For this year’s guide to the best in Arduino boards, shields, and accessories, we asked Tod Kurt to share some of his suggestions. Tod is the author of Hacking Roomba, co-founder of the Los Angeles hackerspace Crash Space, and creator of BlinkM, the “Smart LED.” He used to do web work and build Martian probe cameras. He blogs at todbot.com/blog/. Here’s Tod’s guide to the ever-expanding world of Arduino. -Gareth
Arduino Uno R3 (Maker Shed, $30)
The Uno R3 is the official Arduino board to get if you’re just getting started. If you already have an Arduino, chances are you want another one. Having multiple boards makes debugging easier, lets you experiment with network protocols, and gives you the option of permanently installing an Arduino-based project. You can never have too many Arduinos. No… really!
The Uno R3 is an improvement over previous Unos in only a couple of ways that are important (and only in certain types of projects). Its reset circuitry is better if you’re controlling a high-current device like a motor. Its reprogrammable USB chip has 16kB instead of 8kB, making it easier for the Uno to look like a USB keyboard, mouse or other device to your host computer. If you can’t get an R3, the R2 works just as well if you’re just starting out, and you can easily retrofit it with the reset circuitry fix.
Gameduino Game Adapter Shield (ExCamera, $53)
Getting an Arduino to make video and sound is hard. But not anymore. The Gameduino is one of the most amazing shields to emerge from the Arduino community. It turns the Arduino into an 8-bit gaming console, with VGA output and stereo sound. It’s driven by an FPGA with a custom 16-bit coprocessor that gives you access to 256 sprites on 512 x 512 pixel backgrounds and 64 voices of 12-bit sound. You can recreate pretty much any game from the 1980s now with just an Arduino, a Gameduino, and a couple of buttons.
The Excamera site has numerous examples of how to code your Arduino sketch to take advantage of the Gameduino’s capabilities using the well designed “GD” Arduino library. You can be up with a Arduino-controlled on-screen bouncing ball in a matter of minutes. I’m going to be using one of these to make a full-color video animated status display for one of my projects.
PowerSwitch Tail II (Maker Shed, $27)
Ever wanted to have your computer control Christmas lights? Or a fan or floor lamp? The PowerSwitch Tail makes it a snap and makes it safe. Dealing with AC currents can be dangerous; the PowerSwitch Tail hides the potentially lethal AC switching in a sealed enclosure. The whole thing looks like a stubby extension cord. It has an isolated (to 5300V) low-voltage input on its side that takes a voltage between 3-12VDC. To turn on an AC appliance, you set that input HIGH from an Arduino’s output pin. The PowerSwitch Tail can switch an AC load of up to 15A (up from 10A from the original PowerSwitch Tail), meaning just about any appliance in your house can be controlled with it. Get a bunch and control one per Arduino pin!
Alpha Clock Five Kit (Evil Mad Science, $145)
I like big clocks, and I can’t deny — big clocks you can see when you can’t find your glasses. Sure you can get a cheapie clock from Amazon for less than this kit, but those cheapies aren’t open source and reprogrammable with the Arduino software like the Alpha Clock Five. And this timepiece looks much cooler with its huge 2.3″ retro 18-segment red LEDs, custom laser-cut acrylic case, and lovely PCB. The 18-segment displays means you can display letters (show tweets!) or even make cool “screensavers” for your clock. The Alpha Clock Five kit features clear instructions that walk you through tools needed, soldering techniques, and how to test out the clock as you build it. It might not be a good first soldering kit, but would be a great second kit.
Arduino Cookbook (O’Reilly, available in the Maker Shed, $45)
This is one of the best Arduino books to take you from knowing nothing to several pretty complex practical examples. Some of the higher concepts covered include I2C and Ethernet networks, wireless communication with XBees, and working with graphical LCD displays. This comprehensiveness is reflected in its size, at 662 pages long. The Arduino Cookbook is a good reference to keep handy after you’ve mastered the basics. While the book does use the pre-Arduino 1.0 syntax, the differences are minor and an upcoming 2nd edition (due out soon) will address Arduino 1.0.
MintDuino (Maker Shed, $25)
When you start playing with Arduino, you find yourself wanting to have multiple boards, each doing their own thing. Doing that with multiple official Arduino boards can get expensive. One way to save money is with a DIY version of Arduino built on a solderless breadboard. These “breadboard Arduinos” can be pretty small and the MintDuino is an example of that — it fits in a standard mint tin. The MintDuino comes with everything you need to get started except a 9V battery and USB-to-serial adapter. (see the FTDI Friend below) Once you get familiar with how the MintDuino works, you can build even cheaper Arduino-clones using similar parts you might have laying around.
AVR Sticker for Breadboard Arduinos (Adafruit, $3)
If you end up making your own DIY breadboard versions of Arduino boards or even the MintDuino, having these chip stickers is a big help in mapping between Arduino pin names and AVR chip pin numbers. These vinyl-cut stickers are much higher quality than the homemade versions I created and they will last longer too. You get a pack of 10 for $3.
Plastic Mounting Plate for Arduino & Breadboard (Adafruit, $5)
Keeping a breadboard and an Arduino stable is important in eliminating connection problems between the two. These problems can be annoyingly hard to troubleshoot. This laser-cut mounting plate (with LRF support! — “little rubber feet”) is great for creating a stable platform for your experiments. Setting it up is simple: attach your Arduino with the included screws, stick on your breadboard using its included double-stick tape, and you’re done. It’s an inexpensive way to prevent the headache of a project falling apart. And you can drill into it so it can be used to mount projects to another surface. As an added benefit, the design is open source, with the design files on Thingiverse so you can customize it and cut out your own versions.
FTDI Friend (Maker Shed, $15)
The first thing eliminated from DIY Arduino compatibles is the USB interface. After your project is installed and running, it’s often a wasted part. The FTDI Friend from Adafruit is a USB-to-serial interface you can use to replace that missing part, adding it only when you need it and removing it when done. It uses the same FTDI chip that’s in the original Arduino boards, and it is well-supported on Mac, Linux, Windows, as well as by the Arduino IDE. The FTDI Friend board can be set to 3.3V or 5V communication modes, making it more useful than the official FTDI cable often used. A USB-to-serial adapter like the FTDI friend is also a great tool for non-Arduino tasks too, like putting Linux on your home WiFi router or hacking your Roomba.
USBtinyISP AVR Programmer kit (Adafruit, $22)
If you play with Arduinos long enough, chances are you will eventually blow the AVR chip at the heart of it. Replacement AVR chips with the Arduino bootloader are available but can be hard to find when you need them most. If you build a lot of DIY breadboard Arduinos, having the ability to make your own Arduino AVR chips is useful. And all you need is an AVR programmer like Adafruit’s USBtinyISP. To use it, plug a blank AVR chip into the socket on the Arduino, plug the AVR programmer into the 6-pin connector on the Arduino board, and in the Arduino IDE select “Burn Bootloader.” A minute or so later, you have a fresh Arduino chip ready to use. I keep a stack of AVR chips on hand and make Arduinos out of them all the time for myself and friends.
The USBtinyISP is offered as a kit, but Adafruit has top quality instructions on how to build and test it. And, of course, the programmer’s design is open source and works on Mac, Windows, and Linux.
BlinkM Smart LED (Maker Shed, $14)
Ever wanted a tiny light source that was a specific color or played a specific pattern? Something that could run by itself, without an Arduino? The BlinkM Smart LED is a tiny board containing an RGB LED and a microcontroller. BlinkM can be any color in a 24-bit color space and can play back stand-alone light patterns up to 48 steps long. It plugs directly into an Arduino using only two pins for I2C. The open source BlinkMSequencer app let’s you program the BlinkM’s color patterns without knowing programming. But if you do, there are tons of open-source examples of how to use BlinkM with Arduino, Processing, and other languages. If you need something even smaller, there’s the BlinkM MinM too.
Since the BlinkM uses an Arduino-like ATtiny85 microcontroller, you can treat the BlinkM as a “BlinkMuino.” essentially the world’s smallest Arduino, and run your own Arduino sketches on it. [Disclosure: I am the creator of BlinkM, so of course I think it's great!]
Ultimate Microcontroller Pack (Maker Shed, $150 w/ Arduino Uno R3)
Let’s say you know nothing about Arduino, don’t know where to find all the the various bits you need to get hacking on Arduino. What do you do? You get this pack. If you shopped around carefully, you could assemble everything in this pack cheaper, but that’s a lot of (virtual) legwork. The staff at MAKE have done that for you and put together a nicely curated set of fun sensors and actuators to play with. And they’ve given you enough infrastructure like wires and breadboards so you can actually hook stuff up. You get both a full-sized breadboard, a mini breadboard with a prototyping shield, and a couple of protoboards for more permanent soldered circuits. The pack has a nice collection of different kinds of motors too (vibration, standard DC, two micro servos) to let you play around with the essence of robotics. It’s got some really interesting sensors in the form of tilt switches, force sensors, and thermistors. And, of course, it has the expected compliment of buttons, knobs, and LEDs. If you learn how to use every component in this pack, you should be eligible for an Arduino merit badge.
Prototino Kit (Maker Shed, $24)
Once you have a standard Arduino board, chances are you’ll want to make some permanent projects with it. While you can buy a full Arduino board for each project, that can get expensive. As mentioned above, a “breadboard Arduino” can be built for a few bucks and will run your sketches identically, but the wires will get loose eventually and your project will start to fail. For something more permanent than a breadboard Arduino but still cheaper than a full Arduino, look to the Prototino Kit from Spikenzie Labs. It’s a mint tin-sized board that contains all the parts for a basic Arduino work-alike. but also includes enough protoboard space for custom circuitry. Like other econo-duinos, you will need a USB-to-serial adapter like the FTDI Friend to program it. The Prototino is a good kit to assemble for beginners, so if you know Arduino but don’t know how to solder, give this one a try.
Diavolino Kit (Evil Mad Science, $13)
If you want Arduino compatibility with an Arduino form-factor (for use with shields, for instance) , the Diavolino from Evil Mad Science is inexpensive and gives you the option of making it reasonably low-profile. It eschews even the power supply that’s on most Arduino-compatibles, allowing you to run the board at voltages lower than 5V and some real long-lived battery-powered applications. You can add back in a power supply if you want at a later time. The Diavolino is a good starter-soldering kit too. Its clear instruction manual walks you through tools needed, techniques, and how to test it all out. But like the Prototino, this should be your second Arduino, not your first, so you’re not troubleshooting both hardware and software at the same time.
Our friends at element14 sell a full compliment of Arduino microcontrollers and accessories. You can access the Arduino overview page here. Below are just a few of the items they have available.
Arduino Mega 2560
The Arduino Mega 2560, which replaces the original Mega, is a microcontroller board based on the ATmega2560 MCU. It has 54 digital I/O pins (of which 14 can be used as PWM outputs), 16 analog inputs, 4 UARTs (hardware serial ports), a 16 MHz crystal oscillator, a USB connection, a power jack, an ICSP header, and a reset button. It contains everything needed to support the microcontroller; simply connect it to a computer with a USB cable or power it with a AC-to-DC adapter or battery to get started. The Mega is compatible with most shields designed for the Arduino Duemilanove or Diecimila. -Gareth
Enclosure for the Arduino Duemilanove or Mega w/ Ethernet Shield
Now that you have an Arduino-based project you’re proud of, what do you do with it? Put it in a cardboard box? Your project deserves a durable plastic enclosure. Usually when building electronics projects, you find one of the many generic enclosures and then Dremel it up with holes and cutouts. These usually looks pretty amateurish unless you’ve got a steady hand. This clear enclosure is made specifically for Arduino-based projects and includes pop-out plates covering ready-made holes for buttons, LCDs, knobs, etc.
I think a clear enclosure is better than opaque white because it gives you the option of having indicator lights visible without needing to drill holes. If you want it opaque, here’s a tip for making it look cool and having the paint last a long time: paint the inside of the enclosure, not the outside. The clear plastic will protect the paint and give it a real depth. – Tod
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