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One of the most important functions of an embedded system is the ability to connect to a variety of external signals. For my smart home energy efficiency dashboard, the signals come from a variety of sensors and use a range of different protocols. Ideally, I’d like to handle these signals in software by creating a custom driver for each signal, or better yet, by configuring an existing driver to connect each sensor. In some cases, the sensors may require additional signal conditioning or interface circuitry to before being connected to the embedded processor board. Sometimes it’s appropriate to use a small microcontroller to provide the interface or signal conditioning. This provides additional flexibility, but also requires programming a second processor. Where possible, I like to avoid programming and debugging multiple computer systems. With that in mind, I’m taking a close look at computing system selection.

Microsoft has teamed-up with six hardware partners provide a range of computing system options with a variety of different feature options. Special pricing is available for non-commercial use as part of the SPARK promotion. These prices vary from system to system depending on capability and included accessories, and each computing system is ready-to-run out of the box. Ready-to-run means different things to depending on your level of exposure to embedded systems. In most cases, these computers are ready for you to load an operating system onto the device via a bootloader. Many of the configurations of the boards are managed through standard BIOS at power-on. With the exception of the VIA Artigo which doesn’t come with RAM or disk storage installed, the computers include the basic components load an operating system and run applications.

Download my SPARK hardware comparison chart and read more about the available hardware features on the SPARK Project blog.

Kipp Bradford

Kipp Bradford is a technology consultant and entrepreneur with a passion for making things. He is the Senior Design Engineer and Lecturer in Engineering at Brown University, where he teaches several engineering design and entrepreneurship courses. Kipp is also on the Technical Advisory Board for Make Magazine.


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Comments

  1. Timothy D. Swieter says:

    Another great post – I wish these could come every day. I did some similar comparisons of hardware a while ago similar to what Kipp did. While researching the Via Artigo though I found a special Spark Kit version that includes the hard drive and memory. I thought I would paste the link here for those that are interested.

    https://store.viatech.com/store/showOrderForm.action

    1. Kipp Bradford says:

      Thank you for providing a link to the Via Artigo SPARK special that includes the drive and memory!

  2. hurf durf says:

    Closed source! Monopoly! BILL GATE$! 640k OF MEMORY SHOULD BE ENOUGH FOR ANYBODY HURRRRRR!

    NO MORE M$ POSTS! Besides all that, they’re taking up room that could be spent on Apple fanboi articles! I love those articles where you unbox the latest technotoy from cupertino….

    1. Phillip Torrone says:

      hey @hurf durf – i posted this on another thread, but it’s worth saying again… i’m not “on duty” at MAKE at the moment (building projects) – but if i were i’d likely ask you take some time off from commenting for awhile, over the span of a few dozen posts all of your comments haven’t been polite or contributed to constructive things on the site.

      there are plenty of sites that encourage bad commenting behavior, we just try and not have MAKE be one of those.

      take a rest, post on digg, youtube, slashdot etc – get it out of your system and come back here and join in to a wonderful world of making things, with cool projects and interesting people.

  3. MKN says:

    I am a bit confused. These posts are very interesting but do they refer to a contest that started in January and that is already finished? Why are these posts only making their appearance now?

    1. Kipp Bradford says:

      These posts are a separate program unrelated to any of the Microsoft SPARK contests. I am working on several of my own hobby projects while exploring the SPARK hardware and software tools in the process. Hopefully other hobbyists will find my exploration useful and informative!

  4. JD says:

    The hardware is all quite expensive for what it is. A TI Beagleboard or Sheevaplug ($200) are cheaper, lower power, and the development software is free.

    This is why I’ve always been disappointed with VIA. Their hardware is awesome, in terms of performance per watt and just a low power overall solution, but it costs a LOT of money. Its almost cheaper to buy an Intel Atom netbook and tear is apart for the mainboard. Oh wow. Just buy a Dell Mini and use THAT for parts. Linux pre-installed, drivers for everything, LCD already, all for $200. There are touchscreens available for an “add-on” too. I’m sure you can probably find the open source projects to accomplish this goal too.

    I love when I accidentally come up with a good solution :)

    1. Kipp Bradford says:

      JD,
      You bring up an important question: what is the appropriate price for hardware in a given project. I specifically left the price out of my post because it’s only one item to consider in selecting appropriate hardware for a project. Frequently it is the only item that people consider. If the Dell Mini works for you, that’s great. If you need something else, like a SPI interface or 40 I/O lines on your motherboard, the Dell Mini might not be the best solution.

      My goal with this post was to explore hardware options that may be unfamiliar to readers, and share the results of my explorations. I appreciate you bringing up the Beagleboard and Sheevaplug. They are solid hardware platforms worth consideration if they have the features that you are interested in.

      Can you share what kind of projects you are working on and what kind of hardware you use (in addition to the Dell Mini)? I put a lot of effort into learning as many of the facts about each computing system, from bus timing to watchdog timer configuration to price, then posting what I’ve learned, but I can really only get the ball rolling and hope that others contribute. I’m happy to see people adding an informed voice so others can make intelligent decisions about hardware selections in their project. Sharing experiences is what this community is all about. I’d also love to know where you got your Dell Mini? I’ve had difficulty finding even used ones for much less than the retail price!

  5. cheap computers says:

    These prices vary from system to system depending on capability and included accessories, and each computing system is ready-to-run out of the box.