The new generation of micro controllers

In the good old days, when you needed a controller of sorts, you had two choices:

There were many boards around. Most were based on either 8051 chips (and its derivatives), on the early PIC devices (like the 16C5x range) or on the controller variation of a popular microprocessor. All the ready made boards were expensive. OK, the benefit was that a board would work minutes after it was unpacked. The downside was, that designing and developing hard- and software for a board was half the fun.

These times are over. Due to a minor inconvenience I experienced in 2007, I haven't been active in the field of programmable devices for a few years. Yes, I played along a bit with ETT boards which I purchased in Australia from Futurlec but I had a hard time getting these boards to work, due to both my afore mentioned inconvenience and the fact that these boards were rather aged and mainly intended to be used with Windows.

Since the last few weeks I am back at the scene. And wow, how the scene changed! I started by looking at the Raspberry Pi and later the Arduino. And when on that trail, all kind of new, small, affordable micro controllers and development suites were discovered. Each one will have his own topic in this chapter.
The one you see in the picture here is the PicnDuino board from Brad Slattery somewhere down under. Now this is a very special and novel design as you can read below. A dual core microcontroller for €15!


Raspberry Pi

At a certain moment someone on the Oberon mailing list mentioned about the Raspberry Pi. I took a look to this marvel of engineering but soon came to the conclusion: too big. This is an ARM based Linux machine. This is not a controller. This is a credit card sized mainframe. Also, design and firmware are closed source. Not that I want to change the source, but sometimes it is handy to consult the sources so you can find out how the machine was designed and what the initial setup is.

There are more ARM based "microntrollers" bu\ut most of them are also credit cardsized mainframes. The ARM processor is closer to a 80386 than it is to a Z80. So in fact, most ARM based designs are too big and too powerful. "Big" not as in physical dimensions but more in psychological terms. The instruction set is so huge and unlogical (for me).

At least, that was my prejudice around 2013... It's now 2015 and I have learned some more. So I now am the proud owner of a RasPi 2 B. And I must say: it is a neat computer. A real micro-controlelr too. It has more I/O' than the average PIC controller. But the PIC or Atmel or whatever needs an OS that you yourself will have to make. And you need the peripherals working and and and... And in the end you spent €50 for your PIUC project, whereas the Pi cost you €40 and you goit all the peripherals for free.


Arduino

I played with the Arduino IDE a few years ago but I could not get familiar with it. It's a typical italian design: over-designed and under-engineered. Everything worked but not very fluent. I didn't like the user interface, I don't like sketches or the 'processing' language. The arduino is based on an AVR and I'm more of a PIC man. So it was 'exit arduino' again.
In the meantime I got myself a RedBoard though. It was nice, but not nice enough...

And then my friend Les May came along. He mentioned "The internet of things" and the Contiki operating system.


Pinguino

Looking for something else I found the "Pinguino" boards. Pinguino is the Arduino for Linux but then better. And intended for PIC processors. Pinguino seem to be originated in South America because AVR is hard to get there.
Pinguino claim to sell ready made boards too but all of them are out of stock, apart from a version that you wouldn't want to have. I downloaded the IDE but it seems to run only in Ubuntu (the poor mans Windows), not in Linux.
Looking around on the web I found that Antratek sell Pinguino branded boards. And there I found out that these board are manufactured by Olimex from Bulgaria. I was pleasantly surprised to learn about their PIC32-PINGUINO-MX220 board. That's close to a 80386 microprocessor but then with a logical MIPS instruction set and lots of peripherals. And a price you cannot believe: €10 for a working board! Also take a look at their PIC32-PINGUINO-MICRO board (picture at the right) at €13. Unbelievable.

The pinguino software was a disappointment. The hardware under the pinguino brandname is great. I have two of these boards,


UBW (USB Bit Whacker)

Last summer I ran into the Sparkfun website while there was a sale going on. One of the items on sale was the UBW32 bit whacker. But the UBW (the predecessor) was cheaper so I bought two of these. Don't remember what they cost, but it was cheap enough to buy two. The UBW (USB Bit Whacker) is a nice toy to get you familiar with the PIC series. On the board is:

In essence, the UBW board is a small board that contains a Microchip PIC USB-capable microcontroller, headers to bring out all of the PICs signal lines and powered from the USB connection. Brian Schmalz designed this board to be a simple parallel port replacement tool for some robot designer.

Linux users need no special drivers. Just connect it and access the device. Windows users need a lot of patience and self control to get it working (without giving in to the urge to use a hammer).


USB to I2C interfaces

In the good old days of DOS, you would create an add-on board that would connect to the serial or parallel port and then run some magic to control simple tasks. there were many compilers and programming languages for DOS and the VGA screen and keyboard allowed practical applications.
That all ended when PC makers decided to skip COM and LPT ports from there laptops. No need for serial, when you have USB, was their motto. And that was the end of the hardwrade driven directly from a PC.

But recently I ran into some nice gadgets that bridge the gap between USB and tinkerer. One of them is the UBW (see above) but it is hard to control from Linux. And the other options are in this topic. My first attempt was with an Ebay bought gadget, a USB / I2C interface, based on a chinese chip, the CH341. It failed, but it taught me I needed a similar device based on an FTDI chip.
I found one, made by Adafruit which is a trusted supplier of all kind of electronic gadgets. And the dutch supplier, Hobby Elektronica sells a lot of other Adafruit toys. SO I ordered a bag full of nice, ready made, toys (on 'breakout boards') to play with. Interesting concept. The days of a Linux computer runnig all kinds of tasks are coming back....

And since the AdaFruit FT232H board offers so many purposes and chances, I decided to put it in its own section. Here is the Adafruit section


Chipkit UNO32

After the Olimex Pinguino boards, I discovered the ChipKit UNO32 board. It has a lot of similarities with the Pinguino PIC32 boards. It uses the PIC32MX320F128 microcontroller. This microcontroller has a 32-bit MIPS processor core running at 80Mhz with 128Kb (32 K instructionwords) of flash ROM and 16K of SRAM. For a microcontroller, that's a lot!
Some features of this board:

An all of that, for a fistful of dollars!


DuinoMite

The DuinoMite sets us 30 years back in time. It's a full fledged microcontroller, equipped with PS/2 keyboard port, VGA port and Composite video out connector. So you can work with it, like you used to do in the early 80's when you still had your ZX Spectrum or Jupiter Ace. Yes. You're right. The DuinoMite also comes preloaded with a BASIC interpreter.
The difference between the DuinoMite and your Spectrum of course is the CPU and the peripherals. The PIC32 processor blows away the Z80 and the PS/2 keyboard is no match for the Sinclair keypads. So, in fact you're not back in the 80's at all.

Some features:

And all that for €30. I paid 10 times more for my Spectrum, yet this board is at least a 1000 times more powerful.


PicNDuino

On the Oberon mailinglist (see above) some guy mentioned about his topic on www.kickstarter.com with a PIC board. It was just so-so and most of the other topics on kickstarter looked to be made by the local crackpot engineer, begging for money.

But after looking around a bit more I discovered the PicNDuino project. This is no crackpot engineer, this is a very nice board, with a twist. It has dual processors on one PCB. On one side an Arduino compatible ATmega and on the reverse side a PIC processor. Both processors run simultaneously!

The board is equipped with a USB connector etched in the side. Just plug it in, flip the switches and you can start experimenting with both processors. I liked the idea so much that I ordered one. Less than 20 australian dollars (around €15) shipping included. Now, that's a steal.

Some features:

Get one! The UBW is nice but this one has the benefit of the fun in it as well.


Page created 6 January 2013,

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