FlowCode Graphical Programming

If you’ve ever been curious if there’s a way to program microcontrollers without actually writing software, you might be interested in FlowCode. It isn’t a free product, but there is a free demo available. [Web learning] did a demo of programming a Nucleo board using the system. You can check it out below.

The product looks slick and it supports a dizzying number of processors ranging from AVR (yes, it will do Arduino), PIC, and ARM targets. However, the pricing can add up if you actually want to target all of those processors as you wind up paying for the CPU as well as components. For example, the non-commercial starter pack costs about $75 and supports a few popular processors and components like LEDs, PWM, rotary encoders, and so on.

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$10 Orange Pi 2G-IoT Released to Compete With Pi Zero W

A new single-board computer by Orange Pi has popped up for sale on AliExpress. The Orange Pi 2G-IoT is designed to compete with the Raspberry Pi Zero, and if specs are anything to go by they have done a nice job.

There are a lot of options for extra small single board computers these days and there’s a growing list at the lowest price points. Let’s call it the sub-$20 cost range (to quell the argument of shipping fees). We have seen C.H.I.P., the Raspberry Pi Foundation released the Pi Zero W (an update to the Zero line that included WiFi and Bluetooth), the already available Orange Pi Zero (which was featured in a project on Monday), and now add to that list the unfortunately named Orange Pi 2G-IoT.

The 2g-IoT is sporting an ARM Cortex-A5 32bit clocked at 1GHz with 256MB DDR2 RAM. It’s nice to see 500 MB of on-board NAND to go along with an SD card slot for larger storage. It also has a CSI camera connector, WiFi, Bluetooth, an FM Radio and GSM/GPRS with a sim card slot on the bottom. It is pin compatible with Raspberry Pi’s almost standardized GPIO layout.

All this for $10 is quite impressive to say the least, especially the addition of GSM/GPRS. Will it kill Raspberry Pi Zero W sales? We think not. While the Orange Pi’s are great little computers, they don’t have the community support that is afforded to Raspberry Pi products making for less support online when you run into a problem. That’s if you can even get the thing running in the first place. The Orange Pi’s website has not yet been updated to reflect the new release. However if you are interested in getting one for yourself right now, head over to your favorite Chinese electronics supplier.

[via Geeky Gadgets and CNX]

PlatformIO and Visual Studio Take over the World

In a recent post, I talked about using the “Blue Pill” STM32 module with the Arduino IDE. I’m not a big fan of the Arduino IDE, but I will admit it is simple to use which makes it good for simple things.

I’m not a big fan of integrated development environments (IDE), in general. I’ve used plenty of them, especially when they are tightly tied to the tool I’m trying to use at the time. But when I’m not doing anything special, I tend to just write my code in emacs. Thinking about it, I suppose I really don’t mind an IDE if it has tools that actually help me. But if it is just a text editor and launches a few commands, I can do that from emacs or another editor of my choice. The chances that your favorite IDE is going to have as much editing capability and customization as emacs are close to zero. Even if you don’t like emacs, why learn another editor if there isn’t a clear benefit in doing so?

There are ways, of course, to use other tools with the Arduino and other frameworks and I decided to start looking at them. After all, how hard can it be to build Arduino code? If you want to jump straight to the punch line, you can check out the video, below.

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Hackaday Prize Entry: Pocket Serial Terminal

When you have a microcontroller or other microcomputer on the bench in front of you and it lacks the familiar keyboard and display of a modern desktop computer, what do you do when you wish to program it or otherwise issue commands? Unless you are a retro computer enthusiast who longs for a set of Altair-style toggle switches, the chances are you’ll find its serial port and attach a terminal.

Serial terminals, devices containing a screen and keyboard hooked up to send and display text from a serial port, used to be a staple of computing, but as standalone devices, they’re now rather rare. In most cases nowadays using a serial terminal will mean opening up a terminal emulator in your modern OS, Linux, Windows, or MacOS, but there is still a use for standalone hardware. [Kuldeep Singh Dhaka] certainly thinks so, because he’s making an extremely nice portable terminal with an LCD screen.

The terminal emulates a venerable DEC VT-100 terminal, but since it’s built around an STM32F105 ARM microcontroller we’re sure it could emulate other models with appropriate software. It takes either a USB or a PS/2 keyboard, so we’d expect to see it paired with a suitably tiny portable keyboard when it in use. There is no source code available for it yet since this is very much still a project in development that we’re featuring now because it is a 2017 Hackaday Prize entry, but he assures us that code will be on its way and it will be GPL licenced.

He’s even posted a video that we’ve placed below the break of the device in operation, connected to a machine running MicroPython. We’d probably turn off that beep, though.

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Hackaday.io User Reviews Six STM32 IDEs

One of the issues with getting started with any Arm-based project is picking a toolset. Some of us here just use the command line with our favorite editor, but we know that doesn’t suit many people–they want a modern IDE. But which one to choose? User [Wassim] faced this problem, evaluated six different options for STM32 and was kind enough to document his findings over on Hackaday.io.

Many of the tools are Windows-only and at least two of them are not totally free, but it is still a good list with some great observations. Of course, the choice of an IDE is a highly personal thing, but just having a good list is a great start.

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The $2 32-Bit Arduino (with Debugging)

I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with the Arduino. But if I had two serious gripes about the original offering it was the 8-bit CPU and the lack of proper debugging support. Now there’s plenty of 32-bit support in the Arduino IDE, so that takes care of the first big issue. Taking care of having a real debugger, though, is a bit trickier. I recently set out to use one of the cheap “blue pill” STM32 ARM boards. These are available for just a few bucks from the usual Chinese sources. I picked mine up for about $6 because I wanted it in a week instead of a month. That’s still pretty inexpensive. The chip has a lot of great debugging features. Can we unlock them? You can, if you have the right approach.

The Part

For a few bucks, you can’t complain about the hardware. The STM32F103C8T6 onboard is a Cortex-M3 processor that runs at 72 MHz. There’s 64K of flash and 20K of RAM. There’s a minimicro-USB that can act as a programming port (but not at first). There’s also many 5 V-tolerant pins, even though this a 3.3 V part.

You can find a lot more information on this wiki. The board is a clone–more or less–of a Maple Mini. In fact, that’s one way you can use these. You can use the serial or ST-Link port to program the Maple bootloader (all open source) and use it like a Maple. That is, you can program it via the USB cable.

From my point of view, though, I don’t want to try to debugging over the serial port and if I have the ST-Link port already set up, I don’t care about a bootloader. You can get hardware that acts as a USB to ST-Link device inexpensively, but I happen to have an STM32VLDISCOVER board hanging around. Most of the STM32 demo boards have an ST-Link programmer onboard that is made to use without the original target hardware. On some of the older boards, you had to cut traces, but most of the new ones just have two jumpers you remove when you want to use the programmer to drive another device.

The “blue pill” designation is just a common nickname referring to the Matrix, not the pharmaceuticals you see on TV ads. The board has four pins at one edge to accommodate the ST-Link interface. The pin ordering didn’t match up with the four pins on the STM32VLDISCOVER, so you can’t just use a straight four-pin cable. You also need to bring power over to the board since it will have to power the programmer, too. I took the power from the STM32VLDISCOVER board (which is getting its power from USB) and jumpered it to my breadboard since that was handy.

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Understanding DMA

In the world of computers, the central processing unit (CPU) is–well–central. Your first computer course probably explained it like the brain of the computer. However, sometimes you can overload that brain and CPU designers are always trying to improve both speed and throughput using a variety of techniques. One of those methods is DMA or direct memory access.

As the name implies, DMA is the ability for an I/O device to transfer data directly to or from memory. In some cases, it might actually transfer data to another device, but not all DMA systems support that. Sounds simple, but the devil is in the details. There’s a lot of information in this introduction to DMA by [Andrei Chichak]. It covers different types of DMA and the tradeoffs involved in each one.

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