Sunday, August 10, 2008

Arduino Hardware Spinoff Comparison Guide

The Arduino platform is great for many things, but recently there's been a large number of spin offs, especially at the low-end of the spectrum. New entrants like the Sanguino, and the Skinny have come on to the scene to supplement older spinoffs like the Boarduino, Freeduino, and the Bare Bones Board.

This is all terribly confusing, so I've tried to write a little run down of each of the major spinoff core boards, and how they compare to the original.

(EDIT: Paul made a really good point - this review is especially written with a perspective on how well the spinoff boards interface with different shields out there. Actually, each one has it's own special niche right now that it's meant to serve. On the other hand, I think shields are really cool, so this is written from that "editorial bias" - ha!)

Arduino and Arduino Diecimila
Score: ***** (5 out of 5 stars)
The original Arduino, easy to program, comes pre-assembled, and is pin-compatible with all major shields available from liquidware, ladyada, and libelium. It's assembled, works out of the box, and can start running sketches and programs almost immediately. It's a blast to program, and downloading programs to it is really easy. By comparison, this board is a couple bucks more expensive than the other boards, but since it's pre-assembled, it's more than worth the few extra pennies. The biggest downside is that the name, "Diecimila" is perhaps one of the hardest words ever to spell (luckily Google is nice and usually suggests the correct spelling)!

Score: **** (4 out of 5 stars)
An early spinoff from Arduino, this project wanted to keep all the benefits of the Arduino without paying name royalties to the Arduino founders. Consequently, they came out with a cheaper, lower end board that retained most of the features of the Arduino. Most notably, this board is also pin-compatible with the Arduino, so it works with all shields. The downside, of course, is that the builders were a little design-challenged, so the board doesn't look as "finished" as the original Arduino.

Score: ***+ (3.5 out of 5 stars)
A newer version from the guys over at Sparkfun, the Skinny is a curious little device. It doesn't support auto-reset programming, so programming the device might be a tad bit more complex than others on this page. Also, it's a slightly different form factor, that comes without pin towers, so a small amount of soldering is required. Personally, the red color is a little prettier than the blue of the Arduino, so that's a plus, but the downside is that it doesn't support any shields out of the box. It remains to be seen whether it would work with shields after a little soldering. The jury's out still on this one, but it could be a promising device if someone can find a way to make it support shields.

Score: ***+ (3.5 out of 5 stars)
A version of the Arduino that only plugs into a bread board. This board is meant to be a basic, entry level board, which typically comes as a kit. Unfortunately, I'm a beginner, so it took me a while to solder the thing together, but for others, here's a link to the do-it-yourself soldering instructions (thanks Jimmy). This version works well if you're interested in doing old-school breadboard lab-type projects on a budget, but for other new projects, the Arduino works better for me... Lastly, I give this one a slight edge for its slim form factor, which works well on breadboards, it's native habitat!

Bare Bones Board
Score: *** (3 out of 5 stars)
An interesting entrant into the mix, this one comes a little cheaper than the Arduino, but the funny thing is that it costs almost as much as the Arduino when fully assembled. The downside is that although it's about the same size as the Arduino, the pins are in completely different locations, so none of the shields made will work with this board... That's unfortunate :(

Score: ** (2 out of 5 stars)
Sold only as a kit (yet another kit!), the main purpose of this board was to introduce a more powerful board based on a bigger Atmel. However, the thing is quite big (maybe a little unweildy), and requires assembly as well. Gaging from the pictures, this one probably takes a few hours to assemble, which likely isn't worth it for the marginal increase in power. If it were up to me, I'd hang tight for the upcoming higher powered Arduino from the core team, currently being designed by David Mellis!


Unknown said...

"but typically comes as a kit so you need a PhD in soldering to put it together (good luck)!"

we stock this kit at MAKE, i've seen hundreds of people including small kids assemble the boarduino.

what do you mean you need a phd to assemble the kit?

Brent Marshall said...

One board I'd add to the list is the Arduino Nano. I've been using this since June, and enjoy its breadboard compatibility. The underside blue LED indicating power is a nice touch too. The only thing I have against it is the labeling of the pins isn't as clear as the Dec (I can't spell it either!).

Severino said...

Interesting article... I have lots of thoughts here.

I agree with Phillip, there's no such thing as a PhD in soldering... but I do feel that it is a hassle to get out my iron and solder kits.

The Skinny Arduino didn't work out for me, because I need a special USB cable to program it and it didn't work with any of my shields.

The original Arduino is my personal favorite, you plug it in and it works.


Matt said...

Hey Phillip - I guess you're right, I just exposed my beginner-level at soldering! I tried my luck, but so far didn't get too far. But I'll take your word for it, and I'll adjust the rating and my comment :)

Matt said...

Hi B - thanks for the recommendation, I'll add it up there too. I think I have to make a second follow-up post on all the smaller micro mini's that are coming out too, like the Wee over at Sparkfun (which looks like a lot of fun too).

WestfW said...

Hmm. Your listing of the motivation for "freeduino" isn't too accurate. The main problem (from my perspective, anyway) was that at the time the project was originated, the offical arduino project was two versions ahead of their released CAD files, which wasn't very "open source." (The arduino team has since published diecimila CAD files, so the point is a bit moot now...)

Also note that the "Freeduino" name doesn't carry ANY naming restrictions, so there is no particular way to tell whether a particular board calling itself "freeduino" is a shield-compatible arduino-clone, a completely different layout that is "arduino-like", or even a completely incompatible product. Other than shopping carefully.

WestfW said...

BTW, a "Bare Bones Board" fully assembled and shipped, is about $27, while a real Arduino is closer to $39. That's a pretty significant difference, and it gets better if you hit the quantity discounts...

Motivation wise, the BBB was the first board aimed at protoboards and/or lowering the cost of the "run-time" environment...

Unknown said...

I just discovered Sanguino today. It's true that a new, more powerful Arduino is in the works but I really doubt it will have 2 UART, 32 I/O pins, and 64K memory to mention a few. I built one on a bread board in under 20 minutes and I consider myself a noob. This was the second Arduino I've built on a bread board so you know it can't be that frack'n hard. I'd give it 3.5 stars. Half a star down for kit only (that will change as time passes, obviously) and a whole star down 'cause you gotta know how to run a text editor and how to copy files. But I don't have a PHD either so I may be off the mark.

paulb said...

Hi Matt,

If the BBB is overpriced and incompatible with shields, what do the Nano and Lillypad get, 1 star?

Some people like the BBB because it's easy to use sensors, with ground, and +5V utility holes. It's smaller than a Diecimila, and it plugs into breadboards, where a lot of things actually get designed, and education happens. Compare some photos of a handful of LED's and a pot hooked up with a Diecimila with the same setup on a Bare Bones Board.

As to the price, I have two comments. As westfw said - 25 isn't actually the same as 35, roughly speaking, and it's around the same price as a plastic project box, seen elsewhere.

Do I need a board with the Arduino form factor? Sure. Does every board need to be engineered to work with the shield concept? Obviously the nano guys, and others don't think so.

The shield manufactures could make it clear too that any of these things can work with ANY board if the user can figure out how to hook up three or four wires usually.

While I certainly don't want to get into a grudge match with you, a cynical person might interpret your rating system as a indication of how well the given boards interface with shield boards.

Matt said...

Hey Paul!

It's been a while since we met up last. Actually, you bring up a really good point... I was thinking totally about how the different Arduino spinoffs interfaced with shields like the ones Ladyada and liquidware sell... I'll change the text so it's clear.

Hope everything's going well!