Why Arduino Is a Hit With Hardware Hackers
By Priya Ganapati
July 6, 2010
For electronics hobbyists, the open source chipset BeagleBoard that packs as much punch as a smartphone processor might seem like the key to paradise.
Yet it is the relatively underpowered 8-bit microcontroller Arduino that has captured the attention of DIYers.
Arduino began as a project in Italy in 2005 and since then has turned into an open source hardware movement [ http://www.wired.com/techbiz/startups/magazine/16-11/ff_openmanufacturing?currentPage=all ]. There are thousands of Arduino projects today such as electric meters, guitar amplifiers and Arduino-based gadgets that can tell you when your plants need water.
The Arduino community is at least 100,000 users strong. But it is not alone.
Other open source projects like the BeagleBoard, which is shepherded by Texas Instruments, are trying to win Arduino fans over.
The Beagleboard [ http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2010/06/beagleboard/ ] is a low-power, single-board computer, whose latest version is based on the same 1-GHz ARM Cortex A8 processor that drives the most sophisticated smartphones today. That gives it far more processing power than the Arduino. Yet the BeagleBoard hasn’t hit the same kind of chord with hardware hackers that the Arduino has.
“The BeagleBoard is not for a novice,” says Phil Torrone, senior editor at Make magazine and creative director at Adafruit, a company that sells DIY electronics and kits. “With an Arduino, you can get an LED light blinking in minutes.”
Fundamentally, BeagleBoard and Arduino are two different systems: The former is a single-board computer, while the Arduino is just an 8-bit microcontroller. The BeagleBoard-xM includes a 1-GHz processor, on-board ethernet, five USB 2.0 ports and 512 MB of memory.
What they do have in common is that both represent possibilities: the potential to use your technical and creative skills to make a concept come alive.
Here are five reasons why the Arduino is more popular than the BeagleBoard:
Editing and rewriting is often easier than writing from scratch. It’s the same with electronics. It’s easier to mod an idea than start with a blank slate.
That’s where the BeagleBoard falls short. “It has virtually no example application that you can just copy and hack to learn from,” says Massimo Banzi, one of the co-founders of the Arduino project.
The Arduino has hundreds of projects and ideas that are cooked up and shared by its users. For instance, check out this list of 40 Arduino projects [ http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2009/01/diyers-get-a-tr/ ] that includes ideas such as a Wiimote-controlled Espresso machine [ http://growdown.blogspot.com/2008/04/arduino-and-silvia-two-italians-one.html ], a biking jacket that flashes a turn signal [ http://www.instructables.com/id/turn-signal-biking-jacket/ ] and a wireless electricity monitor [ http://blog.makezine.com/archive/2009/01/tweetawatt_our_entry_for_the_core77.html ] that tweets your power usage.
It’s a chicken-and-egg problem for the BeagleBoard. Unless there are more example codes out there, it is difficult to draw in the audience. And without the audience it is challenging to get enough sample projects into the community.
Cost and Durability
At $30 a piece, an Arduino is an inexpensive investment for someone who wants to try it out. “It’s the price of a few sandwiches,” says Torrone.
Compare that to the BeagleBoard-xM, which costs $180.
One reason why the Arduino is so cheap is because it is easy to clone. The microcontroller is completely open source so the “components are all commodity,” says Torrone.
With the BeagleBoard, hobbyists don’t have the same amount of freedom. They have to work closely with Texas Instruments or its partners, says Torrone.
Arduino is also very resilient. Drop it, smash it and it still stays alive. Add to that its low-power requirement, and the product becomes a must-have for DIYers. An Arduino can run on a 9V-battery for days.
“The BeagleBoard is fast and powerful but that also means lots of energy is needed, which makes it difficult for simple projects,” says Torrone.
A Thriving Community
Arduino’s popularity means it’s easy to get started. Companies such as Adafruit, SparkFun and Liquidware not only sell chips, but they also host blogs that suggest ideas on how to use your Arduino while providing extensive project plans to guide you in completing your creations.
Will Chellman, a student who has played with Arduino for years, says he’s now experimenting with the BeagleBoard. But finding documentation and information to work off is not easy, he says.
The lack of well-documented projects done with the BeagleBoard can be intimidating to new users as well, says Banzi.
“There’s lots of of interesting stuff (about the BeagleBoard) but it is very technical,” he wrote in a comment [ http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2010/06/beagleboard/ ] recently on Gadget Lab in response to the launch of BeagleBoard-xM.
Banzi says BeagleBoard documentation is also scattered and fragmented.
“Parts of it have aged and you spend quite a bit of time jumping from wikis to mailing list to track which specific bit of documentation applies to your board, bootloader etc.,” he says.
Maturity Is the Key
Arduino has had a head start on the BeagleBoard. By October 2008, about 50,000 Arduino boards had already been shipped. That year, the first BeagleBoards started making their way into the hands of hardware enthusiasts.
“The BeagleBoard is just two years old. Since it hasn’t been around long enough, there’s not enough people building apps based on it,” says Chellman.
That’s not to say that BeagleBoard isn’t catching up. Earlier this month, we showed five projects ranging from a videowall to the iPad of ham radios [ http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2010/06/beagleboard/ ] that use the BeagleBoard. There’s also a build-your-own tablet kit that is based off the BeagleBoard.
If DIYers take a shine to it, expect to see more ideas like these.
Simple Is Attractive
With its single-board computer configuration, 1-GHz processing power and the choice of accessories, the BeagleBoard is a creative engineer’s dream come true.
But the same reasons make it intimidating to those who want to geek out on a DIY project but don’t have the technical know-how.
Arduino users point out that it is simple to connect external sensors to the board, and the example codes out there make it easy to get started quickly.
Arduino is a simple system designed for creative people with little or “no prior knowledge of electronics,” says Banzi. “It’s cheap and open source with lots of documentation written in a not too technical language. Above all, it has a very welcoming attitude towards beginners and tries not to scare them too much.”