Here at Hackaday, we see microcontroller based projects in all states of completion. Sometimes it makes the most sense to design systems from the ground up, and other times when simplicity or a quick project completion is desired, pre-built system boards are a better choice. We have compiled a list of boards that we commonly see in your submitted projects, split up by price range and with a little detail for reference.
After reading our list, sound off in the comments or on this forum post, and we may include your board in a follow-up guide at a later date. We will also be giving away 10 Hackaday stickers to the most insightful, the most original, and most useful advice given on the forum, so if you haven’t registered yet, now would be a perfect time. Winners of the sticker giveaway will be selected from the forum thread, and the final decision for prizes will be judged by the wit and whim of the Hackaday writing team. More prize details to follow in the thread. Read on for our guide based on past project submissions.
The Cheap ($0-$50):
When it comes to cheap boards, users can expect a simple breakout board, usually with some debugging facilities and minimal extra components. These boards tend to be aimed at hobbyists and the education crowd rather than companies who can afford full featured development setups for their engineers. Unfortunately, boards that come directly from manufacturers tend to have locked down or overly simplified IDEs or debugging software, though low price points often inspire the open source communities to write their own to take advantage of all the features.
- TI’s MSP430 Launchpad: Coming in at $4.30, TI’s Launchpad board is definitely a bargain. For your money, you get a set of 16-bit MSP430 processors, a mini-USB debugger and programming interface, and a set of Windows IDEs to choose from. Not much more to write home about, but we have featured a number of projects with this family of microcontrollers running the show.
- STMicroelectronic’s Discovery: Costing you a paltry $11.85, This 32-bit ARM processor may be one of the best performance to cost values. Similar to the Launchpad, the Discovery has a mini-USB interface, a breakaway programmer and debugger, and a few locked down IDEs to select. For students or professionals looking for experience with the ARM architecture, this Cortex-M3 based system would be a great place to start.
- The Arduino Family: Needing no introduction, these 8-bit AVR based systems have been displayed by us numerous times. Due to an open source hardware and software design, these boards are available for as low as $20 or so for Arduino Compatable clones, or any price range up depending on included peripherals. Because of the simple IDE and coding environment familiar to anyone familiar with C, C++, or Java, the Arduino is a common choice for beginners, non-engineering types, and professionals alike.
Mid-Range Boards ($50-$150):
For a little more money, more can be expected from a development board. Often featuring higher I/O pin counts, more complex interfaces such as host USB ports, Ethernet, or Video-Out, these boards are a great place for a little computational and functional muscle. However, with a higher cost, it is more difficult to just throw one of these boards at any one-off project. More costly boards are often supported better as well, because they are used by engineers who will decide on important purchasing decisions. This area is also a transition area from more hardy microcontroller type boards into the more powerful microprocessor type systems (such as shifting from the Cortex-M to the Cortex-A series of ARM processors).
- The Arduino Mega: For all the same reasons as the original Arduino, the Arduino Mega has its place in a prototyping or development environment. For a bit more money than the original, extra code space, processing power, and I/O pins are gained, with the same comfortable, familiar, and similar development tools. The Arduino Mega runs at $65, which makes for a costly 8-bit system.
- The Chumby Hacking Board: An interesting example of a product going from production to prototyping as an afterthought, this board is based on the guts of the Chumby One, featuring a 32-bit Freescale i.MX ARM processor at 454 MHz. This system has video out, as well as a trio of USB ports for all the peripherals you can find or write your own drivers for. The Chumby Hacking board clocks in at a reasonable $90 or so, though supplies seem to be dwindling, so act fast if interested.
- The Original BeagleBoard: At the top of the price range, the BeagleBoard (Revision C4) features a 600 MHz Cortex-A8 ARM processor capable of running a number of Linux systems, including Angstrom and Ubuntu. Designed to interface with cool toys like touchscreens, this board also features a powerful DSP chip for crunching numbers, as well as processing video and sound. For a newly discounted rate of $125, this compact powerhouse could be yours.
The Upper Crust ($150+)
At this price range, these boards often contain ARM processors from the Cortex-A series, and have more in common with high-end smartphones than the microcontrollers usually seen on Hackaday and in day-to-day life. Boards like these are a real investment, and often cost and perform similar to many older or low-end PCs and netbooks at a considerably more efficient performance to power use ratio in most cases. These boards tend to run Linux-based operating systems, including Android as well as others.
- The BeagleBoard xM: Coming in at just around $150, this big brother to the first BeagleBoard adds parts such as onboard Ethernet, an additional 2 USB ports, and a bump to a 1 GHz processor. Although the MSRP is listed at $149, a high demand has pushed the cost well above that at places where stocks are even available. Because of a strong similarity to the original BeagleBoard, the existing community is strong, and full of examples and guides to get the board going
- The PandaBoard: With features as far away from an 8-bit microcontroller as imaginable, this board comes dressed to the nines featuring a dual-core 1 GHz processor capable of handling 1080P video stream. We realize this is probably out of the ballpark of just about any “hack” level project at $174, but we know there are some engineers out there very excited to see this.
We know that brand and experience preference can be a strong motivator, so be productive with your advice and sound off in our forum with your picks for our follow-up post(s). We will do our best to wrap up all the information you provide into a more definitive, and hopefully even more informative guide for beginners and professionals alike.