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BBC micro:bit product review

While almost all of the electronic distributors, hobbyist sites, and online electronic shops have the BBC micro:bit available for pre-order (officially available starting next July), thanks to element14, we had the opportunity to test, play with, and enjoy one of these boards for ourselves.

Despite reading so much about the micro:bit over the last few months, in just a few hours of playing with it, I discovered more options than expected — something not so common in an incredibly unstable and ever-changing market driven by innovation.

A general-purpose STEM device

There are many other boards in the same price range as the micro:bit — Arduino, chipKIT, and PSoC by Cypress, just to name a few. The difference lies in how hardware and software combine to create a complete environment perfect for teaching. This is not the only factor that makes the micro:bit unique, however.

The BBC Foundation has already distributed more than 750,000 units for free to English schools for children seven years and older, and a meaningful effort has been made to support classes, teachers, educators, and parents through the teaching and learning process.

micro:bit website

link: https://www.microbit.co.uk/

Micro:bit makes many different approaches available to users and supports different levels of knowledge.

Let’s imagine a child who is introduced to the world of microcontrollers, coding, and sensors. The board he owns is more like a futuristic game than a serious electronic device. Step by step, he can learn the principles (or the art) of programming with the code block editor, a graphical context with which he has maybe played. Through a smooth process of his learning curve, the same board becomes a serious microcontroller device that can be programmed in more complex ways via real programming languages, such as JavaScript and MicroPython.
image04

The hardware design follows the same principles. To make many projects, only a few PINs, power, and GND are sufficient. As such, three large PINs, 0-3 V, and GND are always in evidence and easy to connect with alligator clips. 2xAAA batteries are sufficient to power the board and some external sensors or devices (the battery holder is included).

micro:bit with batteries

For more demanding hobbyists, developers, and makers, the immediate next questions are: What about the other PINs? What hardware is on the board?

Information starting from the easiest details up to the complete technical description of the device can be found on the micro:bit site https://www.microbit.co.uk/device.

The portal aims to be a comprehensive reference for the device, programming languages, online editor, and programmer, as well as a clearly explained teacher’s guide and a community for users and enthusiasts.

A reliable hardware device

From reading the PIN description page on the micro:bit site, we know that the board provides the hardware interface with a good quantity of GPIO PINs:

micro:bit pinout GPIO

Some PINs are shared with the LED control columns and rows and become available as programmable GPIO by turning the micro:bit screen off. The availability of the I2C and SPI interfaces is interesting as well. These technical details, together with advanced programming based on Python or Javascript, open the door to seemingly endless possibilities.

Going mobile with micro:bit

Another interesting characteristic of the micro:bit is the on-board availability of some features that are ordinarily add-on features on similar devices:

  • A 5×5 LED display (including a character and sprite generator)
  • Two control buttons, plus a reset button on the back
  • A yellow status LED (on the back side)
  • An accelerometer
  • A compass
  • A Bluetooth low-energy antenna

A very well-designed and complete microcontroller board, I would say.

In addition to the use of the Bluetooth LE device to create projects with the micro:bit connected, Bluetooth is also the alternative to the USB cable for programming the device.

We can connect the micro:bit to a computer with the USB cable to power and program the board. With the Bluetooth LE wireless connection, instead, the board can be programmed with almost any smartphone and tablet.

BBC micro:bit is a project that includes many big partners, including element14, Microsoft, ARM, NXP, and Nordic Semiconductors. The highly skilled Samsung team developed the mobile application characterized by the original and easy way of pairing the mobile device to the board.

To set the micro:bit in program mode, a button sequence on the board is required. On the 5×5 red LED matrix, a pattern appears (depending on the firmware board this is different) that should be replicated on the mobile application. Then, the smartphone (or tablet) will start to search for the micro:bit to carry out the pairing.

Once found, the 5×5 LED matrix will show the six-number PIN sequence to be typed into the pairing screen of the other device.

At the end of the process, a clear confirmation message will appear on the smartphone screen and the device will be ready for wireless programming.

References:

The images and screen captures are property of the author, distributed under license CC 3.0 SA-NC-ND.
Technical details from the BBC micro:bit main site: https://www.microbit.co.uk
Source examples and some notes from the element14 STEM Academy site: www.element14.com

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