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MAKE Asks: is a weekly column where we ask you, our readers, for responses to maker-related questions. We hope the column sparks interesting conversation and is a way for us to get to know more about each other.

This week’s question: Between Arduino, Raspberry Pi, Beaglebone, and a whole host of other products that are used to marry computer programming and electronics, there’s often confusion about what to call them. Should they be kept in their own categories: computer-on-a-chip, microcontroller, embedded system? What do all these terms mean, anyway? Or should we just keep a catch-all phrase for them all?

To reduce confusion, I am for calling them all “prototyping boards.” It describes what they all do fairly accurately, it’s just that they all do them differently and/or better or worse. It also eliminates any debate over naming, when really we should be focusing on the hardware itself.

Post your responses in the comments section.

Michael Colombo

In addition to being an online editor for MAKE Magazine, Michael Colombo works in fabrication, electronics, sound design, music production and performance (Yes. All that.) In the past he has also been a childrens’ educator and entertainer, and holds a Masters degree from NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program.


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Comments

  1. Thing is, prototyping is only one of the functions of especially the Raspberry and the Beagles. Those can be used as Internet access devices, if you run mainly the Web browsers available.

    Oh, and thank you for not calling them minicomputers :)

    I myself consider them as mini-PCs, although the Arduino might not be powerful enough

    1. Me says:

      I would say prototyping is the only real function of an Arduino. To get the same thing it only takes an Atmega chip plus 3 support components (1 support component if you use a resonator, slightly less precise than a crystal). I wouldn’t leave an Arduino in a final project, it isn’t worth the cost.

      Then again, I don’t use a real Arduino even for the prototyping. Usually I just use a BBB, sometimes I just start out right with the chip on a breadboard if my BBB is already in use elsewhere. I can see where one might be convenient for prototyping though, if you want to pay the extra cost of buying all your accessories in a compatible shield format.

      Just my two cents…

  2. Me says:

    One of these things is not like the others,
    One of these things just doesn’t belong,
    Can you tell which thing is not like the others
    By the time I finish my song?

    — Sesame St

    I don’t call that combination anything. …Except maybe a pile of stuff that I want. The last two are single board computers. I might call them hobbyist grade single board computers to differentiate them from the way more expensive stuff that has been available for decades.

    Arduino I would call a hobbyist level microcontroller dev board, not to be confused with the expensive things that have been available to professionals for decades. (I can’t imagine why pro-dev boards are so expensive, it’s just a board with a serial converter, voltage regulator and a socket with a chip in it that will eventually cost pennies in an actual product right?)

    I wouldn’t ever lump these two categories together because I wouldn’t use the power of an SBC for a task that could be done by a microcontroler and vice/versa wouldn’t be possible. Also, writing a sketch vs working with an actual operating system… very different environments.

  3. Jason Doege says:

    Development boards are what this sort of thing are traditionally called. Should we call them something different simply because they are being marketed differently? Maybe so. I dunno.

    1. Bruce says:

      Agreed; why the need to rename dev boards? Maybe the name is just not hip enough? Or sounds too intimidating somehow?

  4. Rapid Prototyping Devices (or Rapid Prototyping Platforms).

    These devices *can* be used in production, but that isn’t what they are designed for. They are designed to support rapid iterative development while experimenting with solutions. In the software world, we would call these “Proof of Concept (POC)” projects. They are cheap to make, quick to produce, but not robust enough for deployment into the wild – the understanding is that a POC will be discarded once you have proven the viability of a design and embark on the development of that actual product.

  5. Chris says:

    I call them development boards as well. Traditionally people have put development boards in projects permanently as well as used them to make prototypes etc. Why rename them when the name fits so nicely?

  6. I usually call them “Physical Computing Platforms” because they generally have a means of accessing their I/O easily for use with sensors and actuators and are generally intended for that purpose. Unfortunately this tends to get abbreviated down to PCPs, but that’s not so bad because there’s really no plural when you’re talking about the drug.