By guest blogger Jamie Dalzell.
Barrier to entry? What barrier?! With an abundance of microcontrollers, starter kits, and learning resources available, it’s never been easier to get started with DIY electronics. Anyone with even a passing interest in electronics now has the opportunity to roll up their sleeves and jump right into a project.
Starting? It’s easier than ever. But knowing where to start, exactly? The sheer number of options can be overwhelming, making this a difficult question for newcomers to answer. Which microcontrollers are best for a beginner? What tutorials should you be reading?
Image from Hack N Mod.
To help you answer those questions we’ve soldered together a quick-start guide to DiY electronics. Providing you with information on the best products to start your journey with, the resources you should be reading, and a few exciting projects that will open your eyes up to the infinite creative possibilities that this hobby offers!
Ready to start? Read on!
Choosing a Microcontroller
Microcontrollers are no longer an prohibitively expensive piece of technology. Nowadays there’s a microcontroller for every budget, including some beginner boards that cost as little as a (pricey) cup of coffee!
Coming in 8-, 16-, and 32-bit variations, microcontrollers based on Microchip’s PIC and Atmel’s competing AVR platform are some of the most popular microcontrollers among beginners and hobbyists alike. A quick Google search will show you there are a lot of these available, differing in the amount of memory available, number of I/O pins, as well as the types of peripherals they include and support.
Digilent’s chipKIT line is one such offering, based on the PIC line and compatible with many of the Arduino’s existing code examples, materials and resources. When combined with the chipKIT Starter Kit — offering an all-in-one package of sensors, actuators, and other electronic components – it’s the perfect way to get your first project off the ground.
Microcontroller Learning Resources
The basics may seem boring, but they’re the basics for a reason: they form a solid foundation for more complicated projects and continued learning in the future. Getting to grips with the what, when, where and how of electronics will put you in good stead for whatever project you want to tackle.
- The Learn.Digilent Inc site hosts a range of guides, starting from the basics of microcontrollers right through to more advanced subjects.
- Electronic Partners offer great information on the basics of microcontroller design & development.
- Looking for more information on getting started with PIC microcontrollers? Instructables offer a great guide on how and where to start. They also have a guide on getting started with AVR boards.
- Hardware is just one part of the electronic DIY puzzle. You’ll need software too! Digilent provide a great guide on what software you’ll need for your board.
- Still looking to get your hands dirty? Make Use Of has a great introduction to the basic skills required for assembling, modifying, and designing electronics including soldering and breadboarding.
- Finally, Lifehacker have put together a list of further learning resources, including books, guides and courses.
The Arduino & Raspberry Pi
The battle for today’s DiY dollar is largely fought between the two largest names on the block: the Arduino and the Raspberry Pi. Both of these have revolutionised the DiY scene, offering cheap, flexible, and more importantly easy-to-learn points of entry with near limitless applications.
Massive communities have built up around both of these, giving us a wealth of information, step-by-step guides and articles on not just getting started, but putting together your first projects too.
So, if you’re looking at making the Arduino or Raspberry Pi your point of entry, where should you start?
What Is the Arduino?
Image from Wikipedia.com.
The Arduino is synonymous with the transformation of the DIY scene, opening up this amazing hobby to a whole new audience. A software and hardware suite, the Arduino is based on Atmel’s AVR microcontroller. And has spawned a number of Arduino alternatives since its release.
The standout of the Arduino package isn’t just the hardware, but the Arduino API. Making the programming process that much easier than those that preceded it.
Some of Arduino’s highlights include:
- The Arduino is the textbook definition of a microcontroller. With no operating system, it simply runs the code you and/or others write for it.
- It’s easier to directly execute simple code with Arduino
- The lack of an operating system means you won’t have its overhead eating up unnecessary resources.
- It’s great for hardware projects, as it’s built for interfacing with sensors and devices.
Arduino Learning Resources
- Looking for an Arduino project? Instructables have a massive range available.
- Build Electronic Circuits also have a great introduction to Arduino programming.
What Is the Raspberry Pi?
Image from Wikipedia.com.
The Raspberry Pi is less a microcontroller and more a fully-functional computer, used in a wide range of projects. Often referred to as a System-on-a-Chip (SOC), it includes a dedicated processor, memory and even a graphics driver for HDMI input. How’s that for a feature list!
Some of the Raspberry Pi’s other highlights include:
- The Raspberry Pi runs a specially designed version of Linux, making it easy to install and run existing Linux software.
- It doesn’t include internal storage, but you can use SD cards as flash memory for the system. You can swap these out at will, making it that much more flexible.
- Its network connectivity means you can set it up for SSH and transfer files via FTP
Raspberry Pi Learning Resources
- Looking to get started with some Raspberry Pi projects? Instructables once again have a great range on offer.
Arduino vs Raspberry Pi – Which Is Right for Your First Project?
Many people directly compare the Arduino and Raspberry Pi, yet just like every other microcontroller option on the market they both have their own uses and advantages. This comparison, then? It’s a little unfair. They both achieve their results through very different methods, not to mention the stark specification differences between the two.
What does this mean for you? Only good things! No matter which you decide to start with, you can’t go wrong. And if you still can’t decide? Read Write has a more detailed comparison of the two.
Five Projects to Get You Started
So, you’re all read up, ordered your first board, and are now itching to get started. Congratulations! If you’re champing at the bit to jump in, we’ve gathered together five exciting projects from the Digilent Inc blog that provide the perfect jumpstart to your DIY journey. So get in there and give it a go!
- Make A Spy Rover With A chipKIT Wi-FIRE
- Learn How To Play & Make A Piano
- Build An 8-Step Synthesizer
- Build A FocusSpace
- Make Your Own Colour Invaders Project
Have any tips for a newcomer to DIY electronics? Any projects or resources you’d recommend? How did you start? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!
Jamie Dalzell is a freelance writer with Reality Copywriting. If you would like to author a guest blog for the Digilent blog, comment here and we’ll get in touch.