Electronics

Which Hobby Development Board?

Raspberry Pi Arduino Uno
Written by Amy Woolsey

Development boards vary in capability and cost, from a single task super inexpensive board to a full featured mini-computer for hundreds of dollars and many options in between. As I am just getting started with this hobby, my first question is, “what board do I start with”?

Here’s my wish list:

  • not too expensive
  • not too specific (I’d like to have general purpose capability)
  • expandable (I may not want to spend a lot upfront but I would like to have the ability to add functionality as I get better at this)
  • straightforward to get started and program
  • plenty of documentation and help available

As I searched the web for development boards, the number of options were overwhelming but two consistently popped up that seemed to fit my criteria best, the Raspberry Pi and the Arduino Uno. So I am going to look at both of them more closely and examine how they fit with my wish list criteria.

Arduino Uno Rev3

First up is the Arduino Uno because it showed up as the #1 development board on multiple top 10 lists from distributors. All Arduino boards, unlike Raspberry Pi, are open source board designs that anyone can create. They even have a simplistic version you can create yourself using a breadboard. So when you purchase an Arduino Uno, you’re getting the same board design that meets the specifications and the schematic provided by Arduino no matter whether the manufacturer is Arduino, OSEPP, SparkFun or someone else.

So why choose one manufacturer over the other? The differences lie in the quality of the components and construction of the boards. In fact, as long as the components are compatible with the design requirements, manufacturers can use any component to develop their version of the board. It’s like buying a screwdriver. You can buy any Phillips head screwdriver and know that it’s going to work on any Phillips head screw. But how cheap is that screwdriver and how long is it going to last? Is it going to get stripped out easily because the metal used was too soft, or instead, will it help you loosen even the tightest screw for years to come? So if you find a particularly inexpensive Arduino Uno board you may want to consider the trade offs between expense and quality.

Now lets see how the Arduino Uno Rev3 (their latest model) stacks up against my wishlist:

  • not too expensive (Prices always change, but I put the prices as of the date of this article, because they give you a general idea)
    • Arduino’s model of the Arduino Uno Rev3 cost around $20 on Amazon at the time of this article. The cost of SparkFun’s Arduino Uno today is $24 on their site. You can also purchase an Arduino Uno starter kit for about $26 on Amazon (at the time of this article) to go along with your board. This kit includes an amazing amount of items to start with, like a breadboard, switch, motor, LCD screen, LEDs and more.
    • The Arduino does require that you interface with it via a computer to write the software and upload it to the board.
  • not too specific (I’d like to have general purpose capability)
    • The Arduino Uno has an onboard micro-controller that can be programmed with a multitude of operations along with accessing the onboard interfaces such as GPIO, serial ports, etc.
  • expandable (I may not want to spend a lot upfront but I would like to have the ability to add functionality as I get better at this)
    • By accessing the onboard interfaces you can connect to all kinds of sensors, modules and displays, making it perfect for someone who wants to try out new projects.
    • Arduino Uno also has expansion boards known as shields. These stackable shields add hardware functionality to the base Arduino Uno board.
    • Fun Stuff I found on Amazon compatible with Arduino Uno to get me started
  • straightforward to get started and program
    • Arduino Uno Getting Started Guide is pretty straightforward. The instructions go something like this:
      • Either use their web cloud based development environment or download a local version of the IDE (Integrated Development Environment) so you can program while offline.
      • Connect your board to your computer using a USB cable
      • Install board drivers
      • Upload your first program
    • Because the Arduino boards function similarly, your knowledge will transfer from one to another, although there do seem to be some differences.
    • The Arduino Uno can handle all kinds of operations but it only runs a single program at a time. That program can be simple or complex and include many different operations. If I want to add different functionality to my Arduino project, I need to either change the current program or install a new program. This is very different from the Raspberry Pi that runs an operating system and enables me run multiple programs independently.
    • The Arduino Uno programming language that is used is called Sketch, and it is based on the C programming language so a lot of the C and C++ libraries that have been built through the years will work on Sketch.
  • plenty of documentation and help available
    • Arduino has been around for many years, so there are hundreds, if not thousands, of articles about their boards and projects that can be developed using them.
    • The Arduino website is well written and includes a lot of documentation. It also includes a lot of project recipes to help me get started.
    • There are also sites like Instructables and ElectronicsHub that have lots of fun projects to create.

Raspberry Pi 3 B+

Now let’s talk Raspberry Pi, which, unlike Arduino is not completely open source, therefore you will not find a bunch of different manufacturers for it, however it is sold and redistributed by various companies so you are likely to find different prices. Raspberry Pi is developed today solely by the Raspberry Pi Foundation, a charity focused on making computer learning available to the world.

Let’s see how the Raspberry Pi 3 B+ (their latest model) fits with my wish list:

  • not too expensive (Prices always change, but I put the prices as of the date of this article, because they give you a general idea)
    • At the time of this article, I found the Raspberry Pi 3 B for around $37 on Amazon.com. I also found a Raspberry Pi 3 B+ kit for about $50 on Amazon that includes a lot of fun electronic components to get me started. Starter kits are also on sites such as Pimoroni, ModMyPi, Adafruit, and CanaKit.
    • The Raspberry Pi may cost more than the Arduino Uno but if you consider that you could add a monitor and a keyboard to it and browse the internet (or whatever), that’s pretty remarkable.
  • not too specific (I’d like to have general purpose capability)
    • The Raspberry Pi 3 B+ is a computer designed to teach people how to solve a myriad of problems using electronics. It is highly functional and probably capable of being the base of just about any electronic project I can think of.
  • expandable (I may not want to spend a lot upfront but I would like to have the ability to add functionality as I get better at this)
  • straightforward to get started and program
    • The Raspberry Pi 3 B+ is technically a small computer. It runs an operating system like Linux or Raspian (their own operating system), so there are a lot more options and/or complexity when it comes to writing and running your programs. Since it’s an operating system, you can write programs in just about any language you prefer. You can even write shell scripts.
    • Raspberry Pi can run multiple programs at the same time. So, for me, the benefits of this include:
      • Keeping my programs nice and light
      • Keeping the system clean. It’s easier (for me anyway) to remove an entire program knowing that it won’t effect any other program that I am running. Conversely, with the Arduino Uno, that can only run one program at a time, I’d have to remove a part of a bigger program and hope nothing breaks.
      • Similarly, you can add a program without touching any of the other programs that are running.
      • As I am learning, I can try different styles of programming with each new program that I write without changing the existing program.
  • plenty of documentation and help available

Conclusion

This has been a fun and informative exercise for me to dive into these two very popular development boards for hobbyists and look at their similarities and differences. Given the low cost of both of them, and that they can both use the same electronics, I plan to give both of these boards a test drive and see how I like them.

For projects that are dedicated to a specific task (even if it’s complicated), I like the Arduino Uno. For example, if I created a robot that ran around the house, sensed if it was going to run into walls (or the dog), gathered temperature measurements in each room and reported the information back to a server where the information is stored and returned to its charging station when it ran low on power, then the Arduino looks like a good fit. It has one base function, to be the brain of my bot. I can still have a lot of functionality but it is dedicated to my bot.

If instead my desire was to create something more complicated, that perhaps ran or controlled a fleet of my bots, and I wanted to run my robot fleet while also controlling other unrelated projects, then the Raspberry Pi may be the best fit.

I hope you have found this article helpful. If you have any comments, or helpful suggestions for people just getting started, please feel free to provide your advice below.

About the author

Amy Woolsey

Amy is a creative go-getter who brings more energy to the table than a morning cup of coffee.
 
She found a home in the Technology Industry where, for approximately 2 decades, she developed innovations and helped other innovators make their ideas a reality. A few years back she made one innovators idea a reality by orchestrating the creation of a Maker Lab in the middle of a global corporation.
 
Today, her energies are focused on reaching a wider audience of innovators while expanding her technical knowledge with hands on electronics application development. She is a co-creator of Woolsey Workshop, a place of Learning, Making and Teaching.

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