Makers’ Guide to Boards

Boards, Boards, Boards: How to Choose the Right One

Figuring out how to choose the right development board is a key skill for all electronics makers. Despite their various functions and options, development boards and cheap computers are ultimately just specialized tools created to accomplish computational tasks, so choosing them should be guided by the tasks you’re trying to complete.

On the surface, the decision seem fairly easy to resolve: Pick a popular board with a large user community, one that has robust documentation, and that won’t cost more than a quarter of your project budget. That approach would probably be fine if there were only a handful of boards available. But the reality today is that there are hundreds — if not thousands — of devices to select from. Plus, these devices are not only getting cheaper, they are becoming more specialized in design and functionality.

When selecting your board, avoid getting bogged down in the specifications — rather, begin by thinking in broad terms about what you want your project to accomplish. This can be challenging. Finding a good board to learn to code on or blink a couple of LEDs is fairly easy, but determining which device to use for a robot that balances on a large ball entails a more complex set of design requirements. Knowing what features you want from your board will get you farther than selecting a platform just because it has an octocore processor or SATA ports built-in.

Choosing a board in this manner will enable you to quickly eliminate some options. Use this handy guide to help narrow the field based on the category of your project, then find recommendations for boards that should give you a smooth start.

Robotics

Illustrations by James Burke

Illustrations by James Burke

Building a robot is a rite of passage for many Makers. And as soon as you build one, you’ll want to build another that is faster and more feature-packed.

With the demanding requirements of robotics it’s important to find a board that excels at real time processing and has plenty of input and output pins to wire up accessory hardware. Typically this means a board that runs Linux, which supports the Robot Operating System.

Light and Sound

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The largest factor to consider when tackling a light or sound project is the scale: If you only need to drive a few elements, you can get away with using a small number of I/O pins, but driving larger displays at high speeds will likely require the use of more I/O. There are several board options that can help simplify this problem for large and small projects alike. But remember, the boards usually just handle the control side of the installation — most large projects also require relays, MOSFETs, and/or amplifiers to deliver the power to the various lights
and speakers.

Wearables

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Making wearable electronics projects can be a bit tricky. In addition to devising a system for attaching and connecting components to your apparel or accessories, you should consider the actual size of the board and its power and computing requirements. Ideally, you want to use a small, low-profile board that easily connects to a battery for portability, and that can be sewn into a garment. Thankfully, there are microcontroller boards and single board computers that are designed with all of these things in mind, and with plenty of computing power to boot.

Education

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Development boards provide a self-contained computing environment — a very affordable sandbox great for learning how to program. When buying a starter board, be aware that there are two general types: those that run an operating system and those that don’t. Either will work, but if you’re new to coding, a system without an OS might be easier, as they typically only support one language.

Whatever you choose, the key is to dive in and start coding.

Home Automation

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Wiring your home with sensors to monitor conditions or actuate devices is fun, but it’s no small task. A good approach is to divide the project into two parts: one central processing device, and multiple remote nodes for sensing. Both ends of the system require great connectivity, easy remote code deployment, and low power draw.

Since most homes aren’t wired with Ethernet cables, boards with built-in Wi-Fi are almost a prerequisite here. And having a handful of available input and outputs is nice too.

 

The Make: Testing Team

Expansion Boards!

Called Hats, Capes, and Shields, These add-on units can take your Board project to the next level. 

  • MOTOR boards control hobby servos as well as stepper, brushed, and brushless DC motors. Available for everything from small pager motors to units rated one horsepower or more.
  • DISPLAY boards may control a small text or graphic LCD display directly, or they can generate video signals for HDMI, VGA, and old-school composite monitors.
  • AUDIO boards convert signals from a microphone or audio input into digital data, as well as change digital data into audio waveforms for output.
  • PROTOTYPING boards let you permanently connect wires and components to a project.
  • PHYSICAL INTERFACE boards offer general combinations of inputs like joysticks, pushbuttons, or knobs. On the output side, mechanical or electrical relays are pretty typical.
  • STORAGE boards typically have flash memory, often in the form of card slots for SD or microSD cards. Useful for logging data or playing back audio and video to a display.
  • SENSING AND MEASURING boards can measure light, sound, temperature, air pressure, acceleration, rotation, position (GPS), and more.
  • COMMUNICATION boards offer Wi-Fi, Ethernet, Bluetooth, cellular, CAN, USB, XBee, RFID, 1-Wire, etc.

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Expansion Boards!

Called Hats, Capes, and Shields, These add-on units can take your Board project to the next level. 

  • MOTOR boards control hobby servos as well as stepper, brushed, and brushless DC motors. Available for everything from small pager motors to units rated one horsepower or more.
  • DISPLAY boards may control a small text or graphic LCD display directly, or they can generate video signals for HDMI, VGA, and old-school composite monitors.
  • AUDIO boards convert signals from a microphone or audio input into digital data, as well as change digital data into audio waveforms for output.
  • PROTOTYPING boards let you permanently connect wires and components to a project.
  • PHYSICAL INTERFACE boards offer general combinations of inputs like joysticks, pushbuttons, or knobs. On the output side, mechanical or electrical relays are pretty typical.
  • STORAGE boards typically have flash memory, often in the form of card slots for SD or microSD cards. Useful for logging data or playing back audio and video to a display.
  • SENSING AND MEASURING boards can measure light, sound, temperature, air pressure, acceleration, rotation, position (GPS), and more.
  • COMMUNICATION boards offer Wi-Fi, Ethernet, Bluetooth, cellular, CAN, USB, XBee, RFID, 1-Wire, etc.



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