This is a re-post of a review I wrote a while ago. I just about managed to back it up thankfully!
It’s the only post from the old site I’ve made the effort to recover on the basis that I’ve had a lot of good feedback for it.
So, I got myself to thinking the other day “I need something to do, something to tinker with” and being a open-sourcey kind of bloke, I figured something like an Arduino board could be fun.
Briefly, an Arduino board is an open-source platform for creating electronic projects. It’s a simple, cheap and easy method for getting to use and control microprocessors, or as the Arduino website puts it:
“Arduino is an open-source electronics prototyping platform based on flexible, easy-to-use hardware and software. It’s intended for artists, designers, hobbyists, and anyone interested in creating interactive objects or environments.”
Which pretty much sums it up nicely.
Choosing a kit to start with wasn’t the easiest of tasks. There’s multiple choices from most of the UK Arduino suppliers. In the end I settled for the ARDX kit from Oomlout. This kit seemed to contain pretty much everything that I needed to get started, a bit of documentation and at a reasonably balanced price.
The stuff came well packaged and wrapped in cardboard, and initial impressions are good. Everything (except the usb cable) comes in a nice, solid, clear plastic case which will be strong enough for if you need to lug it from house to house as I often need to.
The box itself has a big lable on top, which in itself is quite nice, but is brilliant from a beginner what-the-heck-are-all-these-things standpoint as on the underside is a nice schematic of all the compartments of the box, listing their contents and with pictures to help identify some parts. A very nice touch. Some of the components were too big to fit in individual compartments, but the dividers that had been removed to fit them in were included in the box as well, which is good.
The Arduino board surprised me. It’s Tiny. I was expecting something about the size of my hand, maybe a little smaller. A5 paper size. The box it comes in is slightly smaller than a deck of cards. The coin in the image is a 10pence piece (UK) for size reference. It’s really well packaged, the design of the box is really good and contains a leaflet with a bit of information on (warranty, websites etc.) and a set of 6 stickers. The stickers are ace and a really nice touch. It’s sometimes simple things that make a difference. The packaging is quite minimalist, no waste, no fuss, well designed.
The kit contains plenty (and I mean PLENTY) of jumper wires for connecting components on the breadboard, with varying sizes for those long stretches or short hops. 1 big blue, 10 green and 10 red LEDs, with the resistors needed for them to work properly, which will be plenty enough given the scope of this kit. There’s a servo, motor, 9v power connector, plenty of headers in their compartments, nice and tidy. There’s also a bank of components (switches, relay, buzzer, temperature and light sensors, variable resistor, transistors and a shift register) that have been lovingly mounted on a piece of paper and foam. They’ve been labelled on the paper so even a complete novice like myself can get them mixed up, despite the temperature sensor and the transistors looking identical. I think having the components mounted, instead of just slung into a compartment is fantastic; I’d be semi-clueless as to what they were at first otherwise.
Setting up and getting running is incredibly easy. The breadboard and the Arduino board both attach securely to a laser cut and etched piece of acrylic. Including this acrylic is an incredibly awesome thing to do. It keeps the two boards together and with the use of the included feet means it keeps everything safetly off of whatever (invariably mucky in my case) work-surface you’re using. Whoever thought of including this, I tip my hat to you. The breadboard is stuck down with a sticky pad covering the entire of the back while the Arduino board is held in place with two plastic bolts. The included manual says to put these down through the top and have the nut, and protruding bolt, at the bottom. This seems a little silly to me as that means the bolts stop everything sitting flat on the surface. Turning the bolts the other way up solved this problem in a flash
From here it’s simply a case of installing the Arduino software (Fedora14 users note: the Arduino software in the repositories appears to be out of date), instructions for which are given for Macs and Windows PCs. They also give a URL for accessing instructions for installing under linux, which was nice. The manuals are freely available online, which is good, as well as printable versions of the supplied circuit layout sheets. These sheets are for cutting out and pinning to the breadboard with the aim of making it easy for an absolute beginner to get their circuits right. They tell you what cables to place where on the breadboard, where the components should be and which way round they go. This makes getting started and getting your first projects a piece of cake.
The manual goes through 11 projects, from a simple blinking LED to using shift registers and relays, as well as giving a brief overview of how to programme for the board and some more complicated tasks after you’ve built each of the individual projects (such as making the blinking LED fade instead). All of the code needed is all available online as well. A really well thought out detail is the length of the URLs. Everything is available on www.ardx.org/<short path here>. This makes it incredibly easy to type the URL in to find what you’re looking for. All of the breadboard layout sheets, information on the individual components, further programming help and advice, videos of each project being built and where to get help are included in these numerous links
My only quibble with all of this is the length of the USB cable. It’d be nice if it would fit in the box, but given the space and the number of other components I’m really not surprised it wont. It’s only a minor point, but having everything self-contained would be really useful. For laptop-based poking the 2 meter USB cable is excessively long and I’m hoping I can find a much shorted cable from somewhere (or butcher a longer cable). A foot-long cable would do the part for me but the 2 meter cable would probably be perfect for someone who’s working from a desktop not a netbook.
Overall, I’d really recommend this kit to anyone who’s considering getting an Arduino board. It covers everything a beginner needs to know as well as having plenty of bits and pieces to start you off on individual projects for a reasonable price. There are some more extensive or more basic (read:cheaper but less stuff) kits out there but I reckon this one has a really nice balance, some nice touches and is generally really impressive.
PS: I apologise for a) the layout (this is my first review and my first picture heavy post), b) picture quality (the HTC wildfire doesn’t take great snaps)