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Alternative Microcontroller Platforms for Your Projects

October 26, 2018 by Robin Mitchell

Discover the alternative types of single-board platforms available for use in projects.

Raspberry Pi, Arduino, and PIC are all frequently-used platforms for projects using microcontrollers, but it can get somewhat tiresome constantly hearing about them. In this article, we’ll be learning about some lesser-known platforms that makers can consider in their place.

Adafruit Circuit Playground Express

The Adafruit Circuit Playground Express (CPE) is a single-board microcontroller platform that would be a great alternative for makers.

The board is round in shape and has large gold contacts that allow the board to easily connect to other devices using crocodile clips.

It’s powered by a 32-bit ARM Cortex M0 processor and contains the following peripherals: 

  • 10 NeoPixels
  • 2 MB SPI Flash 
  • A sound sensor 
  • A light sensor 
  • IR transmitter/receiver 
  • Temperature Sensor 
  • Magnetic Sensor 
  • Accelerometer 
  • Mini Speaker 
  • 2 Pushbuttons 
  • Hardware Devices such as UART and I2C. 

A notable feature of the Adafruit CPE is that it can be programmed using an online IDE instead of using written code—which uses jigsaw pieces that represent actions and conditions that can be fitted together. 

Flashing the CPE is very easy with the help of the included USB and enable the user to drag-and-drop compiled files directly into the CPE. 

The Adafruit Circuit Playground Express (CPE), image courtesy of Adafruit.

Particle Photon

When it comes to IoT projects, the Particle Photon gets the job done. 

A small microcontroller board (similar in size to the Arduino Nano), the Particle Photon features:

  • A Cypress BCM43362 Wi-Fi chip
  • An STM32F205 ARM Cortex M3 core (running at 120 MHz)
  • 1 MB Flash 
  • 128 KB RAM 
  • A soft AP setup

While it lacks sensors and peripherals, it’s extremely simple to connect the platform to Wi-Fi networks through a compatible computer and configure its network settings from there.

Programming the Photon is also an easy task, considering the Photon’s IDE is entirely cloud-based. It can be flashed over the internet—which won’t require programmers or cables to change the user program.

The language used to program the Photon is nearly identical to the Arduino IDE and most naming conventions are the same, including for digital port access and delays. This makes it possible for projects designed to run on other platforms to port to the Photon without coding changes.

A Particle Photon, image courtesy of Particle.

BeagleBone Black

While the Raspberry Pi dominates the single-board computer market, there are other reasonable board options available to designers.

For example, the BeagleBone, a computer built through a Texas Instruments, DigiKey, and element14 collaboration. 

The BeagleBone Black is powered by an AM3358/9 SoC and has the following parts:

  • A Cortext-A8 Processor (running at 1 GHz)
  • A PowerVR SGX530 GPU
  • 512 MB RAM
  • Micro HDMI output
  • 2 USB inputs

The BeagleBone also includes these standard peripherals:

  • UART 
  • PWM
  • LCD Controller 
  • GPMC
  • 2 SPI
  • 2 I2C
  • A/D Converter
  • 2 CAN Buses
  • 4 Timers
  • An FTDI USB-to-serial converter

Like the Raspberry Pi, this board can be used to run various operating systems like stretch IoT and Debian. However, what does differentiate it from the Pi is that it has a high number of GPIO pins (up to sixty-six). 

Note: GPIO pins operate at 3.3V, can be an interrupt or provide input and output support.

A BeagleBone Black development platform. Image courtesy of BeagleBoard.

WeMos and NodeMCU 

WeMos and NodeMCU are single-board microcontrollers that take advantage of the ESP8266 and are ideal for Wi-Fi projects. 

The WeMos D1 R2 board is similar in form to the Arduino Uno and can be used with many Arduino shields. While the NodeMCU board is also similar to the Arduino Nano, it’s somewhat larger.

Both the WeMos and NodeMCU can be programmed through USB and compatible with Arduino IDE. However, WeMos is more fitting for larger, prototyping projects and the NodeMCU platform is suited to small, portable ones.

Since both devices can use Arduino software, programs written for the Arduino range of boards can be easily ported to an ESP8266 and equipped to connect to the internet.

These development boards are also incredibly cheap, easily integrated into projects, and are well-supported thanks to numerous online forums and tutorials dedicated to them.

Another advantage of ESP8266 based boards is that they can be programmed to run MicroPython—which is convenient if a project requires a board change using the language. 

A NodeMCU DEVKIT 1.0, the WeMos Mini Pro, WeMos Mini Light, and D1 Mini. Images courtesy of Vowstar [CC BY-SA 4.0] and WeMos Electronics.

Cypress Pioneer PSoC 4

The Cypress PSoC 4 is a development board that is capable of connecting to various Arduino shields but offers some major advantages over an Arduino. 

At the core of this board is the PSoC 4 chip which is made up of the following components:

  • 32-bit ARM Cortex M0 Processor 
  • 256 KB Flash
  • 32 KB SRAM
  • RTC
  • USB
  • CAN Controller
  • Programmable Blocks
  • ADC
  • 8 Timers
  • 4 Serial Blocks 
  • GPIO Pins

The board itself contains a number of useful features like including a PSoC 5LP for programming, a CapSense slider, RGB LED, and Arduino compatible headers.

A standout feature of this board is that it uses an onboard PSoC 5LP instead of a USB/Serial connection for programming processors and directly debugging applications.  

These capabilities make it easier to find bugs and allow users to build more comprehensive projects. 

A Cypress Pioneer PSoC 4 Kit. Image courtesy of Cypress.


Robin Mitchell

Graduated from the University Of Warwick in Electronics with a BEng 2:1 and currently runs MitchElectronics.

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