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Ask Slashdot: Best Electronics Prototyping Platform? 228

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: []

    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 @09:03PM (#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 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. [] Order directly from Ti - []
  • 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 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.
  • 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.

  • 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.


    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 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 Ford Prefect ( 8777 ) on Monday January 28, 2013 @09:55PM (#42722181) Homepage

    I agree. Get an Arduino Uno at first and then you'll start to get a sense of what direction you want to move in from there.

    Agreed also. I started off with an Arduino nearly two years ago, and learned a lot of electronics and C/C++ building a camera timelapse gadget []. (Videos [] here []!)

    The community is definitely incredibly helpful, and if you're trying to do something there's a good chance someone's done aspects of it already. Plus the limited platform means it's difficult to get too sidetracked, and you pretty much have to build things in an efficient manner. It's built over that pretty standard AVR stuff too, so implementing your own Arduino-alike hardware is frighteningly simple.

    The ecosystem of Arduino shields is pretty amazing, but often a bit on the expensive and unwieldy side - for example, paying a fair amount for WiFi when an Arduino can barely handle a single connection, or full-colour backlit LCDs when the thing has almost no RAM - at some point you're going to have to make the leap to a Raspberry Pi or similar if projects are heading that way. I built a ridiculous time-travelling radio [] around a Pi, using some pretty standard UNIXy stuff which would have been impossible on an Arduino.

    On the other hand, I've seen many learning projects built with Raspberry Pis which would be far better suited to Arduinos - the Arduino has no real operating system, just the (tiny) bootloader and the standard libraries that get linked in, so it's extremely difficult to break a working, embedded setup. My timelapse gadget? Ideal. Starts almost instantly, has no easy-to-corrupt storage - think of the Arduino as programmable electronics glue. Whereas the Pi is more like software glue - if you need a tiny UNIX box doing software-type stuff, potentially interfacing with the real world, then the Pi and friends win hands-down.

  • by muridae ( 966931 ) on Monday January 28, 2013 @10:55PM (#42722469)
    You don't have to use the TI IDE and bootloader, which are highly encumbered with copyright. MSPGCC ( [] ) exists to allow the whole system to use an opensource toolchain.
  • 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.

  • Re:CopterControl (Score:4, Informative)

    by asynchronous13 ( 615600 ) on Tuesday January 29, 2013 @01:08AM (#42723013)
    Open Pilot is pretty good, but good luck getting one. They only sell in batches, so you have to wait for months or get really lucky on your timing. Right now there's nothing in stock, and nothing expected for 8 weeks.
  • 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.

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