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Ask Slashdot: Best Electronics Prototyping Platform? 228

Posted by Unknown Lamer
from the arduino-attack-bot dept.
crankyspice writes "Having recently picked up the Erector set I've wanted since I was a kid, I quickly found myself wanting to plunge deeper into makerspace by adding more sophisticated electronics to moving devices (rovers, maybe eventually flying bots). My first instinct was Arduino (maybe because of brand recognition?), but that got me thinking — what's the 'best' platform out there (most flexible)? Arduino with its myriad options (Nano, Mega, Uno, Mini)? PICAXE? BASIC Stamp? Raspberry Pi? (The latter seems like it would easily be the most flexible, but at greater cost in terms of weight and complexity.) I'm a hobbyist programmer, having learned C and C++ in college and recently re-learning Java (took and passed the Oracle Certified Professional exam, FWIW)..."
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Ask Slashdot: Best Electronics Prototyping Platform?

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  • CopterControl (Score:5, Informative)

    by Sowelu (713889) on Monday January 28, 2013 @08:59PM (#42721795)

    If you want it to fly, you might want this: http://www.openpilot.org/products/openpilot-coptercontrol-platform/ [openpilot.org]

    Yes, yes, it takes the "fun" out of building your own flying code, but your machine will be a lot more fun to play with when it's actually stable. Put whatever other board you want on it, but for your own sake, use a dedicated flight board if you want to go airborne!

  • by n1ywb (555767) on Monday January 28, 2013 @09:01PM (#42721801) Homepage Journal
    In that order. Arduino is cheap and dirt simple and surprisingly powerful and flexable. Arduino is based on AVR which is the next step if you wish to pursue ultra cheap ultra lower power micro designs. AVR is compatbile with the complete GNU toolchain including GCC and GDB via JTAG and in-circuit emulation using the astoundingly cheap Atmel Dragon, the $50 JTAG adapter. Raspberry Pi and Beaglebone both run Linux. The RPi is super cheap but is better targeted at apps which require a GUI. The BeagleBoard is more expensive but is better tuned for embedded use. It would be nice if the inverse were true, but oh well.
    • http://www.arduino.cc/
    • http://www.nongnu.org/avr-libc/
    • http://www.atmel.com/tools/avrdragon.aspx
    • http://beagleboard.org/bone
    • http://www.raspberrypi.org/
    • by n1ywb (555767) on Monday January 28, 2013 @09:03PM (#42721831) Homepage Journal
      Oh I should mention why I don't recommend PIC based platforms; poor support for using Linux as a development host.
      • by grim4593 (947789) on Monday January 28, 2013 @09:22PM (#42721977)
        I agree with parent: I have not seen any good tools to work with Microchip PICs under Linux.
        That said, I do enjoy working with PIC micro-controllers under Windows.
        • by Solozerk (1003785) on Monday January 28, 2013 @09:34PM (#42722045)
          Under Linux, I use a pickit 2, pk2cmd, and sdcc. Gets the job done - although I'm not sure it qualifies as "good", it is a complete command line toolchain and up to now it has supported all but the very latest PICs. Also, gpdasm can disassemble compiled code pretty well if necessary, and gpsim can be used as an okay simulator. Do *not* use Microchip's pickit 3, as you'd be forced to use the horrible Microchip Linux IDE, MPLab X (a rebrand/modification of Netbeans, I believe) instead of say, emacs.
        • by Darinbob (1142669) on Monday January 28, 2013 @10:43PM (#42722421)

          PICs are ok, but the C for it is extremely limited and it can be a bit frustrating at times. AVR is limited too, but it felt a bit less odd at times. Both come with a large variety of options so the stuff I hated about PIC may not apply to others. The better compilers for PICs are proprietary and as I recall GCC for PIC just isn't that great as the PIC model is too unusual, and there are so many variants of PIC instruction set. AVR feels a bit more like a normal CPU and the differenet models don't change the instruction set too much.

          Both are Harvard architectures meaning you may have a lot of room for programs (ie, 16K or more), but very little memory for RAM (256 bytes). Which means that if you only have a 4K program you don't get to use all that unused space to have more runtime memory. That tiny amount of RAM however is shared with system registers!! The more peripherals your chip has the more RAM that ends up reserved. So what you read on a data sheet may not be what you actually have to work with.

          I am not an Arduino fan. However it's probably good for beginners as it's easier to get started with. You can program it using USB and they can get power over USB as well, which is really handy to avoid extra purchases of power supplies and system programming hardware. Other systems beside Arduino have USB too but boards intended for professionals may not have these quick-start options. These boards are probably going to give you more than you need as well to avoid the frustration of having something too small, after all a hobbyist isn't going to be quibbling about how many pennies they can save per chip in bulk and the hobbyist is going to be building multiple designs with the same chip. It can also can be used without soldering and has a variety of stuff you can buy to attach to it.

          On the other hand Arduino is pushing their programming system as well, which is really the thing that separates Arduino from any other AVR board. It is a C-like language with a library; you're not programming to the bare board, you're not even writing your own main() routine. It is not intended for profressional programers, the target audience appears to be "multidisciplinary" (ie, people who aren't programmers). But you can skip that stuff and go for real C or assembler if you like.

          • by raymorris (2726007) on Tuesday January 29, 2013 @01:38AM (#42723109)

            Arduino from any other AVR board. It is a C-like language with a library; you're not programming to the bare board, you're not even writing your own main() routine. It is not intended for profressional programers, the target audience appears to be "multidisciplinary" (ie, people who aren't programmers).

            I've been programming professionally for fifteen years - in C, Perl, PHP, Javascript, VB6, Actionscript, and other languages. Being a programmer, I was glad I didn't have to learn both embedded systems and assembler at the same time. For a guy like me, at a point where I've done just a little bit of kernel ptogramming for example, Arduino was really nice. "mov 0x40 0xD0" isn't what most programmers are familiar with.

            • by julesh (229690) on Tuesday January 29, 2013 @03:47AM (#42723513)

              Arduino from any other AVR board. It is a C-like language with a library; you're not programming to the bare board, you're not even writing your own main() routine. It is not intended for profressional programers, the target audience appears to be "multidisciplinary" (ie, people who aren't programmers).

              I've been programming professionally for fifteen years - in C, Perl, PHP, Javascript, VB6, Actionscript, and other languages. Being a programmer, I was glad I didn't have to learn both embedded systems and assembler at the same time. For a guy like me, at a point where I've done just a little bit of kernel ptogramming for example, Arduino was really nice. "mov 0x40 0xD0" isn't what most programmers are familiar with.

              I've been working directly with AVR chips rather than an Arduino on several projects over the last 6 months, and have never once had to touch an assembler. C is perfectly adequate for everything you're likely to want to do.

              • Yup. My personal preference:

                Arduino hardware provides a great starting point for AVR work. It's the best way to get a variety of cheap AVR dev boards.

                However, rather than use the Arduino IDE, I strongly suggest avr-gcc - the initial learning curve is a bit steeper, but you gain a lot of long-term flexibility.

                Most importantly, if you learn using avr-gcc, you can more easily migrate designs to AVR variants that aren't supported by the Arduino environment well or at all. For example, if you have a very basic project that can fit in a Tiny85 - it's fairly easy to migrate something you prototyped on a Mega168/328 down to that if you're using AVR-GCC. If you're using the Arduino environment, it's extremely difficult if not impossible.

                (And yes, I know that the Arduino IDE is layered on top of avr-gcc - but when dealing with a microcontroller, all those extra layers of abstraction are counterproductive in the long run.)

            • by gl4ss (559668) on Tuesday January 29, 2013 @10:31AM (#42725563) Homepage Journal

              you don't need to with avr.

              in fact, you can upload your arduino projects into avr chips because that's what they are. you might need to hook up a programmer though but those cost about as much as an arduino anyways and arduino can be used for one.

          • by serviscope_minor (664417) on Tuesday January 29, 2013 @06:52AM (#42724101) Journal

            The better compilers for PICs are proprietary and as I recall GCC for PIC just isn't that great as the PIC model is too unusual, and there are so many variants of PIC instruction set.

            The unusualness is caused by the banked memory. The PIC12F series, for example has only 7 bits in the instructions for embedded addresses. GCC just hasn't been written to cope with such things. Shame, really because using GCC has made me spoiled and I hate badly written pointlessly non-standard venduh compilers. That said the 12F and smaller series are so small it's barely worth moving out of ASM anyway.

            It is a C-like language with a library;

            It is quite C like. Very C like in a number of regards, but, let us say, one better.

          • The other issue with PICs is that the debuggers are terrible. ICD2 and ICD3 are a joke and barely work on Windows, let along Linux. They are very expensive too. For AVR you can get a JTAGICE3 that does everything and does is pretty damn well, and at a very low price. A basic programmer is even cheaper, but I'd spend a little more and get the debugger.

      • by BTG9999 (847188) on Monday January 28, 2013 @09:48PM (#42722129)
        This is not true anymore. The new MPLab X and new XC8, XC16 and XC32 compilers all support Linux officially. They are all free to use with some limitations. MPLab X is based off of NetBeans. I have installed, run and compiled real embedded applications with this tool set under linux for a currently shipping product.
      • by Big Hairy Ian (1155547) on Tuesday January 29, 2013 @05:13AM (#42723777)
        Sorry not familiar with PIC but if the support for Linux is poor perhaps the Someone should start an Open Source Project to improve matters.

        Just a thought

    • by DrewFish (23138) <[drew] [at] [folta.net]> on Monday January 28, 2013 @09:15PM (#42721909) Homepage

      I just got an Arduino for Christmas, and I'm having a blast learning electronics. (I'm programmer by profession, so the coding part is only mildly challenging/interesting.)

      The thing I've been enjoying about the Arduino is the community. When I hook an LED up, why do I need a resister? How do I compute -which- value resister I need? What do I need to run a 1A brush motor? So far I've very often found these questions have already been answered (with ideas, suggestions, hardware, etc).

      • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 28, 2013 @09:19PM (#42721947)
        How do you spell "resistor" should also be a question you ask.
    • by billstewart (78916) on Tuesday January 29, 2013 @01:30AM (#42723077) Journal

      Arduino has a really short friendly learning curve - the system is designed so a random not-very-technical artist can pick it up, start doing blinky lights and sensors, find lots of interesting community support and demonstrations and applications. All the pieces you need to get started are right there - hardware, software, IDE, sensors, output devices, documentation. The Arduino hardware is fancier than a bare-bones AVR chip on a breadboard (and building one of them is a good second project), but it's still pretty cheap. The software may hold your hand a bit too aggressively, but once you've learned what you're doing you can get deeper (think of it as a mostly-C scripting language.) If you'd rather use gcc to write your programs at the bare-metal level and avrdude to download them, you can, but Arduino lets you do your work at higher levels until you need that. You could buy an ISP programming tool for $20-50 to program raw AVR chips with, but you can also use a ~$30 Arduino to do that job, so just go buy one.

      Once you've used the Arduino a bit, you might want to branch out to a TI or STM development board, or something like Propeller with a lot more CPU horsepower if you need that, or PIC (if you want to know what people used to learn on before Arduino.)

      Stuff you're going to have to buy - whatever prototyping board you want (I'd recommend Arduino), a solderless breadboard or two, solid-core wire in a couple of colors, some LEDs, assorted resistors and capacitors, probably several different types of sensors and output devices, maybe a power supply (USB gives you 5v, which is just fine if you're doing everything tethered to your laptop or have a USB phone charger around.) If you don't have electronics stuff around home already, you'll probably end up spending $100 or so, typically for a kit from Sparkfun or Adafruit or MakerShed, plus some random shiny-looking parts from their catalogs, plus you'll start to find Radio Shack very useful when you need to stop in and get some more LEDs or various connectors (and get yourself a bag of assorted resistors and a bag of assorted capacitors if you didn't have enough from a kit.) If you're going to solder boards, you'll also need a soldering iron, solder, and some breadboard to work with.

    • by worip (1463581) on Tuesday January 29, 2013 @03:03AM (#42723385)
      My whole problem with the whole Arduino universe is the price. You essentially pay an extremely large markup for the libraries and community. There are other much cheaper developer platforms out there, e.g. TI's MSP430 launchpad (essentally a $4 development board with a built-in emulator) and the corresponding community ww.43oh.com, but you are much closer to the hardware. So the learning curve is steeper, but you probably going to learn much more. Another option is the Discovery platform by ST, a very capable ARM platform. The platform you choose will be determined by what you want to do, i.e. turning LEDs on and off you will go for a simple microcontroller e.g. the MSP430; building an IMU for a quadrocopter you will probably need to go for an ARM-like device.
    • by julesh (229690) on Tuesday January 29, 2013 @03:41AM (#42723503)

      Raspberry Pi and Beaglebone both run Linux. The RPi is super cheap but is better targeted at apps which require a GUI. The BeagleBoard is more expensive but is better tuned for embedded use. It would be nice if the inverse were true, but oh well.

      The Olimex A13-OLinuxIno is a reasonable compromise -- priced between the two boards, but much closer to the feature set of the beagleboard (and actually a faster processor with more memory than either). It was intended as a Linux-running competitor for Arduino, and is pretty nifty, as long as you're happy with the fact that it runs on a cheap chinese SoC processor that is only officially supported as a platform for making low-end Android tablets, so the Ubuntu port is not officially supported. And like Arduino, it's an open-hardware design. The only downside as far as I'm concerned is that it doesn't support either DVI or HDMI -- the only way of connecting a display is either via the integrated LCD panel port or on VGA, and resolution is limited to 800x600. But those constraints are fine for embedded use.

    • by Annirak (181684) on Tuesday January 29, 2013 @04:22AM (#42723613)

      I still don't understand why people are focused on PICs and AVRs. ARM has had better functionality and pricing (starting at the mid-range; low range is still dominated by 8-bit) and better peripherals for at least 5 years now.

      TI Stellaris launchpad: $5, 80MHz, 32-bit ARM Cortex-M4 CPU with floating point, 256Kbytes of 100,000 write-erase cycle FLASH and many peripherals such as 1MSPS ADCs, eight UARTs, four SPIs, four I2Cs, USB & up to 27 timers, some configurable up to 64-bits. Integrated in-circuit debugger.

      Each of the following also have an integrated in-circuit debugger which is compatible with OpenOCD
      STM32F0DISCOVERY: $8 48MHz ARM Cortex-M0, 64 Kbytes of flash and 8 Kbytes of SRAM, standard communication interfaces (up to two I2Cs, two SPIs, one I2S, one HDMI CEC, and up to two USARTs), one 12-bit ADC, one 12-bit DAC, up to five general-purpose 16-bit timers, a 32-bit timer and an advanced-control PWM timer.
      STM32VLDISCOVERY: $9.90 24MHz ARM Cortex-M3, 128KB Flash, 8KB SRAM, standard communication interfaces (up to two I2Cs, two SPIs, one HDMI CEC, and up to three USARTs), one 12-bit ADC, two 12-bit DACs, up to six general-purpose 16-bit timers and an advanced-control PWM timer.
      STM32F3DISCOVERY: $10.90 72MHz ARM Cortex-M4, with FPU, 256KB Flash, 48KB SRAM, up to four fast 12-bit ADCs (5 Msps), up to seven comparators, up to four operational amplifiers, up to two DAC channels, a low-power RTC, up to five general-purpose 16-bit timers, one general-purpose 32-bit timer, and two timers dedicated to motor control. They also feature standard and advanced communication interfaces: up to two I2Cs, up to three SPIs (two SPIs are with multiplexed full-duplex I2Ss on STM32F303xB/STM32F303xC devices), three USARTs, up to two UARTs, CAN and USB. To achieve audio class accuracy, the I2S peripherals can be clocked via an external PLL.
      STM32F4DISCOVERY: $14.90 168MHz ARM Cortex-M4 with FPU, 1MB Flash, 192KB SRAM, and way too many peripherals to list here.

      All the above are supported by GCC and OpenOCD.
      With prices, capability, and development tool support like that, why would you use an 8-bit micro? It doesn't give you the same support that Arduino does. You have to learn how the peripherals work and you have to write your own interfaces to things like ADCs, but the examples are pretty complete.

      • by spongman (182339) on Tuesday January 29, 2013 @06:36AM (#42724011)

        the problem with the TI stuff is that while the hardware is excellent, the dev tools suck bad, the support is non-existent, and they have the gall to want you to pay for the privilege of developing software for their platform. atmel excels in this regard. their visual studio-derived IDE supports both AVR and ARM.

      • by Joce640k (829181) on Tuesday January 29, 2013 @07:07AM (#42724153) Homepage

        I still don't understand why people are focused on PICs and AVRs. ARM has had better functionality and pricing....

        Obviously a lot of people don't agree with your definition of "better".

        ARM chips are 3.3V, surface mount and are very delicate electrically.

        AVR chips have enough volts for an LED, can be stuck in breadboards, and can take a hellish amount lot of electrical abuse.

        (Plus I think "eight UARTs, four SPIs, four I2Cs and up to 27 timers" is moot for most people...)

        • by Annirak (181684) on Tuesday January 29, 2013 @07:55AM (#42724365)

          ARM chips are 3.3V, surface mount

          Surface mount is a moot point in the face of an inexpensive breakout board, unless you're looking at a size-constrained application. You can have your own PCBs manufactured professionally for $10 if they're small (5x5cm), so SMD parts are viable as long as the pitch isn't too small--I've soldered small SMD parts many times with both a heat-gun and a soldering iron. I like the heat-gun better, but the soldering iron is more commonly available. That said, if Arduino is a contender, then use of breakout boards is a non-issue.

          ARM chips ... are very delicate electrically.

          That's a pretty sweeping statement. Do you have any evidence to back that up? You know that NXP's line of ARM micros are all 5V tolerant, right? And ST's ARM lineup all have at least *some* 5V tolerant pins, most of them are mostly 5V tolerant. The STM32F4 which is on the discovery board has 138 of 140 5V tolerant pins. TI's micro that's on the launchpad also has all 5V tolerant I/O.

          5V tolerance is a non-issue.

          AVR chips have enough volts for an LED

          If this is an issue, you're doing it wrong. VCC--|>|---/\/\/\---MCU pin. With 5V tolerant I/O, you no longer have a problem.

          can be stuck in breadboards

          See above comment about breakouts.

          (Plus I think "eight UARTs, four SPIs, four I2Cs and up to 27 timers" is moot for most people...)

          Just because you don't need it for a particular application doesn't mean that having it available is bad. Maybe someone *does* need that. Then they have it available.

          There's nothing wrong, per se, with AVRs or PICs. It's just that the price/performance tradeoff isn't very good in the face of other options.

          • by Joce640k (829181) on Tuesday January 29, 2013 @09:05AM (#42724775) Homepage

            ARM chips are 3.3V, surface mount

            Surface mount is a moot point in the face of an inexpensive breakout board, unless you're looking at a size-constrained application. You can have your own PCBs manufactured professionally for $10 if they're small (5x5cm), so SMD parts are viable as long as the pitch isn't too small--I've soldered small SMD parts many times with both a heat-gun and a soldering iron. I like the heat-gun better, but the soldering iron is more commonly available. That said, if Arduino is a contender, then use of breakout boards is a non-issue.

            Yeah, that's way easier than sticking a chip in a breadboard. Everybody has a hot air solder rework station at home and manufactures their own PCBs.

            ARM chips ... are very delicate electrically.

            That's a pretty sweeping statement. Do you have any evidence to back that up? You know that NXP's line of ARM micros are all 5V tolerant, right? And ST's ARM lineup all have at least *some* 5V tolerant pins, most of them are mostly 5V tolerant. The STM32F4 which is on the discovery board has 138 of 140 5V tolerant pins. TI's micro that's on the launchpad also has all 5V tolerant I/O.

            It's nothing to do with 5V tolerance. Read this [arduino.cc] for a while then come back and tell me ARM chips would take that kind of abuse.

            AVR chips have enough volts for an LED

            If this is an issue, you're doing it wrong. VCC--|>|---/\/\/\---MCU pin. With 5V tolerant I/O, you no longer have a problem.

            Again, nothing to do with 5V tolerance.

            Read the Arduino forums, the first thing most people do with their Arduino is connect LEDs to it (usually without resistors...) In their eyes a board which can drive LEDs directly is better than one which can't (or which dies because they didn't put in a resistor). I've seen people try to drive 64 LEDs in parallel from one Arduino pin then go on the forums and complain they're "a bit dim".

            So for most people this is an issue. They want 5V from their I/O pins with at least enough current for an LED. They're not engineers, have never read a datasheet and don't know you're not supposed to do it.

            (Plus I think "eight UARTs, four SPIs, four I2Cs and up to 27 timers" is moot for most people...)

            Just because you don't need it for a particular application doesn't mean that having it available is bad.

            No, but most people don't see it as a reason to choose ARM over AVR.

  • by muridae (966931) on Monday January 28, 2013 @09:02PM (#42721817)

    Want to expand your horizons and think about multi-core algos? Go with a Propeller. Arduino, in all it's forms, has a unified IDE so you can practice with a big prototype board and move to something smaller if you want a finished product. PIC Basic I've never liked, because it's Basic. A PIC and a programmer, on the other hand, will get you something that you can practice some assembly with. So will a Atmel, and you get some GCC tools to compile C or whatever else (might be available for PIC, not my favorite so I don't keep up with that). Or you can go with an ARM based board, like one that TI has put out; it comes with a proprietary tool chain and bootloader, but the FOSS community has been working on gcc and a unencumbered bootloader for it.

    So, TL,DR: more details needed. What do you want to do with it, other than just learn a new technology? If you just want to learn anything, pick the cheapest!

    • by muridae (966931) on Monday January 28, 2013 @09:10PM (#42721885)

      hate to reply to myself, but I realize that you may think you've provided some of those goals. You want to build something moving. Any of those micros will connect to some relays control motors. What you want the micro to do other than control the motors is important. The smallest Attiny that will use the Arduino boot loader will control some motors, and may be able to chat with a radio chip so you can build a remote control bot. But it won't do on board navigation, it doesn't have enough pins.

      So, do you want your bot to navigate themselves? You'll need something more powerful. If you want it to use a camera and do it's own image processing, you'll need even more power. GPS and inertial navigation too? Even more processing umph. A Basic stamp has the overhead of a interpreted language, skip that. Look at the ARM and Atmel and PIC chips that are on the boards, and base a decision off that. All the various Arduinos will chat with the IDE, but you'll need a processor that can handle what you want it to do. Same for a small ARM versus the larger ARM in something like the Raspberry Pi or a cell phone. And don't neglect the CPU of a used cell phone, some of those ARM chips are pretty potent and if the screen if broke you can pick up something rather cheap.

    • by tibit (1762298) on Monday January 28, 2013 @09:32PM (#42722035)

      Propeller is all great, but it takes a lot of ingenuity to make it do anything useful if you code it up yourself. All you've got is ~500 32 bit words of RAM to store your code and fast registers. One word per instruction. A novice will not be, typically, really using Propeller architecture directly, just running some slow interpreted spin code and reusing the better objects out there.

      • by muridae (966931) on Monday January 28, 2013 @10:48PM (#42722441)
        But if the OP wants to learn how to do multicore programming on a microcontroller, it's not a bad choice. Sure, they could network together a few Atmel or ARM chips and learn how to do multicore programming hardware and software at the same time. But if the OP just wanted the software side, the Propeller is a good start. Maybe it's just me and my fascination with the ATTiny platform, but 500x32 of RAM sounds like plenty.
    • by fermion (181285) on Monday January 28, 2013 @10:25PM (#42722319) Homepage Journal
      There are things that everyone uses, is promoted by Make, but if you want to do electronics, there are other options. For instance, the basic stamp is not a bad setup. It includes a breadboard where you can do simple logic, or put in a FPGA to do more complex logic, for instance display the speed of the car. This is a simple way to get into the electronics, rather than just software.

      there is also fishertechnics that provides a graphical programming language and wide variety of building accessories. One can build cars, robots, assembly lines, etc. It is on the expensive side, and like the other options will primarily deal with structural issues and programming. with additional equipment, it can be used to learn to use electronics and digital logic to accomplish simple tasks. p. I would definitely look beyond the standard players. The disadvantage is that support might be less than some of the other more popular players.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 28, 2013 @09:03PM (#42721829)

    The toys you have listed are for developing firmware and software.

    Prototyping electronics involves first designing some electronics, simulating them (if applicable or able), and then designing the boards, ordering parts, and having them assembled (or assembling them yourself).

    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 28, 2013 @09:12PM (#42721895)
      Exactly. Maybe I'm just old, but to me electronics is closer to physics and hardware than what the poster listed. Microcontrollers and software are great fun and are electronic, but are not *electronics*. Building a machined brass test fixture to study the high speed switching of 20GHz-rated tunnel diodes and the hardline SMA fixtures to get that signal into a sampler is electronics. Downloading a library you didn't write and typing INCLUDE LIBRARY isn't electronics.
    • by raymorris (2726007) on Tuesday January 29, 2013 @02:16AM (#42723255)
      I see these devices as a bridge from programming to electronics. Pretty soon, pronaly within an hour or so, you'll want to connect SOMETHING to the MCU and that's where the electronics begins. For someone coming from a programming background, the MCU seriously boosts the coolness factor while learning about how to build electronic circuits controlled by the chip.
  • by msauve (701917) on Monday January 28, 2013 @09:06PM (#42721851)
    Is a Mouser or Digikey catalog, plus whatever reference material suit your abilities/needs.
    • by MacGyver2210 (1053110) on Monday January 28, 2013 @11:27PM (#42722649)

      I also like DigiKey. Sparkfun is great for the interface components like LCDs and custom buttons. Nice place for unique sensors, displays, and stuff like GPS modules too. Everything is super well-documented and they do great stuff with the community like free day and supporting hackerspaces. /sparkfun fanboy

      I am a PIC guy, so according to the comments thus far, I like doing things the hard way.

  • IOIO? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by swanzilla (1458281) on Monday January 28, 2013 @09:17PM (#42721931) Homepage
    If you like Java, I'd suggest the IOIO [blogspot.com] and an Android device. You inherit the device's guts (gps, cellular antenna, speakers, wifi, gyro, color display) and can go nuts. The biggest difficulty for me was getting the ADK up and running w/ Eclipse on my Debian laptop. They are cheap too...take a look at Sparkfun and Adafruit.
  • by javawocky (1160907) on Monday January 28, 2013 @09:19PM (#42721953)
    I recently starting wanting to fiddle with Micro controllers for this or that and stumbled across the Texas Instruments Launchpad. For $4.30 delivered (yes including shipping world wide) you get a complete development board, 2 chips, some headers and the USB cable. TI have a free IDE you can program it with, or if you are on Linux you can use the MSPGCC command line tools, which I use. Its ultra low power - 3.3V - which means if you want to interface to 5V systems you may have to do a little homework, but other than that, their is no risk in ordering one to try out with the money you would have wasted on Starbucks. http://www.ti.com/ww/en/launchpad/stellaris_head.html?DCMP=stellaris-launchpad&HQS=stellaris-launchpad [ti.com] Order directly from Ti - https://estore.ti.com/MSP-EXP430G2-MSP430-LaunchPad-Value-Line-Development-kit-P2031.aspx [ti.com]
  • by Peganthyrus (713645) on Monday January 28, 2013 @09:21PM (#42721967) Homepage

    I'd go with a couple of Pis. Some will say that's overpowered and you should use an Arduino, but there's one important thing about the Arduino: its IDE kinda blows.

    Plus it will be a lot easier to update your code by pushing it to a Pi over wi-fi than by hassling with cables. And if you want to do stuff that needs a decent amount of CPU, you'll have it.

    On the other hand you can get an Arduino into a lot less space than a Pi. Hell, get one or two of the Nanos too. You'll have the option of using one if you want a tinier package and can cram your code and data into like 32k.

  • Cortex-M4 (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 28, 2013 @09:22PM (#42721975)

    Discovery Board - STM32F407

    -> 168 MHz core freq
    -> a few timers
    -> DSP core
    -> excellent integration with Keil
    -> flash utility in Linux too.

    Price: $15

  • by Billy the Mountain (225541) on Monday January 28, 2013 @09:23PM (#42721987) Journal
    I've played with a little both Arduino and Raspberry Pi and both are neat and have their strengths and weaknesses. Arduino is perfect for sensing things. It's normally programmed in C and it's a little cheaper than Raspberry Pi and has less performance. Raspberry Pi is neat but be aware that it runs Linux and as such it is not a real-time operating system. There are small lags so that if you need to respond to the outside world with utmost immediacy you are still better off with Arduino. The raspberry pi is normally programmed in Python and your Python scripts can monitor sensor inputs and send data out, turn lights on, etc.
  • by iq in binary (305246) <{iq_in_binary} {at} {hotmail.com}> on Monday January 28, 2013 @09:32PM (#42722031) Homepage

    I've been doing some research too, Netduino is pretty robust, compatible with many of the Arduino shields AND inherently supports all the .Net Gadgeteer sensors. Seems like a good start on the road to hobby robotics.

  • by volvox_voxel (2752469) on Monday January 28, 2013 @09:33PM (#42722041)
    Everything I've ever worked on as a professional had a microprocessor and an FPGA. You can pick up a "Zed Board" with a dual-core Arm Cortex-A9 and a 85K luts worth of FPGA. You could learn fpga programming in addition to learning about microcontrollers. You can run linux on one core, or run "bare-metal" or Free-rtos in the other for all of your hard real-time needs. You have a very wide selection of things for you can try. The FPGA is a true parallel processor, and is great for processing multi-sensor inputs. A microcontroller time-slices between all of the tasks it needs to take care of. An FPGA can essentially be a hardware dedicated task.
    • by hamster_nz (656572) on Monday January 28, 2013 @11:03PM (#42722503)

      As an owner of a Zedboard (and half a dozen others FPGA boards) I recommend other readers disregard this advice. It is not a good starting board as is has a very, very steep learning curve, much steeper than any other FPGA I've used, It is also very, very expensive (but you do however get a lot for your $). The FPGA build times are very long too, especially annoying when you are just starting out.

      However, if you are interested in Programmable Logic logic, try a Papilio One from Gadget Factory - equivalent to a quarter of a million logic gates for a $37.50 + p+p. An open source AVR compatible processor core is available, so you can still develop with it as though it is an Arduino, and even make changes to the internals of the CPU.

  • It depends (Score:4, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 28, 2013 @09:36PM (#42722053)

    It completely depends on your project or goals. Simple electronics, I'd go with arduino, it's ridiculously easy, I haven't programmed in 10 years, or ever done anything with an arduino or MIDI or really done much with electronics ever, but within 2 hours of buying one I had a phone keypad playing chords on 3 instruments through a MIDI device. Mega has 70 digital I/Os, 14 analog (IIRC). IC2. There's a good range of tools available.

    If you need more horsepower, or to connect to keyboards/mouse/video/network etc, the Raspberry Pi is a mini PC basically.

    If you need extremely low power, MSP430 is your best bet. Extremely quick power up/down, too, so you can have it check a sensor every second and shut down to use even less power. There's videos of one running a clock with LCD from a grape.

    Basic stamp, I wouldn't bother with. I can't think of any advantages to it over the arduino, maybe someone with more experience knows of one, I've only dabbled with one.

    I don't have any experience with the others, so I'll let others comment on those.

  • by evil_aaronm (671521) on Monday January 28, 2013 @09:45PM (#42722111)
    Like others have said, "It depends." But, having plunked $50-ish for an mbed - https://mbed.org/ [mbed.org] - I'm having a blast with it. It even has usable threads so you can do a form of *nix-like parent-child intercommunication and multi-processing. Like the Arduino, there are a lot of libraries available so you can just drop in a module and off you go. The LPC1768 is powerful enough that when you find you want to do a "real" project, you don't have to change MCUs.
  • Arduino + Fritzing (Score:5, Informative)

    by Bitsy Boffin (110334) on Monday January 28, 2013 @09:45PM (#42722113) Homepage
    No question in my mind, an Arduino for the microcontroller platform, and Fritzing to do the design.

    Why?

    Arduino: community, quite simply, it has the critical mass of community behind it so you have a real source of knowledge (and existing code) to draw from. It's like the hardware analog of PHP, sure it's not necessarily the best, but the sheer amount of resources out there means you will have an easier time getting it to do what you want.

    Eventually your projects might extend from running on top of an actual Arduino form board (I like the Diavolino board/kit from Evil Mad Science, mainly because it looks cool, but also because you can set it up with the minimum of components to suit you), to you incorporating the AVR onto your own PCB design but still using the Arduino bootloader/environment, to you incorporating a bare AVR on the board and moving away from the Arduino environment. So you have a clear progression of learning.

    Fritzing: open source, simple, and a GOOD interface for HOBBY users. No it's not a replacement for Eagle, or Altium or DesignSpark... but a hobbiest working on small things just doesn't need the power of those, they want a nice easy system which they doesn't have a steep learning curve, and can help them draw the schematic, breadboard it, and design a pcb. There are other open source packages, such as KiCad but universally, I found, that the interfaces just suck, hugely, unless you really invest the time to become familiar with them, and then they still suck but you can live with it. Fritzing is far FAR more intuitive, if less professional.

  • by Spiked_Three (626260) on Monday January 28, 2013 @09:46PM (#42722115)
    Just pick the best car, and use whatever computer it has in it.

    Seriously, there is no BEST.

    Arduino has a ton of examples, and a ton of vendors making parts to work with it. Everything else, not so much. I've yet to see any purpose for a Pi. Very limited software support, mostly just Linux fan boys thrilled to run on a cheap computer.

    For pure robotic experiments, go LEGO. They even have a newer version coming out mid year that is Linux based. But that is more for learning what to do with working electronics, not how to actually make them.

    For electronics tinkering - Sparkfun Arduino https://www.sparkfun.com/products/11236 [sparkfun.com]
  • by TheSync (5291) on Monday January 28, 2013 @09:48PM (#42722131) Journal

    You should get an Arduino because there is a huge amount of data out there on how to use it to do pretty much anything. Any hackerspace will be full of a hundred people who have messed with Arduino, and Arduino classes are everywhere.

    Raspberry Pi is interesting for more complex embedded tasks, especially ones that require a network connection, or specific Linux software, but it lacks things like a built-in A/D converter.

  • by ElizabethGreene (1185405) on Monday January 28, 2013 @09:50PM (#42722151)

    Questions like this remind me of a saying.

    Perfect is the mortal enemy of good enough.

    Right now, today, I'm playing [youtube.com] with the Arduino platform. Before that it was an OOpic. Before that, it was an 40 pound IBM XT with a parallel port adapter I built. Before that it was a huge 40 pin DIP Z80. In High school I got a radio shack "Electronics learning lab" with a breadboard, and it's been the only constant.

    The small forest Mimms electronics books are a good "here build this" introduction. When you get bored with those, the "Art of Electronics" book is fantastic!

    Have fun, and enjoy letting the smoke out!

    • by serviscope_minor (664417) on Tuesday January 29, 2013 @07:11AM (#42724171) Journal

      Right now, today, I'm playing with the Arduino platform. Before that it was an OOpic. Before that, it was an 40 pound IBM XT with a parallel port adapter I built. Before that it was a huge 40 pin DIP Z80. In High school I got a radio shack "Electronics learning lab" with a breadboard, and it's been the only constant.

      The small forest Mimms electronics books are a good "here build this" introduction. When you get bored with those, the "Art of Electronics" book is fantastic!

      Yes, I second some of this kind of.

      Get yourself a big breadboard or two, some of those Maplin (UK---perhaps RS in the UK) big boxes of random mixed components and the Forest M Mimms III books. There's a big green one too.

      Microconrtollers are great, but you'll need a bit extra to interface with sensors, power devices and so on, for which discrete components are very necessary.

      Also, you can get a PCIe parallel port card for 12 trivial to program GPIO lines on a PC really cheaply.

      But as the OP said, the breadboard will stay with you for a long time.

  • by claytongulick (725397) on Monday January 28, 2013 @09:51PM (#42722157) Homepage

    There are two ways you can tackle this:

    1) You just want to make cool things, but don't really care about the details
    2) You really want to grok this stuff, and want to build stuff from scratch

    This is roughly equivalent, in programmers terms, of learning a high-level language like .Net, PHP, Python etc... versus assembly/C.

    Do you want to Just Make It Work(tm) without understanding the underlying libraries/platform? Or do you want to be able to build the libraries/platform?

    For option 1, the Arduino is fantastic, and really can't be beat. For option 2, I'd say start with an 8 bit AVR, like AT tiny, grab a breadboard, come LEDs and a programmer, and pull your hair out until it starts making sense and the lights flash in the pattern you expect.

    I took the second route, and have been very happy with my choice. Now, if (at my option) I just want to do something quick and dirty, I can grab an arduino and prototype something fast. But the thing is, I'm not constrained by that. I'm able to throw things together on a breadboard from components in a tray. I can write the code in straight C (or avr asm), and really grok the ISRs.

    It's kind of like Processing (the platform for data visualization and artistic CG). Would you rather make fast animations that look great, are easy to make, but only run in the Processing environment? Or would you rather build your own cross platform UI stack and then create your own highly optimized animations?

    I don't really agree with the "beginners" attitude towards Arduino, the same way I don't agree that Python is a good language for "beginner" programmers. We become programmers or amateur EE's for some reason - to solve some problem. If the problem you want to solve is that you want to be an expert developer, then don't start with python, start with c or asm. If you just have stuff you need to get done, python is great.

    Same with EE, don't start with Arduino if your purpose is to really learn the stuff. You'll just be confused by the toolchain and helpful libraries.

  • by narcc (412956) on Monday January 28, 2013 @10:17PM (#42722271) Journal

    While it's not at all what you want, there is an electronics equivalent to erector set: Snap Circuits [scientificsonline.com].

    It's a real shame we didn't have things like this when we were kids. It would have saved many small appliances from destruction.

  • by Murdoch5 (1563847) on Monday January 28, 2013 @10:17PM (#42722273)
    Get a bread board and sample the IC's you need to make the freeduino. It's a great learning experience and will give you a great prototyping platform.
  • by caseih (160668) on Monday January 28, 2013 @10:25PM (#42722323)

    I've been using Teensy lately. I can use the Arduino tools and most libraries. It's relatively cheap compared to Arduino at only about $20.

    Obviously you can't use the same shields but electrically they are more or less compatible. The teensy can do things Arduino can't like be a usb keyboard, mouse, joystick, serial port, midi device, or x-plane instrument interface.

    Also if you're going to do a lot of breadboard you could also look into the adafruit breadboard Arduino. Can't use shields bit it is easier to plug into a breadboard.

    All in all they are all pretty cheap so buy a few!

  • by theheadlessrabbit (1022587) on Monday January 28, 2013 @10:28PM (#42722349) Homepage Journal

    The Wiring platform (from which Arduino is a fork of) is a great option for getting started.

    http://wiring.org.co/ [wiring.org.co]

    Code wise, It's about 99% the same as Arduino, so all the libraries and code you can find out there is usable, (you just have to tweak the pin numbers)
    You can program Arduino boards, wiring boards, AND Atmel chips with the wiring software.
    The Wiring S board is slightly cheaper.

    And, best of all, the help system is just a lot of commented out descriptions above the code - and it links to a schematic so you know EXACTLY what to build to make the code in the example work.

  • Start with the Sparkfun Inventor's Kit [sparkfun.com]. I encouraged my coworkers to pick'em up and work through the tutorials, and now they're spending half their time coming up with concepts and building prototypes with stuff they buy from DigiKey.

    Seriously, give it a go.

  • by raymorris (2726007) on Monday January 28, 2013 @10:38PM (#42722397)
    I've used the Picaxe, which I really liked, bate pics, the Basic Stamp and the Arduino. I'd suggest the Arduino for most people. Largely because of the community around it.

    However, if you're on a budget like me, I'd only buy one Arduino board. Any "permanent" projects get the Arduino board replaced by a bare chip with the Arduino bootloader, which sells for about $5. That $5 chip + 5volts is an Arduino, minus the unused headers, LEDs etc.
  • by dissy (172727) on Monday January 28, 2013 @10:59PM (#42722481)

    If you are looking at microcontrollers, I would suggest the Parallax Propeller [parallax.com]
    It's an 8 core 32 bit micro that lets you add peripherals in software.

    Wire a bluetooth or wifi module to some IO pins and toss a BT/wifi object into a core to let it poll for commands.
    Or you can wire a nintendo or super nintendo controller directly to it, and load a shift register object into a core to poll the game pad.
    On the low end, a TSOP IR receiver module and object can be setup to take commands from any old remote you have laying in the junk drawer.

    An IR reciever and an IR led both wired up on multiple robots would allow for some interesting inter-robot communications and swarm behavior.

    Another core can be driving the stepper motors and watching for new commands to change what it's currently doing.

    Wire some IO to a GPS module and have a core polling that to update the current location in ram.

    Since all 8 cores run independently from each other, you won't need to muck around with things like interrupts or try to squeeze a bunch of autonomous modules into one monolithic program.

    The propeller is 3.3v (but 5v tolerant) which makes it electrically compatible with Adriano shields, and there are a number of shields already supported by existing objects. Parallax runs an object exchange site where the community shares these objects, and you can find one to drive pretty much any common (or not so common) hardware.

    It has a native interpreted language called Spin that makes multi-core programming pretty simple, and also can be coded in assembly for time sensitive operations.
    There are a number of compilers made by 3rd parties to let you code in C (in fact there is a gcc project going on in the forums) as well as basic, pbasic, forth, and a few other languages.

    I even just recently learned of an IDE called 12 blocks [12blocks.com] that uses a form of Scratch, where you build up a program by dragging blocks onto the work space, and it can output Spin.

    As each of the 8 cores has its own video generation hardware and two high precision counters, there have been a number of home brew video game consoles made using the propeller. By just wiring up an IO line to an RCA jack, you can output NTSC or PAL. A couple more IO lines and it can do VGA too.

    It's quite the powerful little micro, might be worth checking it out.

  • by hamster_nz (656572) on Monday January 28, 2013 @11:07PM (#42722519)

    The Pololu 3pi robot is sweet. Small, simple, fast (3m/s!) and fun - can even be made Arduino compatible.

    If you want to play with motors and sensors you could do far worse.

  • by Redlazer (786403) on Monday January 28, 2013 @11:14PM (#42722565) Homepage
    I haven't used the other kits, but I have found the Arduino to be an awesome prototyping platform. Lots of available information, lots of tutorials, lots of support, lots of flexibility.

    I would consider it a great jumping off point for the Raspberry Pi, which is my next experiment. I have no experience whatsoever with electronics, and it's been smooth sailing so far!

  • by rwa2 (4391) * on Tuesday January 29, 2013 @12:39AM (#42722913) Homepage Journal

    I mean, c'mon

    http://xkcd.com/413/ [xkcd.com]

    Yes, I feel bad that I have a set of Lego Mindstorms and an Arduino in my basement that I haven't done anything with yet.

    I did get my EeePC interfaced with this though, via the USB control dongle:
    http://www.amazon.com/OWI-OWI-535-Robotic-Arm-Edge/dp/B0017OFRCY [amazon.com]

  • by caseih (160668) on Tuesday January 29, 2013 @02:54AM (#42723351)

    Though the raspberry pi can do a lot of what the arduinio can with it's gpio pins, the arduino (well the AVR system) is more flexible. It can do PWM, ADC, interrupt-driven signalling very easily, and can do it at 5v if you wish which is often an easier voltage to work with than 3.3v that the Pi uses. Also the shields are nice to add things like motor controllers, etc.

    But like another poster said, you can't exactly do AI or image processing algorithms on the arduino. But you probably can on the pi. And the pi has ethernet and a lot of horsepower. So why not combine the two? Check out the AlaMode, a shield for the raspberry pi that plugs in using its expansion port. The AlaMode has a complete Arduino Uno system onboard, and the pins on it are set up to make it work with any existing shield. You can load a firmware like firmata on the arduino portion, then use python or anything that speaks the protocol to drive the arduino from a program on the pi. Kind of a neat idea.

    Or you could write your own program on the arduino and a simple serial control interface to drive it from the pi depending on your needs.

  • by sl3xd (111641) on Tuesday January 29, 2013 @03:30AM (#42723471) Journal

    I'd personally go with a solderless breadboard and components.

    There are various 'platforms' out there, such as *duino, LaunchPad, and so on.
    The big advantage to these are:
    * Predesigned PCB, with most 'electroncis' taken care of for you,
    * USB built-in
    * built-in programming/emulation/debugging
    * an ecosystem of plug-in boards for various tasks.

    The platforms make it easy for those with more interest in programming than in hardware to get started. The downside is they are pretty pricey because they have so many bells & whistles.

    On the other hand, if you have good Electronics knowledge, then it's hard to beat a solderless breadboard and components. It's hard to get sentimental about a particular MCU when you start to see them as 'just another part'.

    In general, some things to consider:
    If you're just getting into micros, I'd avoid 8-bit, period. Especially for hobby projects, 8-bit is just masochistic; the part costs ~$0.25 less per unit - significant when you build a few thousand of 'em, but to a hobbyist, I'd just get the 32-bit part and enjoy fewer headaches.

    My suggestions:
    * Don't bother with assembly. It's a lot less painful to move to a different platform if you use C/C++ when possible.
    * Skip the 8-bit AVR-based Arduino entirely. Use one of the 32-bit *duino boards (ARM, for example) or clones (PIC32).
    * I like the 16 and 32-bit PICs. The PIC18 architecture is OK, but still only 8-bit. Avoid PIC 16, 12, and 10's. PICs are better suited to guys who can do everything on a breadboard, and intend to design a PC Board for a finished design. (There is the *duino-compatible ChipKit, though)
    * TI has three "Launchpad" platforms. I have at least one of each. TI can't be making money on these things - shipping alone costs more than the purchase price.
          * MSP430: A ultra-low power 16-bit MCU. The MSP430 Launchpad is so low-cost ($5 shipped for the MSP430), I'd recommend them as your first option.
              * TI's tools for the MSP430 are Windows-Only
              * There are (good) free compilers (MSPGCC, MSPGDB) and other tools available for Linux, Mac, etc.
          * C2000: A 32-bit real-time MCU. I got it mostly out of curiosity.
          * Stellaris: ARM M4 based MCU, full FPU. It's a much cheaper way to get an ARM than an Arduino
          * All three have sockets for "booster packs" - similar to an Arduino shield. There's even an MP3 player booster pack.
    * At least look at the Parallax Propeller. It's a very different, and certainly unconventional, take on microcontrollers.
        * The propeller has 8 32-bit cores in it, and has (beta) GCC support (and Linux is a first-class citizen), as well as its own interpreted language, Spin.
        * Everything is bit-banged; there are no hardware ADC's, no hardware UART's, no hardware I2C or SPI - just 32 general I/O pins.
        * Oddly enough, there a VGA/component video circuitry built-in and available on every I/O pin.
        * Propellers also have no interrupts; the idea is to simply activate another MCU core to do whatever task you would use interrupts for. As there are no interrupts, and each 'task' gets a full MCU core.
        * Whether you think it's wasteful to dedicate a whole MCU 'core' (even if it is 'sleeping') to do the job of an interrupt, it's a novel solution, and may suit your needs better.

    • by solidraven (1633185) on Tuesday January 29, 2013 @06:14AM (#42723939)
      I disagree. Don't neglect the 8 bit goodness. An army of 8 bit microcontrollers working together can do some pretty funny things. Nothing quite beats the old fashioned 8051 in being well documented either. And it comes in loads of flavours. I'll agree on the stay away from Arduino, just too expensive for what you get. The TI dev boards are fun, very easy to use as well. The software is a bit iffy but not too bad. Never worked with Propellers so can't really say much about those.

      Another interesting option is getting one of those NXP ARM dev boards. Or even better, get a large FPGA dev board and use a soft core. Side bonus is if you need heavy data crunching you can synthesize dedicated hardware for it. Most of the common simple microcontrollers have FOSS models available. Then when you wish to build something final you can just switch to the actual MCU.
  • by Fnagaton (580019) on Tuesday January 29, 2013 @08:24AM (#42724503) Homepage Journal

    I had a dream to make a computer using 74 series TTL, essentially transistor logic in small packages. I managed to get a full prototype working in Proteus from labcenter http://www.labcenter.com/index.cfm [labcenter.com] The same software also includes PCB layout tools. These files were then sent to beta layout PCB pool http://www.beta-layout.com/ [beta-layout.com] When the PCBs arrived some soldering with all the components left me with a surprisingly heavy board that actually worked. http://www.wellytop.com/Fnagaton/DIYComputer.html [wellytop.com]

  • by presspass (1770650) on Tuesday January 29, 2013 @08:41AM (#42724597)

    I'll just share my experience since it's been such a blast...

    I picked up an official Arduino board, but it wasn't long before I was building 'stand alone' arduinos on a breadboard.

    This led to diving in to Cadsoft Eagle to learn the basics. I took one of the many schematics out there and put together an SMD arduino board. I sent it off to BatchPcb and waited the 20 days. When I got it back I got it all soldered up and IT WORKED! The first time!

    Now I'm using my incredibly small boards to drive a RFID reader in my garage so I can use the same 'key' as I have for work to open the doors. I've run cat5 out there and using RS485 I can open/close doors, check the temp and turn xmas lights on or off through a webpage.

    I'm sure the platform matters, but not as much as you think. I started with little or no electronics knowledge and with the Arduino/Atmega I've been able to both get things to work and learn a great deal in the process.

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