The Atmega168 at the heart of every Arduino is an eminently capable chip; its ilk have been seen working as a basic web server, playing back digital audio, even generating TV signals. But as projects continue to grow in sophistication, reality rears its ugly head: Arduino can handle any one of these tasks very well, but it often requires squeezing every last instruction cycle or bit of memory in the device. Even the ’368 chip and the Arduino Mega are stopgap measures. Sooner or later, you have to graduate to long trousers—move up to a more capable microcontroller platform—an uncomfortable change usually involving a hefty investment in new hardware and an intimidating learning curve. Leaf Labs’ Maple aims to change all that…
Maple, expected to ship in October for about $40, brings together the STM32 microcontroller, a 32-bit 72MHz beast of a chip, with the familiar Arduino footprint and even compatible library functions. Users can jump right in, preserving their existing investment in Arduino shields and know-how, then expand their repertoire with the new capabilities afforded by this beefier processor.
But Maple is not the first. Coridium Corporation’s $30 ARMite PRO (below) is a 60MHz ARM7 board that’s pin- and footprint-compatible with Arduino Pro. The CPU isn’t quite as powerful as the STM32, nor do they provide Arduino-compatible libraries, but it’s still a significant step up from the Atmega and is available today.
Also worth mentioning, though it lies in an entirely different direction, is Raisonance’s STM32 Primer (also called the STM32 Circle), shown below. This kit is neither hardware- nor software-compatible with Arduino, and the bundled software tools are Windows-only, but it’s similarly affordable (about $40), self-contained (no external programmer), and will give you a head start with the STM32 chip right now. And while you can’t bring your Arduino shields to this party, the Primer brings its own fun: a color LCD, 3D accelerometer, and rechargeable battery. The original “Circle” Primer is a little tricky to track down, but a little Google searching can help here. A “Primer 2” with more features has since been released, if you don’t mind paying half again as much.
Maple is just the first of several increasingly powerful Leaf Labs projects that are planned. FPGAs and gigahertz-speed CPUs are in the pipeline.