How do you pick a board for your projects? Size? Specs? Convenience?
There’s no time like now to make that thing you’ve always been wanting to build, and that’s especially true if your project involves electronic control or some sort of computing need. The latest dev boards on the market are smaller, more powerful and feature-laden, and cheaper than ever.
Software options have also expanded across a broad range of boards to include super-simple blocks and Python-based drag-and-drop methods. Whether you’re building a single, permanent project, or creating proof-of-concept electronics that will turn into a custom PCB, there are many — even limitless — options to get you started.
With so many board options now available, we decided to reach out to some of our high-tech pals to get the skinny on what goes into getting up and running on a new project.
Since a lot of my projects are wearables, I often think of size and weight. I use Adafruit’s Trinket for servo and LED control, Pro Trinket for more than two servo controls, then if I want internet access or online control I go for the Raspberry Pi. For everything else I run for an Arduino Uno or Arduino Nano. [See Odd Jayy’s “My Monkey Companion Bot” in Make: Volume 73.]
I generally choose the board for my project based on the functions I’ll need and the size requirements. I keep on my desk all the basic things I need to whip together a quick electronic prototype. It’s easy to just grab a breadboard and start working out my circuit. I can develop my code at this point too, and transfer it to the final build when I’m ready. When I’m finished with my project, I disassemble the prototype and keep the components in my kit for future projects.
For small projects, my go-to board is the Adafruit Gemma, which is compact, easy to power, and has a convenient on/off switch. I’m also starting to play with making my own custom boards, which was a bit daunting at first, but feels really empowering as a designer. [See Sophy’s “Cosmic Cosplay” in Make: Volume 69.]
There are a few favorites I always reach for:
- Adafruit’s Circuit Playground Express: LED ring, built-in speaker. Good for standalone interfaces and lights, like a DIY lightning cloud.
- BBC micro:bit: 5×5 LED matrix, 2-way radio, lots of programming options. Great for bike/skateboard lights.
- Teensy: A fast heavy lifter, with an audio breakout available. Good for motors and music, e.g., filter pedals.
- TinyCircuits TinyLily: Teeny-tiny, simple, washable. Good for wearables, like my “mind-altering gadgets.”
- Particle Photon: Easy Wi-Fi integration (and beyond). Good for IoT without the hassle of ESP8266, including the brainwave-controlled light I built with Moheeb Zara.
[See Alex’s “AI Robot Owl” in Make: Volume 66.]
I’m always on the lookout for super small microcontrollers. If I see a new one that looks interesting, I’ll buy it “just in case.”
I really like prototyping in CircuitPython, so my go-to boards for small wearable projects are Adafruit’s Trinket M0 and Gemma M0, and I usually have a stash of them on hand. I also keep some ATtiny85 chips around for when I want to make something really small or when I test out a project that won’t let me reuse the board afterwards, like embedding LED circuits in resin. For larger projects where I want sensors, Bluetooth or both, I’ll prototype with a Circuit Playground Express Bluefruit.
In the past, my custom PCBs have mostly been accessories for an external microcontroller, but recently I’ve been creating self-contained PCBs with SMT LEDs and an ATtiny85 controller, powered by a CR2032 battery. [See Debra’s “LED Inner-Glow Heart” in Make: Volume 71.]
Lately most of my projects are written in CircuitPython, so that narrows things down to an M0, M4, or nRF52840 board if I’m using BLE.
I try to not use a board that’s overkill for a project. For a simpler LED project I’ll use a small board, like a Trinket M0, rather than something bigger like a Metro M4. I try to use a board that has as close to the number of pins that I need to try and keep things as compact as possible. This also reduces cost since board price is also
usually related to size.
If I need battery power, I’ll try to use a board that has an onboard JST plug for a LiPo, like the Feather series of boards. I’ll also try and have as many features that I need for a project (Wi-Fi, a screen, speaker, capacitive touch, etc.) built into the board. That simplifies things for assembly and code since there will usually be a dedicated library for those peripherals on that board.
[see Liz’s BLE MIDI Xylophone in Make: Vol. 76]
For prototyping, I usually start with an easy board like the Arduino Uno to check that the circuit and code work. For wearables and tech fashion design, the boards need to be well-hidden, so I look for the smallest capable board.
Then I look at how to power the board. It’s best if they already have a LiPo battery port or coin cell holder — having a USB battery pack is a nuisance. An onboard power switch is convenient. For projects that need conductive thread sewn to the fabric, I need large pin holes that can feed a needle through, like on the Adafruit Flora and SparkFun LilyPad series.
I try to design all the above elements into a custom PCB if I can’t find an existing board that satisfies all the needs. With this, I can also control the board footprint and appearance. [See Kitty’s “Novel Nails” in Make: Volume 62.]
The first thing I do is ask myself the question: “Is there any reason why I shouldn’t use an ESP8266?” This is my go-to board with my favorite flavor being the Wemos D1 Mini-style boards. They are small, breadboard compatible, and can be programmed via USB. They also cost less than $3 delivered so I usually keep a healthy stock of them! It would be a struggle to incorporate its features into a design for less than the cost of one.
Battery needs are one of the main reasons I might use something else. For those cases, I usually select Unexpected Maker’s TinyPICO board. The ESP32 is also a good choice here. For lower powered projects such as badges I usually select something like an ATtiny13 chip, ideal to run off coin cell batteries.
USB HID (emulating a keyboard or mouse) is another feature I use regularly. For this: the Arduino Pro Micro (ATmega32U4) or the ESP32-S2. [See Brian’s “Travel Light” in Make: Volume 59.]
For even more help in your dev board decision-making, consult our Guide to Boards.