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Why an Arduino Gift Might Make Your Holiday Shopping Easier

Why an Arduino Gift Might Make Your Holiday Shopping Easier
by Tom Simon on 12-18-2014 at 7:00 pm

If you happen to still be looking for a Christmas gift for a tech savvy youth, the answer to your search may be an Arduino. This funny sounding word is the name for a family of easy to use low cost circuit boards and related items used to build projects that contain a microcontroller. With an Arduino it is possible to build projects with sensors, LEDs and many kinds of servos or motors. Add-on ‘shields’ share common pin-outs that let you easily connect these devices.

Arduinos have become extremely popular for hobbyists and educators ever since their open source hardware and development tools became available. Not only can you buy an Arduino from the Arduino Project that started it all, but also there are dozens of companies that offer boards that are fully compatible or are modified in some way to enhance their capabilities.

The free Arduino development environment works with all of them and there are several go-to boards that are excellent starting points. For a beginner the most standard board is the Arduino Uno – look for Rev 3. A quick search on Amazon or Ebay will turn up a number of choices for this board. Some of my favorites are from Osepp, Seeed Studio or of course the one built by the Arduino Project itself. Near me, in California, retailers such as Fry’s Electronics stock them. So there is still time to pick one up.

The board can be programmed by downloading the free development kit from and connecting the Arduino to your computer with a USB cable. The board runs bare metal code that is stored in its on-board flash memory. Whenever power is applied the code will run. Most people’s first program will simply blink the LED that is connected to the D13 digital output/PWM pin.

The development environment uses GNU C ++ under the hood. But its interface for development is simple and works ‘out of the box.’ There is a library of functions for reading and writing digital and analog pins, as well as for using some of the specific features of the Atmel AVR series microcontroller that is the heart of the system. Online there are abundant resources, including source code for drivers and libraries for many sensors and devices. A large user base also makes finding answers to technical questions easy.

Serial data can be sent over the USB connection back the host PC, when it is plugged in. This can be helpful for debugging or creating projects that connect to a PC computer. But the Arduino is completely standalone and can run by itself. It can be powered by an AC adapter, battery or USB cable. Many people build projects that have an Arduino board ‘hidden’ inside.

It’s worth pointing out that this is not just for kids either. Adult tinkerers will find the simplicity of working with an Arduino refreshing, and a great way to focus on your project ideas instead of learning a complex development tool chain.

Once you become familiar with the Arduino family, you will learn about more powerful versions that use ARM chips or that have built in connectivity through Bluetooth, Zigbee, WiFi or Ethernet, etc. Arduinos can be used for serious applications too. Today they are found inside many 3D printers, CNC machines and many IoT prototypes.

You may find that this is a present for your kids that you find is just as much fun as they do!

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