First Look: Bean+ Microcontroller Adds Greater Range, Better Battery, and More

First Look: Bean+ Microcontroller Adds Greater Range, Better Battery, and More
The original Light Blue Bean (left) and the new Bean+ (right).
The original Light Blue Bean (left) and the new Bean+ (right).

Back at the end of 2013 Punch Through Design announced what was then called the Cortado, and these days is better known as the Bean, an Arduino-compatible board with built-in Bluetooth LE support. Today Punch Through launched a Kickstarter campaign for their new board the Bean+, and it’s a lot more capable than the first Bean.

The original Bean did a few things that we hadn’t seen before for instance, unlike all of their competitors at the time, it allowed you to load sketches onto the board over-the-air using Bluetooth LE. However the feature that really made the Bean catch our attention when it was announced was that it was going to have the ability to write, and then upload, code directly from your phone over Bluetooth LE.

But while the board shipped on time towards the middle of 2014, it was without the promised support for mobile platforms, and the company took a lot of criticism for that. We’ve followed the board as Punch Through has fixed the situation, with support for iOS arriving at the end of last year, and support for Windows and Android at the beginning of this year.

I’ve used the original Bean in several of my own projects since getting ahold of them last year, and I’ve been generally impressed with the board — the hardware architecture is well thought out, and the Bean library for the Arduino is similarly impressive.

Right now it’s the only Arduino-compatible board (that I know about) that has support for writing, compiling, and then uploading a sketch directly from any sort of mobile platform. But that’s about to change, with the arrival of the new Bean+.

The new Bean+

The form factor of the new Bean+ is a big departure from the original Bean, it comes both with standard headers and two Grove connectors, and while the Bean was powered by a coin-cell battery, the Bean+ has a 600mAh LiPo battery — sufficient to run the board for several years on a single charge.

The new Bean+. The front of the board (left) has standard headers, and two Grove connectors, while the rear of the board (right) has the LiPo battery.
The new Bean+. The front of the board (left) has standard headers, and two Grove connectors, while the rear of the board (right) has the LiPo battery.

Like its little brother, the board comes with an accelerometer, temperature sensor, and RGB LED. However the most interesting thing about the new board is what makes it what it is, Bluetooth LE, as the new Bean+ supports five standard profiles out of the box that could make it very handy indeed.

Just like the original Bean, the new Bean+ can act as an iBeacon, although whether it will support the new Eddystone-URL beacon standard remains to be seen. However the Bean+ can also act as a Bluetooth HID device, allowing it to emulate a keyboard or mouse, and a Bluetooth MIDI device.

Bluetooth MIDI is a new Bluetooth profile supported by both iOS and OS X, by acting as a Bluetooth MIDI device the Bean+ can be used as both a musical input and output device and will work out of the box with commercial applications like Garageband.

Beyond that the Bean+ can act as an ANCS device. It can be configured to receive push notifications from iOS devices, in the same way as the Apple or Pebble smartwatches can, and as far as I know this is the only Bluetooth LE board available to Makers that has access to this capability.

Implementing the ANCS profile means that you can easily use the new Bean+ as part of an Internet of Things device that will take different actions depending on things that are happening in the real world — it could respond to notifications from any of your existing smartphone applications.

Finally the new Bean+ implements to Bluetooth LE Observer role, which enables peer-to-peer communication between two Bean+ boards, and allows the Bean+ to listen for other Bluetooth LE devices that may be nearby.

The range of the new Bean+ is much higher than the original Bean. Due to an onboard RF amplifier providing 14 dBm of output power, it’s predicted to be up to 400m between Bean+ boards, and up to 150m between the Bean+ and a phone. For Bluetooth LE devices, whose range can usually be typified around 10m or so, that’s an exciting capability.

Bean+ accessory boards.
Bean+ accessory boards.

Beyond the new Bluetooth capabilities, the Bean+ Kickstarter also includes the start of a shield ecosystem for the Bean+ with a perfboard shield, and a Grove shield that lets you plug in up to 18 Grove accessories into a single Bean+.

I spoke with Colin Karpfinger — the founder of Punch Through Design — ahead of their launch today, about the new Bean+ and what it means for users of the original Bean.

Does the arrival of the Bean+ mean you’re going to end the life of the old Bean?

All of the new firmware features presented in the Bean+ Kickstarter page (ANCS, HID, MIDI, Observer role) will also be supported by the Bean and released via firmware update a month after the Bean+ ships. 

It’s important to us to continue supporting our existing customers and community. Since we shipped our initial pre-order units, we’ve released 13 new features or updates for free, in the form of firmware updates. If you bought a Bean way back in early 2014, it’s just as useful as if you bought one yesterday, because of our ability to push our firmware updates to devices in the field. 

What’s the big differences between the original and new Bean?

The main differences are: Bigger range (400m Bean+ to Bean+, or 250m to your smartphone), a rechargeable battery with higher capacity, headers and Grove connectors, plus accessories, more GPIOs, and selectable operating voltage (3.3V or 5V).

With the Bean you took pre-orders through your own site, but this time you’re Kickstarting the Bean+, why is that?

Ultimately we think a large part of our user demographic uses Kickstarter and is already familiar with the nature of Kickstarter projects. With the Bean+ we added capabilities that will introduce new customers to our ecosystem. We wanted to do the same thing with our launch platform. 

Where do you see the new Bean+ being used?

Our customers are quite varied. We classify them in 3 groups: Makers, Entrepreneurs, and Corporations. They can definitely overlap; many developers that work at big companies are Makers in their spare time, and  Makers can become Entrepreneurs. We expect the Bean+ to expand those 3 segments. 

The added hardware features and new profiles make the Bean+ useful in a wider variety of applications. 

The Kickstarter campaign for the new Bean+ launched today with the Bean+ priced at $39, and shipping to backers at the start of December. The predicted retail price for the Bean+ is $45. But if you can’t wait for the new Bean+, you can still pick up an original Bean for $30 from our own Maker Shed and get the new features via a firmware update after the Bean+ ships later in the year.

1 thought on “First Look: Bean+ Microcontroller Adds Greater Range, Better Battery, and More

  1. アリプル ヤセル says:

    Thanks for the great review. Is it possible to change the output signal power to reach to different desired ranges?

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Alasdair Allan is a scientist, author, hacker and tinkerer, who is spending a lot of his time thinking about the Internet of Things. In the past he has mesh networked the Moscone Center, caused a U.S. Senate hearing, and contributed to the detection of what was—at the time—the most distant object yet discovered.

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