There are microcontrollers embedded in almost everything these days. However the developer tools for many of these have been priced out of the realm of hobbyists and students. How are people to learn to develop applications if they cant afford the developer tools?
A design school in Italy faced this issue and came up with a roaring success… The Arduino Platform – An open source hardware and software design, with widely shared how-to resources. It has become a central tool to much of the Maker movement. Sure there are more powerful, faster, etc microcontrollers out there, but the Arduino makes it pretty easy for the beginner to get up and running quickly. It also makes it easy for experts to throw something together quickly with wide selection of pre-built libraries and hardware modules and online how-to tutorials.
There are a lot of beginner kits out there now supporting the beginner. Most share the same basic examples based on the Oomlaut ARDX Arduino Experimenter . Different vendors add some variations after the first couple experiments, and package up all the sensor, effector, leds, motors, resistors, etc into one nice package.
Recently the Arduino developers decided to release their own Starter Kit along with a series of video tutorials hosted by Arduino co-founder Massimo Banzi (links to his TED talk). I was sent one of the kits for review…
First thing that impressed me was the nicely designed box, and then opening it the nice hefty printed manual. Under the manual were neatly packed boxes of components and under those a piece of laser cut wood and some various paper parts.
So far things are looking pretty neat and clean – not sure what all those parts in the bottom are for or just what components are in the boxes but nice packaging.
Then I start reading the manual (huh, what programmer starts by reading the manual? well this was a review so I thought I start by examining the parts as I got to them. First thing that struck me about the manual was the font selection. It is mostly written in a very thin light font that I find very difficult to read, especially on some of the colored backgrounds. Getting beyond that, I found the manual fairly useful. Most Arduino documentation is online at the Arduino.cc site. Unfortunately this site is blocked by the high school web filters were I help the Robotics club… teaching some arduino experiments using the Sparkfun Inventors Kit (a nice older packaging with the ARDX tutorials). The new Arduino Starter Kit manual was able to offer up the right clues to a question asked by one of the students. Down side was there is no index and not much of a table of contents, so finding the info I needed required a bit of fast skimming.
I have not had a chance to run through any of the experiments myself. I was hoping to build the Zeotrope (Project 10), which uses some of the preprinted cardboard to show animated pictures. However, time is passing quickly and I have other larger projects to build for other reasons, so I will have to update when I get it done (or delegate build to someone.)
Looking over the manual’s layout for a project, I do like the way they lay it out. First is a quick reference (time to build, pre-requisite builds), then a discussion of the build, then the wiring diagrams and notes, followed by software and its notes. Hardware layout is shows a stylized picture of the circuit with arduino and breadboard, as well as the conventional schematic diagram. The former helps the beginner see where and how to plug things together. The latter gives the reference needed to understand function.
I really like the way the book lays out the software discussion in columns. left most is sort of margin notes, center on left hand page is a prose description of a code block , while right page holds the code blocks and more margin notes. Code is broken into blocks on highlighted background… grouped in functional blocks (constants, variables, etc). It would be a great layout if the fonts were better.
Back to the hardware in the box…
The laser cut wood in there is to hold the Arduino Uno and small breadboard. It is a nice little bit of engineering. Four feet pop out of the board and press fit into slots to become feet. The arduino screws down with three bolts (and nuts… manual neglects to mention using nuts on these. Guess it assumes you know.) The breadboard has double stick tape on back, so peel and stick. Result is a rather nice little experimenters setup. I like it better than the plastic setup included with the old version of the Sparkfun Inventors Kit. I understand they have changed that a bit lately. The Adafruit starter kits come with an acrylic plate for breadboard and card, which works well too.
The components come packaged in several boxes. However they are in non-reseal bags inside the boxes… open those bags and you got lots of little parts to scatter. I was glad to have a collection of small zip-close bags on hand to repack the parts.
They include several parts beyond the usual Arduino inventor/experimenter beginner kit … like the LCD display panel and larger DC motor.
Overall it looks like a very nice starter package. The experiments go further than the old ARDX and the extra paper pieces used along the way are nice inclusion. The paper box doesnt hold up well to travel abuse, but hey its cardstock.
Another aspect of this kit is the series of video tutorials hosted by Arduino co-founder Massimo Banzi. I found the pretty decent. Nothing Amazing – just good walk through of building projects and some science background.
I like this kit – although it has its faults (fonts in the manual, light cardboard box, lack of bags for parts, etc). The projects look pretty good, and somewhat more functional than the basics in ARDX. However, I am not the intended audience – the beginner. So I think I am going to pass this kit off to one of our young makers and see if they can learn using it- with a bit of help of course. Check back later and hopefully we’ll update with their experience.