SNAPZZ Follows MicroMod Into the NGFF M.2 Arena, While Desire Grows for a Common Standard Pinout

New modular microcontroller boards aim to make development easy, but enter an increasingly fragmented ecosystem.

The world of microcontrollers on Next-Generation Form Factor (NGFF) M.2 circuit boards has grown larger with the launch of the SNAPZZ platform — but there are already concerns about fragmentation, and a desire to see One True Standard emerge.

Originally developed for peripheral devices on mainstream PCs, including wireless cards, modems, accelerators, and solid-state storage, the M.2 connector is being repurposed as the basis for a modular ecosystem of plug-in microcontroller modules. SparkFun was one of the first out of the gate with the MicroMod range, and now SNAPZZ looks to offer some competition.

"It's a modular system with decoupled MCU module (ESP32) utilising M.2/E-k adapter," developer Thorsten Jaeger writes of the SNAPZZ project. "Pretty cool to move the ESP32 forth and back from tinkering to production somewhere else... This one [is] running MicroPython. While I love breadboards and dev boards — sometimes they are just too flaky, too impractical to install in my semi-useful projects. Always doing full custom boards is too much of a hassle."

"Sometimes it's OK to fiddle on permanent USB on a breadboard to test something, sometimes I need the MCU hooked to solar and LiPo. So I decoupled the MCU section (ESP32/Wi-Fi/BT in that case) from the 'mount.' The 'mount' can deliver power or extend IO pins and give further connectivity options."

Like the SparkFun MicroMod range, SNAPZZ aims to use a common connector to make it easy and cost-effective to build a new microcontroller into a modular format and mate it with a common carrier board — but SNAPZZ boards are entirely incompatible with carrier boards designed for the MicroMod family, and vice versa. That fragmentation could stifle adoption — and, worst case, could result in damage if modules for one ecosystem find their way into a bits-box with modules for another.

To help address that, Adafruit has launched a GitHub repository to discuss the M.2 microcontroller form factors already out there — including Google's Edge TPU accelerator boards, Makerdiary's nRF52840 module, Particle's LTE modules, Sipeed's K210 accelerator, and more — and to look at the potential development of successors which unify against a common standard pinout to allow for interoperability. All are invited to contribute.

More information on the SNAPZZ platform, meanwhile, can be found on the project page.

Gareth Halfacree
Freelance journalist, technical author, hacker, tinkerer, erstwhile sysadmin. For hire:
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