The 9 Best Arduino Starter Kits
The Open-Source Electronics Revolution
Arduino-compatible boards can be made without royalty payments and programmed using a library of open-source development tools.
Back in the halcyon days of the 1970s, when the term "hacker" referred to people who programmed for the sheer joy of it and microprocessors were something new on the electronics horizon, software was given away free and hardware was cheap, aimed at hobbyists who assembled computers in their basements and garages. The result was a period of innovation that led, through the work of enthusiasts like Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, to the interconnected world of today, something that wouldn't have been possible if these young hackers hadn't been able to get their hands on inexpensive motherboards. That allowed them to move computing from universities and corporations into the domain of ordinary users, who didn't have hundreds of thousands of dollars to spare or room for a mainframe in their home offices.
The Arduino project, founded at the Interaction Design Institute in Ivrea, Italy, aims to revive that spirit of affordable innovation by making hardware and software designs available to anyone who wants to create or program an electronic microcontroller system — a computerized brain that can control automated devices of all kinds. Arduino-compatible boards can be made without royalty payments and programmed using a library of open-source development tools.
An Arduino-compatible board consists of an Atmel AVR microcontroller or comparable central processing unit, various sensors for inputs for detecting lights, sounds and other forms of radiation, and outputs for controlling complex machinery. Coding an Arduino device is usually performed through the low-level Wiring development platform or the simpler, visual-arts-oriented Processing language, though other languages are available, often for free. These languages can be expanded through libraries of code written in C++. Arduino boards even have their own integrated programming environment that provides all of the tools a developer needs, including an editor and a debugger. The software for Arduino programming is available for Windows, Macs, and Linux, so that any desktop computer can work with the boards.
Why Would You Use An Arduino Board?
The Arduino platform provides an ideal way to learn how microcontroller hardware and software works, from the bare-bones level of logic circuitry to the high level of abstraction that compiled and interpreted programming software provides. Using the Arduino architecture, you can bootstrap your personal skill set from a total ignorance of electronics principles to that of a high-level hardware hacker, in the classic sense, who can build not just computers, but computer-controlled robotic machinery. Arduino is primarily used as a microcontroller system, a cybernetic way of adding intelligence to machinery, from microwave ovens to robots. A knowledge of Arduino coding is invaluable as a gateway to a career in electronics, but can also make a great hobby for tinkering around in your den.
But you can start out small and work your way to more ambitious goals.
A primary advantage of Arduino kits is cost. Because the hardware that they're based on is so common, the kits tend to be inexpensive and allow you to take a chance on a hobby that you may or not find to your taste — or to teach your children about electronics without worrying that you'll max out your credit card getting them started. Of course, Arduino kits also tend to be expandable. You can buy more cables, sensors, and servo-motors depending on the size of the project you choose to tackle. But you can start out small and work your way to more ambitious goals.
The modern world of digital electronics may seem intimidating, but it's actually based on a simple set of logic rules and voltage levels. A solid grounding in these rules is both a way of making the interconnected universe around you seem less intimidating and of giving you at least a chance of making a contribution to that universe yourself. An advantage of Arduino hardware is that you don't even necessarily have to know what you plan to do with it. Just start assembling circuits and writing code. The possibilities are vast, and as you discover what the circuitry and software can do, you'll begin to see possibilities for invention and creation that had never occurred to you when you started out. Then again, you may have a very specific project in mind, with its boundaries limited only by your imagination.
What Is The Value Of An Arduino Kit?
If you're the kind of person who's memorized the inventory at your local Radio Shack, you might be able to create Arduino hardware from scratch on a breadboard, but a good Arduino kit will provide you with the parts and the instructions necessary for building microcontrollers with little more than a screwdriver and an Allen Wrench, if that. These days, electronics kits are more likely to snap together than to require soldering or taping wires.
And if you wind up as one of those colonists on Mars, don't be surprised if your equipment is powered by Arduino boards.
What can you expect to find in the box when you open a kit? At the very least, a breadboard for assembling circuitry, a power source, connectors, USB cables, LEDs, servo-motors, and a host of sensors for everything from electromagnetic radiation (light, infrared, ultraviolet, radio waves) to water levels. Some come with tutorials in PDF or video form. Further tutorials are available online.
Free Arduino software is readily available on the Internet. Take a look at Arduino's own website to get a sense of the possibilities.. These resources come not just from electronics enthusiasts, but from a worldwide community of students, professionals, artists, programmers, and anyone else who's found a use for Arduino hardware in their work or hobby.
The days of Wozniak and Jobs aren't over. Just ask inventor Elon Musk, who started out writing games for the Commodore Vic-20 and went on to build electric cars and rockets that may one day fly colonists to Mars. An Arduino kit won't turn you into Elon Musk, but it may start you on the road to a career in advanced electronics. And if you wind up as one of those colonists on Mars, don't be surprised if your equipment is powered by Arduino boards.