A revised version of this article is available here
By Faisal Hussien, Ph.D. and Brittany Eckmann (Vidatronic)
DCDC switching converters are widely used in most portable devices. They efficiently generate different regulated supply voltages for different sub-blocks within the same system board. A typical system board for any portable device can easily contain many switching converters. This huge market leads to the existence of hundreds of different DCDC converters provided by multiple suppliers. These converteres range from tiny packaged parts with no external components to large parts with multiple external components for proper operation, making it difficult to choose the best option.
This white paper introduces a procedure for choosing the proper DCDC switching converter for a given application. It explains basic, performance, and optional metrics in detail. It also demonstrates other practical aspects that are sometimes overlooked by system designers. Multiple application examples are provided.
|ACRONYM ||DEFINITION |
|AMOLED ||Active Matrix Organic Light Emitting Diode |
|EMI ||Electro-Magnetic Interference |
|DDR-SDRAM ||Double Data Rate Synchronous Dynamic Random-Access Memory |
|USB ||Universal Serial Bus |
|DVFS ||Dynamic Voltage Frequency Scaling |
|PCB ||Printed Circuit Board |
|MTTF ||Mean Time To Failure |
|MPPT ||Maximum Power Point Tracking |
|LDO ||Low-Dropout Regulator |
|LED ||Light Emitting Diode |
|RAM ||Random-Access Memory |
|RMS ||Root Mean Square |
|PSRR ||Power Supply Rejection Ratio |
|IQ ||Quiescent Current |
|Isd ||Shut-down Current |
|I2C ||Inter-Integrated Circuit |
|VID ||Voltage Identification |
|SPI ||Serial Peripheral Interface |
|PPM ||Parts Per Million |
|SOC ||System On Chip |
Table 1. Definitions for acronyms used throughout the white paper.
All high performance applications require a specific, regulated, and stable power supply. This cannot be guaranteed by low cost battery technology and requires other intermediate voltage regulator circuits to generate the required supply. Voltage regulators not only provide supply regulation, they also maintain isolation between different blocks sharing the same supply. Figure 1 shows the voltage regulation concept and how it helps in the isolation process. Regulating a power supply to meet the minimum requirement of a specific application extends the battery life, which is crucial in all portable applications.
Figure 1. The use of voltage regulators for on-chip supply noise isolation.
Power management technology deals with the optimum design of voltage regulators, voltage monitors, voltage references, and current references. It aims to generate all proper voltage and current references (including the voltage supply) for a certain application efficiently and with minimum power loss. Voltage regulators can be one of three major types: linear regulators (e.g. Low Dropout regulators), switching regulators, and charge pumps.
Linear regulators are used in compact and noise-sensitive applications like, for example, RF circuits and high precision analog circuits. However, typical linear regulators have relatively lower efficiency especially when operated at a large dropout voltage1, which directly affects the battery life. Switching converters are typically used in applications that require high efficiency like, for example, processors and memory chips for portable devices. Moreover, all applications that require complete DC inputoutput isolation have no choice but to use switching converters. Finally, charge pumps can be thought of as a sub-category of switching converters, but due to their low current capability, are separated as they serve different types of low power applications (e.g. LEDs).
The semiconductor market is full of different types of linear and switching regulators. The main question for all system designers is “How to choose the best regulator for my application?” To answer this question, one needs to understand the metrics of a converter. These metrics can be divided into basic metrics that most of the designers use as a starting point. These basic metrics can only be used to narrow the search space but not to reach the optimum performance. Then comes the performance metrics; these are really what differentiate one converter from another. Only a good understanding of the required application leads to the proper set of performance metrics. Finally, come the optional features. These are similar to adds-on in software terminology. They add some extra features to the converter that increase its robustness and flexibility through different operating scenarios. Last but not least are the practical aspects, mostly overlooked by new system designers. Practical aspects require full knowledge of the application environment as well as what other blocks exist on the same board or chip. These can drastically increase the overall system cost or degrade the performance of neighboring chips.
This white paper is intended as a tool to help system designers choose the best DCDC switching converter for their application. This is done through describing all of the above-mentioned metrics and providing a procedure for optimum choice. Then, application examples from real life are provided. Similar white papers provide information on how to choose the best low dropout linear regulator (LDO) for your application .
DCDC CONVERTER PARAMETERS
Different applications impose different requirements on DCDC converters. By clearly understanding the different converter parameters and the requirements from different applications, system designers can choose the proper DCDC converter for their application. Listed below are the important parameters and what they mean.
- Input-Output voltage relation. Based on the input output voltage relation, different converter types should be used. If Vout is less than Vin, a step-down (BUCK) converter is used. If Vout is greater than Vin, a step-up (BOOST) converter is used. If both cases are required, a BUCKBOOST converter is used. If Vout and Vin have different polarity, an inverting converter is used.
- Input-Output isolation. In some applications, complete DC isolation is required between input and output ports of the converter. This usually requires a transformer-based converter to be used.
- DC line regulation. Change in output voltage for a change in input voltage. This measurement is made under conditions of low power dissipation.
- DC load regulation. Change in output voltage for a static change in output/load current.
- Efficiency. Power efficiency is defined as the percentage of the input power that is delivered to the output. Ideally, switching converters can approach 100%. The reason behind this is that the input current is not equal to the output current even if no internal current is consumed. In all cases, the relationship between the average input current and the average output current is opposite to the relationship between the input voltage and the output voltage. This maintains equality between input power and output power. Practically, the converter circuitry consumes power either in terms of static or dynamic power. As a result Pout is smaller than Pin and the efficiency can be expressed as,
In order to maximize the DCDC efficiency, the converter’s internal losses (static and dynamic) must be minimized.
- Input voltage (Vin) range. The input voltage range determines the maximum and minimum allowable input supply for the converter. Input supplies higher than the maximum allowable input can damage the converter.
- Maximum output current (Iout). Maximum output current that the converter can provide while meeting the datasheet parameters.
- No load current operation. Several applications need the converter to hold the output voltage stable and provide good performance under a no current load condition (e.g. CMOS RAM keepalive applications). Some converters might suffer from degraded performance or instability under no load conditions.
- Output voltage noise. The switching nature of the switching converters results in an output tone with harmonics. This tone corresponds to the power transistors’ switching frequency. Aside from this tone, the output voltage noise is the RMS output noise voltage generated only by the converter over a given frequency range (typically 10Hz to 100KHz) under a constant output current and a clean input voltage.
- Output voltage (Vout) accuracy. The output voltage accuracy describes the typical and worst case deviation of the average output voltage with respect to the nominal converter output voltage. The overall output voltage accuracy also includes the effects of line regulation and load regulation.
- Output voltage range. The output voltage can be fixed or adjustable. Some adjustable converters require off-chip components. These should only be used if needed. If the output voltage is adjustable, it is important to know the maximum and minimum allowable output voltage as well as the required programming steps.
- Over-current protection. This feature limits the maximum amount of current that the converter can source. This limit is established in order to protect the converter and the system under a short-circuit or high current condition.
- Over-temperature protection. This feature shuts down the converter when the die temperature exceeds the specified high temperature level. The converter is re-enabled when the temperature drops to a safe value.
- Power supply rejection ratio (PSRR). A measure of how well the converter rejects electrical noise at the input voltage when measured at the output voltage.
- Quiescent current (Iq). Also called ground current, is the current used to operate the converter, and is not delivered to the load. This is measured when the converter is enabled and the output/ load current is zero (0). A small quiescent current is needed to maximize the converter output efficiency, reduce heat, and extend battery life in battery-operated applications.
- Soft-start operation. Guarantees that the output voltage will ramp-up slowly from zero to the required output voltage. Soft-start is useful to avoid inrush current during start-up operation that can result in damage to either the converter package or the load. It maintains monotonic rampup for safe load startup operation. Also, it avoids false trigger of ESD active power-supply clamps.
- Soft-stop operation. Guarantees that the output voltage will ramp-down slowly in a controlled fashion when the converter is disabled.
- Shutdown current (Isd). Leakage current through the converter, when the converter is disabled or powered down.
- Start-up or turn-on time. Start-up time is the time between the rising edge of the enable signal and the output voltage reaching 90% or 95% of its nominal value.
- Transient line regulation. Ability of the converter to maintain a constant output voltage with a transient step at the input.
- Transient load regulation. Change in output voltage for a dynamic (step) change in output current. Transient load regulation includes overshoot (difference between the maximum Vout and the initial Vout during a transient load regulation test when the output current changes to a lower value), as well as undershoot (difference between the minimum Vout and the initial Vout during a transient load regulation test when the output current changes to a larger value).
- Interface protocol. This specifies the type of digital interface used to control the programmability options and operation behavior of the converter. This Interface can be I2C (Inter-Integrated Circuit), VID (Voltage Identification), or SPI (Serial Peripheral Interface), to name a few.
- Temperature coefficient. This describes the output voltage variation with respect to the temperature variation. Usually measured in “parts per million” (ppm).
- Output voltage ripple amplitude. This identifies the maximum peak-to-peak ripple amplitude of the output voltage.
- Output current monitor. Ability of the converter to provide a signal proportional to the average output current.
With so many converter parameters, it is usually difficult for system designers to select the appropriate or best converter for a certain application. Which parameters are critical? Are there any parameters that can be compromised to reduce the overall cost? Is there any hidden information that we should seek for a successful product?
To make the converter selection process easier, we recommend dividing the converter parameters into three groups:
The DCDC converter must meet these to provide the required functionality for a particular application. Typical basic parameters are the input voltage range, the output voltage range, and the maximum required output current.
The DCDC converter must meet these to provide the targeted performance for the particular application. Typical performance parameters are efficiency, output voltage ripples, and load transient regulation.
These may or may not be required for a particular application. For example, if the converter is part of a large SOC which already includes a temperature sensor, a temperature sensor inside the converter may not be useful.
DCDC SWITCHING CONVERTER PARAMETERS
|BASIC ||PERFORMANCE ||EXTRA FEATURES |
|Input voltage range |
Maximum output current
Output voltage accuracy
Output voltage range
Output voltage ripples
DC line regulation
DC load regulation
No load current operation
Power supply rejection
Start-up or turn-on time
Transient line regulation
Transient load regulation
|Interface protocol |
Input voltage brownout protection
Table 2. Switching converter parameters divided into three groups.
It is important to understand different tradeoffs between performance metrics. This helps determine realistic expectations for the DCDC converter that best fits your application.
- Small output voltage ripples: requires larger off-chip L and C components and thus larger PCB area and cost.
- High efficiency: requires larger switch sizes and thus larger die area.
- Smaller off-chip components: requires larger switching frequencies and thus more dynamic losses and efficiency degradation.
- High output power: requires larger die area for larger switches as well as high performance package technology and thus higher cost.
Besides the above-mentioned parameters, there are multiple practical aspects that need to be taken into consideration. Some of these aspects are mentioned below:
- EMI reduction. The need for off-chip circuits to handle extreme EMI and maintain device reliability (e.g. off-chip filters).
- PCB (Printed Circuit Board) area. Check all off-chip components values, cost, and sizes for minimum PCB area. Also, check the package type and size and PCB design constraints provided by the supplier for optimum performance as well as EMI reduction.
- Input voltage ripples. Switching converters drain pulsed current from their input voltage source. Practically, this pulsed current causes large input voltage ripples. These are always suppressed with an input capacitor to a minimum value. Does this minimum value suit your application? Other blocks sharing the same supply voltage input may experience brownout2 activity causing multiple resets or system instability.
- Operating temperature. The system designer needs to know the application ambient temperature, package type and its thermal resistance, system casing and its thermal resistance, and the maximum operating temperature of the switching converter. Using this information, one can decide if a heat dissipation mechanism is required (e.g. heat sinks). This will directly affect the system cost.
- Failure rate. What is the MTTF (mean time to failure) of this converter? Does it match your reliability requirements? Or will it be the bottleneck of having a short lifetime product?
- Output ripple frequency. Large output ripples are not significant if their frequency is out-ofband of your application. It is important to check the switching frequency of the converter and decide what its effect is on your application. Note: detailed analysis of inter-modulation and harmonic distribution needs to be studied for a multi-tone environment.
- Other protection features. Is there any application-specific risk that should be addressed? For example, is it possible to have input supply overshoot due to supply sharing with other converters? In some cases, over-voltage protection is a must for reliable operation.
- Number of switching converters per application. High performance switching converters can be bulky and costly. Unless a performance constraint exists, using a single switching converter to power up as many blocks as possible is recommended.
- Isolated versus non-isolated converters. Isolated converters require a transformer with a size proportional to the maximum current requirement. An isolated converter should only be used if needed.
To select the best converter for your application, we recommend the following five step process:
|STEP ||DESCRIPTION |
|1 ||Select a group of converters that meet the basic parameters for your application. For example, what is the required input voltage and output voltage range? Do you require input-output isolation? What is the maximum current requirement, etc? |
|2 ||Arrange the parameters of the performance column of Table 1 in priority order based on the importance to your application. Then, from the group of converters chosen in Step #1, choose the converters that meet these arranged parameters in the specified order. |
|3 ||In this step, narrow your selection to the one performance parameter that is most important for your application. |
|4 ||Study the practical aspects mentioned above in detail to help in your converter selection. |
|5 ||Now that you have made your converter selection, find out which optional parameters the converter offers for your application. |
Table 3. Five Step Process for choosing the best DCDC converter.
Listed below are a few examples of switching converter applications and the performance parameters that are important for each. Please contact Vidatronic at firstname.lastname@example.org if your particular application is not discussed in this white paper. We will gladly help you with your particular application.
AMOLED (ACTIVE MATRIX OLED) DISPLAYS IN WEARABLE DEVICES
Because wearable devices require restricted circuit board area and generally long-lasting battery-life, system efficiency is extremely important in designing these products. Powering AMOLED displays in wearable devices requires DC-DC switching converters that offer high power efficiency and tight output voltage accuracy.
Requires DC-DC switching converters with tight accuracy requirements.
BATTERY CHARGER/USB CHARGING PORTS IN PORTABLE DEVICES
Everyone wants their smartphone, tablet, or portable battery pack to charge quickly without heating up their portable devices. A synchronous BUCK converter can be used for this application. Typically, a charging port for a mobile device is a micro USB port. It accepts a regulated 5V. The charging circuits are on the inside of the mobile device, which is often a BUCK converter.
DVFS (DYNAMIC VOLTAGE FREQUENCY SCALING)
Performance-Power tradeoff in microprocessors and digital signal processing circuits is managed using switching converters. Increasing the digital circuit supply leads to increasing the performance (speed) at the expense of dynamic power consumption and vice versa.
ENERGY HARVESTING SYSTEMS
High efficiency switching converters are a vital block in energy harvesting systems. It is the most adequate voltage regulation method in such low power systems. Boost converters with clockcontrolled input impedance are used for MPPT (Maximum Power Point Tracking) operation.
VIDATRONIC HIGH PERFORMANCE DCDC CONVERTERS
Vidatronic Switching Converters offer unparalleled performance, which makes them ideal for a host of power applications. Our converter technology has several features that add significant value to the overall system solution:
- Smallest overall solution due to on-chip compensation and accurate on-chip voltage and current references. (No need for extra off-chip bias components.)
- 95% power efficiency at average load, and over 85% power efficiency at light loads.
- Output voltage ripples less than +/- 10mV.
- Low-cost wirebond packages.
- Output voltage accuracy better than +/- 1%, without trimming.
- Maximum Output current (Iout) 1mA up to 5A.
- Overshoot/undershoot less than +/- 50mV.
- Controlled soft-start and soft-stop operation.
- Over-current and over-temperature protection.
- Small silicon area and reduced pin count.
- Optional I2C interface.
- Robust thermal management suitable for small packages.
- Different feedback techniques for light load to ensure high efficiency.
Contact Vidatronic at email@example.com to learn how we can provide the best switching converter for your application.
Today’s portable devices are complex systems that continue to add more and more functions that require multiple supply voltage levels. DCDC switching converters are a key component used in multiple applications, including portable devices. With this simple procedure and parameter/ application reference, system designers can select the best switching converter for any application.
 Moises Robinson, and Jerry Rudiak, “Guide to Choosing the Best LDO for Your Application,” Vidatronic, Inc., Application Note, AN1012 REV 1, April, 2014.
1. Vidatronic’s LDOs have high efficiency due to the low dropout voltage as well as the small quiescent current.
2. Brownout is the drop in voltage of the electrical power supply. Brownout protection circuits guarantee a stable and robust recovery from a brownout event.
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