while meeting the need to deliver essential imaging capabilities in point-of-care settings other than hospital facilities. Now with the addition of extended graphics features and performance enabled by standard Type 6 COMs, designers have a powerful new tool to use in evolving technology-enabled healthcare.

Nancy Pantone is the director of product management for the Embedded Modules and Systems Divisions at Kontron America. Christine A. Van De Graaf is a product manager in the Embedded Modules Division at Kontron America. Pantone can be reached at 858-677-0877 or and Van De Graaf at 510-284-1150 or