Like most kids, I had an electronics kit that taught the basics; You could build something more advanced than a radio or a Morse code device. Suffice it to say that the fun didn’t last long when you built all 5 projects. These days, however, modern electronics hardware kits are affordable and the possibilities are endless—all thanks to the wonders of microcontrollers.

Microcontrollers are basically primitive computers — thanks to them, hardware hacking has never been better as it allows complex electronic circuits to be programmed in simple embedded software. These platforms are created, developed, and thriving communities are built around them. In fact, now is the best time to live if you have little interest in electronics.

Let’s take a look at the 5 most popular kits.


The original Arduino was the brainchild of some Italian students tired of expensive and fragmented development kits and the lack of standardized software to program them. They wanted to bring electronics hacking and microcontrollers to the world and used an existing open source programming and development system called Wiring to make that dream come true. The Arduino project itself remains completely open source, which means you can download plans for the board and build it from standard components; this has actually resulted in several Arduino clones that are slightly cheaper.

Like most development boards featured here, it has a range of input and output connections, both digital and analog, allowing users to connect any kind of sensors and actuators (such as motors) in an endless range of devices; combined with custom logic. Arduino works alone or in conjunction with a computer or other devices — it supports a number of communication protocols.

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You can also purchase specially shaped add-ons known as «shields» that sit on top of the main Arduino board, duplicating pins and adding additional functionality such as the Xbee Wi-Fi chip.

I have an Arduino Uno and have written some tutorials here to get you started and also take a look at the Arduino starter kit which contain various electronic components as well as other essentials. At some point, I might even try doing an LED cube like the one below, so keep an eye out for that.

LilyPad Arduino

Designed specifically for wearable e-textile projects, the LilyPad is a tiny, flat, round version of the Arduino — yet fully compatible. Connections and pins are reduced, but otherwise the basic functionality is fairly similar. If you’ve developed and tested your project on a regular Arduino and now want to move on to garment embedding, this is your best bet.

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Other versions of the Arduino are available, such as the Mega with a faster chip, more memory, and more I/O pins, but they’re basically the same — just smaller or larger. If you are considering any of the Arduino models as a learning device, I would highly recommend you go to Kickstarter and help fund the Modkit project, an innovative visual programming software that makes learning C++ easy for learners.

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On the face of it, you’d be forgiven for mistaking the Netduino for an Arduino. Inspired by the success of its Italian counterpart, Netduino may be visually a clone, but internally it’s a different code platform. Built for object-oriented Microsoft . Net C language # and very Windows oriented, Netduino allows you to program at a higher level than is possible with Arduino, where you are essentially working with C++.

Netduino programming requires Visual Studio and Windows, although there is experimental support for the open source C# project, Mono.

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Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of support or a community working on these things, so finding tutorials and projects ready to go will be difficult. Just think really Do you love c# already know a lot of electronics and just want to get stuck in Visual Studio.

Beaglebone & Raspberry Pi

Finally on our list, a step up from microcontrollers like the Arduino, the Beagle Bone and the Raspberry Pi are both Linux embedded devices, although the Raspberry Pi has received the most media attention due to its very low $25 price and rapid adoption in the educational environment around world. Both can have Linux distributions fully installed, and it’s even claimed that the Raspberry Pi can play 1080P video (there’s even an XBMC Linux compiled version for Raspberry).

Both use SD cards instead of bulky hard drives, and while the Beagle Bone is technically superior to CPUs, the Raspberry Pi has a lot more designs and development.

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Why Choose Embedded Linux Over a Microcontroller? The BeagleBone guys say it best:

While pattern-based coding of systems like the Arduino makes it easy to copy and paste simple designs and a limited number of more complex libraries that don’t have much interoperability, 20 years of Linux development has created a vast set of highly interoperable software that can be used and shared without sacrificing the ease of doing things like toggling an LED or switch, or reading an analog or I2C-based sensor.

I would argue that getting your first electronic project up and running with these systems will be much more difficult than with Arduino, but you end up with a lot more options and options.

Do you have a Raspberry Pi, Beaglebone, or any of the other devices listed here? Let us know in the comments about any amazing projects you’ve done. Are you thinking about getting one and maybe we can help you decide?

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