What Development Board to Use?

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.

In Summary:

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.

173 thoughts on “What Development Board to Use?

  1. By the way, I’m currently working with a group of guys at our new board for robotic needs. It has an atmega128 with an FPGA (Xilinx spartan) on the memory bus, configured via master serial. AVR will be running a modded forth version (Take that arduino lovers) and upload config to FPGA from eeprom (currently up to 4 i2c eeprom chips can be soldered). We already have the pcb, but I haven’t yet written all the soft.

  2. I spent a long time building my own boards and using PIC, but my creativity and productivity exploded when I started using the Arduino (which I fought for years).

    However, comparing these boards seems like comparing a big fruit basket. Some days you want ARM architecture/speed and peripherals. Other days you want the libraries and huge amount of projects for comparison that the Arduino offers.

  3. I am one of the lucky guys to have received the evalbot. However, I am slightly intimidated by the tooling. Arduino, TI launchpad and PIC are so much more compact.

    I hate having to adjust tens of files to achieve a blinking LED.

    The hardware is great, however, the tools are absolutely not idiot proof. Even a environment like Quartus is more comprehensible.

  4. I will use anything that is cheap and doesn’t have an Eclipse based IDE only. Those appear to be high standards, because it seems to rule out just about anything currently…

    It’s simply unusable. I have no idea how people use those programs without getting swarms of Null exceptions everywhere. Literally

    And don’t get me started on Atmel. No documentation at all; it seems to be the new rage

  5. Picaxe is a great entry level platform. $25 for the USB programming cable, $3 for the 08M, and programming in BASIC. No programming hardware needed, no external clock, with a breadboard, power supply, and a few resistors you can be up an running in a few hours…..

  6. @Whatnot:

    Depending on what you want to do a consumer router can be an excellent platform. It comes with a proper operating system and a huge amount of software packages, it is extendable via USB and UART, and the question of how to interface the project with your PC is already answered (Ethernet/WiFi/3F). Power consumption is usually also quite low. You may still need an additional microcontroller for some things but most of the software can just be developed in C/C++ for Linux, using all those nice libraries.

  7. Don’t forget microchip, which has two development sets, both $69 with a PICKIT3 – one [debug express] has a has a PIC18F45k20, 8 LEDs, a switch and a POT, and comes with lesson plans on C programming, and the other has a PIC16F1937 with a 40 segment LCD, POT, pushbutton, LEDs,
    32KHz crystal, etc and both have prototyping areas. and when you outgrow them, and are ready to roll you own circuits, you still have the PICKIT3 programmer/debugger.

  8. Sounds like there are a lot of favorites but I’ll throw out another thumbs up for the Teensy. http://www.pjrc.com/teensy/ . Works great in the Arduino environment and has excellent support from its creator. Compared to an Arduino it is smaller, cheaper, has more pins (lots more on the ++), does more (usb devices), easy to use on 3.3v and is breadboard friendly.

  9. @Jeppe Johansen

    Here is the documentation page for the Atmega328:

    There is a 560 page document about the chip and 50 or more app notes. No documentation at all?

    Also, I use Eclipse for 8 hours a day for my job and have no problems. I have had it crash, but I would guess it is less than once a month.

    If you can’t find documentation, a google search will help you. If you can’t get Eclipse working, you should ask people because it is a decent IDE. The text editor is worlds better than the arduino and most other IDEs I’ve tried.

  10. @John Smith
    Well, that’s the old AVR. Simple 8bit stuff. Well documented. Good simple tools

    But all their new stuff. AVR32 is okay documented on a hardware level. On paper it’s a really great chip. It’s everything that ARM should have become

    But I just shelled out what in the end amounted to 150 USD on a UC3L-EK. It took me 8 hours to even find a schematic. And I still haven’t found a way to dump a program into the processor. And their older development kits don’t seem a whole lot more documented

    I wish the manufacturers would learn something! We have this great new line of chips. STM32, AVR32, RX62N, MSP430, and so on. But they all failed at producing some good development platforms. Hobbyists like me just want a simple way to load a program onto it. Debugging would be nice, but they just can’t figure out how to add this apparently…

  11. @Jeppe Johnsen

    “It took me 8 hours to even find a schematic.”

    Here’s how to do it in less than a minute.

    Google UC3L-EK. Click on the first link. Click on the link that says Documents. Click on the link that says schematic.

  12. Hm….
    Take a look at Supported Hardware list at

    There are A LOT excellent, easy-to-get, cheap and powerfull boards to work with. ARM and MIPS.
    Forget about dev.boards, they are extremely overpriced.

    Can you find something in dev. boards like D-Link DIR-320?:
    240 MHz MIPS
    32Mb RAM
    16Mb FLASH
    5ports 100Mbit Ethernet
    1 WiFi
    1 USB Host
    Linux OS (i.e. no strange win-only IDEs, just gcc to write your code for board )
    ~$50 price.

    OR, say, if you don’t need WiFi and USB host, you can find router for ~$20.

    I spend a lot of time looking for cheap (really cheap, not for $100 ) dev. board with Ethernet port running Linux. I didn’t find anything comparable with small routers.

  13. I got a ET-STM32 board ( http://www.futurlec.com/ET-STM32_Stamp.shtml )….
    It’s an arm cortex-m3 @72MHz / 90 MIPS
    512k flash and 64k ram

    for $25 !! Great price!

    I’m currently working with a lot of boards ( Arm7 / Arm9 / Cortex-m3 / AVR32 ) and I liked that board and the MBED too.

    I’m programming all that using eLua ( http://www.eluaproject.net ) and I think it’s great, specially for those starting now, since it’s quite easy to use.

  14. I work for SPLat, so I’m a little biased. However while our controllers aren’t as sexy as some listed here, there’s no internet nor ZigBee, the I/O pins are ready to hookup to relays or switches so you don’t need to provide any driver circuitry.

    What makes them compelling is the language. For example, “Input” returns the debounced state of an input. Cooperative multitasking of up to 32 tasks is provided, as is floating point math. Getting something running quickly is what they’re good at:

    Our last project was a shipyard painting/blasting facility where we had 4 networked controllers and a Modbus touch screen interface.

  15. I’m a great fun of mikroe :)
    Mikroe boards are big, but you get a bunch of things integrated on board….including programmer/debugger..so my choice is:

    After finished develop firware you can always buy cheap PICready board and integrate it in your application.
    Or if you need usb in your application:
    P.S. They comes with fast bootloader.

    And someone already mentioned PIC32… i think that it is a great MCU… i will try it as soon as i finish my current project…

  16. I feel left out again….

    So Microchip has the microstick It is a 25 $ beast of a board.
    Link for reference

    Then for a 50$ or slightly less board….
    Low pin count USB development kit , with programmer (40$ last i checked)

    And if you want to go all out , there are the various PICDEM boards.

    Pretty surprised these got left out completely. especially the Microstick its a nice board.

  17. @Stanson: Damn straight! And if you want networking they’re the natural choice (or a Mini-ITX board for about the same outlay). But what do you do it you don’t want to have to wait for an OS to boot?

  18. I hate to do this but i agree with leaving out parralax. They have their nitch, but I think every one who has purchased a parallax board wishes they had known about arduino.

    Arduino uses C (like virtually every thing else)
    Parallax (granted im familiar with bs2 and before) uses basic .

    Basic is great if you know it , like i do . But if you know nothing its only goin to make learning C C++ etc etc etc harder because the syntax is completely different. They are also more expensive then an arduino, Microstick or any other option listed here.

    Learn basic you can use parallax

    Learn C you can code Microchips , arduinos , pc games , you can even use arduino libraries on a PIC with minimal effort compared. Launchpad uses C too i believe.

  19. I’ll have to second the boards from MikroE.
    Bought the EasyPic5 (they’re one board revision futher by now). At it’s price, you won’t use it to permanently build the board into a project, but it’s been a *great* board for learning and trying out new things. Lots of add-on boards, on board lcd, lots of switches, breakout headers, all kind of pics are supported (about 160 right now), and a really great community on their forum.
    Bought it without knowing much about electronics, and nothing about uCs, never regretted it…

  20. @nes: Mini-ITX means x86. x86 means heater eating an anomalous amount of amperes. So, it’s not the choice.

    About boot… Really, I don’t wait for OS to boot, I just do not turn it off. :)

    Meanwhile, if you think that some PIC or AVR with network interface inside or as additional chip will init normal TCP/IP stack, get address via DHCP and began to respond faster than router board – you are mistaken.

    Of course, if you need some very reduced networking, or do not need it at all, small controllers will be nice. But in that case dev.board is not needed, breadboard will be enough to test your circuit and get ready for final PCB.

  21. Another plug for Parallax Propeller dev boards. These can be had for as little as $25 or so, up to about $150 for the fancy ones with a breadboard and other peripherals attached. They can be programmed in the native .spin language, or in assembly, basic, C, or even drag-and-drop blocks. Running at top speed, the Propeller is capable of up to 160 MIPS.

  22. @nes
    You dont have to wait for Linux boot. If you sacrifice the kernel you can just write your code in C, compile directly for the platform and flash directly to the board right after bootloader (you have all the hardware data like addresses modes mappings in openwrt header files) instead of flashing openwrt and saving your python script/universal ARM/MIPS/whatever binaries on the flash/usb pendrive.

  23. A plug for the Nerd Kit. It consists of ATmega168, 20 x 4 LCD Module with backlight, breadboard, USB cable, other components, example programs and instructions. Cost is $79.

    As a non-programmer, I put together the kit and was modifying programs in 4 hrs.

    Great support also.


  24. Curious why dev environments and programming languages were not mentioned in this post because they are intrinsically linked? Arduinos C, PIC Basic, Chumby Flash. What about Python, Javascript, .net(gasp) etc…?

  25. I bought a couple of Technologic Systems TS-7300 when someone was selling a bucketload on eBay for about $40 apiece. They aren’t normally cheap but I love these boards! It’s like two dev boards melded to one, one half 200MHz ARM9 with several components (ethernet, sd card, USB, etc) and one half Altera FPGA (another ethernet, sd card, serial ports, VGA). Lots of i/o, boots Linux off SD, easy to upload bitstreams via CPU to enable VGA (own dedicated 8MB RAM for video buffer), extra ethernet, com ports, etc. Much of the bitstream was open-sourced on opencores.org.

    BeagleBoards are nice, esp. with that DSP, but don’t often see <$200 boards with CPU and FPGA.

  26. Well, yes, microcontroller board is important.

    What is more important is off-the-shelf add-ons and off-the-shelf libraries for add-ons. You cannot beat Arduino here – it has shields for everything you can think of, and free open source libraries for them.

  27. @Stanson: I only mention ITX as I replaced by OpenWRT running Belkin router with a 600MHz Via C3 running Debian about 6 months ago. Power draw is not significantly greater and I get about three times the CPU power and none of the limited memory headaches. An Atom ITX board can be had for about $60, less a DIMM and a PSU, but it’s 4W max for the CPU + about 20W for the chipset much of which can be disabled once you’ve got your OS running. I admit I never switch mine off either :)

    @rasz: I never thought to try that but would be interested to give it a go. The thing is, I can’t imagine how a useful networking stack would work without an OS. A kernel with a smaller memory footprint which doesn’t need to be decompressed before it can start up would be good.

  28. TI has the market on cheap dev boards for beginners, but if you’re looking to do some real prototyping and think the single processor might not fit the bill, Parallax has the best multi-processor chip on the market. USA USA!!! They are based in California and work closely with builders and the community to ensure their products are what we want and can use. http://www.parallax.com and look for propeller, it is their high-end multi-core beast!

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