Cheap Arduinos

As I continue to explore the world of Arduino, I started looking for cheap Arduinos to use in projects – permanent projects that need a dedicated microcontroller. Once you’ve got an Arduino and start having fun with it, you think about things you can build, but you always want one around for prototyping and trying out new ideas, so for permanent installation, you’ll want a cheap Arduino you can drop in place.

Now, since Arudino is open source hardware anyone could get the parts themselves and assemble and use/sell an “Arduino-based” board. This is great, and it’s why I love open source, and it provides many choices. That said, if you are not the “build your own from scratch” kind of person, keep reading for some kits that may work for you.

These are the cheap Arduinos I found, with some notes on each. All of them require some sort of of FTDI connector, as they do not have USB connections. This is fine for boards that will find their way into projects that do not need to be connected directly to a computer, the idea being, you buy one FTDI connector, and you can use it to program all of these boards. Each vendor should also have an FTDI connector for sale, for instance, SparkFun’s FTDI Basic Breakout 5V, Adafruit’s USB FTDI TTL-232 cable, etc. (You will need to figure out the whole 5V or 3.3V thing.) Also worth mentioning is that most of these are kits, which means you’ll need to be comfortable soldering small pieces to make them functional. (Shipping costs you see below are typically estimates, with the choice of the lowest cost.)

Photo from Solarbotics

Ardweeny probably wins the prize for smallest Arduino, as the “board” and the components actually sit on top of the chip! It’s a novel idea, that’s for sure. If you want a super-cheap Arduino to plug into a breadboard, this is it.

Pros: Cheap – under $10, Very small
Cons: You can’t replace the chip*, so if it gets blown, you’re out of luck, No easy way to power it, Requires FTDI to program it

Now, if you want to “free your Ardweeny from the breadboard” you can get an Ardweeny BackPack which provides power, and a few other niceties. It’s $11.95, which makes teaming it with an Ardweeny total more than $20, which doesn’t make a ton of sense to me… It’s a neat idea, but it all seems a little weird.

Maker Shed has it for $9.95 + $6.95 shipping and Solarbotics has it for $9.95 + $6.94 shipping but note that Solarbotics has a $5.00 “handling fee” if you place an order under $30.

Photo from The Makerspace

PicoDuino is another small Arduino. I don’t know much about “The Makerspace” and their web site doesn’t really provide much info on them. I do like their description of the product “We designed the Picoduino to be small, cheap, and disposable so that you can throw it in a project and forget about it.”

Pros: Cheap – just $10, Small, The chip is in a socket, so it is replaceable
Cons: No easy way to power it, Don’t know much about “The Makerspace”

Similar to how the Ardweeny has it’s backpack, the PicoDuino has it’s PicoDuino Shield Adapter, which makes using it in a more traditional fashion a little bit easier. The adapter is $10, same price as the PicoDuino itself.

The Makerspace has it for $10.00 + $5.00 shipping.

Photo from Modern Device

Really Bare Bones Board (or RBBB) is a step-up in the small/cheap Arduino world. It’s got an easy to connect power jack, a socket for the chip, and the board itself is a bit “customizable” as far as the size you want it to be.

Pros: Affordable – under $13, Power jack, Customizable board size, Chip is socketed
Cons: Still need an FTDI connection (maybe)

I really like the specs of the RBBB. Also note, you can buy one fully assembled for $22.00 if that’s more your style.

Modern Device has it for $12.95 + $4.00 shipping, and The Shoppe at Wulfden has it for $12.00 + $2.00 shipping.

Photo by ladyadaSome Rights Reserved

BoArduino comes from Adafruit Industries, and looks to be pretty similar to the RBBB with perhaps just a few more niceties and features.

Pros: Affordable – $17.50, ICSP header, “No-Wait” bootloader, “protection” diode
Cons: A bit more expensive than the other options

Adafruit has it for $17.50 + $3.99 shipping. (Occasionally Adafruit offers 10% discounts on kits, so if you’re lucky you could get it for $15.75, which would just get you in under the $20 barrier including shipping.)

(Note that Adafruit also has a USB version of the BoArduino, which swaps the DC power jack for a mini-USB connection and comes in at $25.00)

Arduino Pro Mini
Photo from SparkFun Electronics

Arduino Pro Mini comes from SparkFun Electronics and it’s damn small. In fact, it’s miniature! It’s also not really a kit, as it comes assembled (you just need to add header pins.) The chip is surface mounted, so it’s non-replaceable. Again, size is the #1 feature of the Pro Mini.

Pros: Affordable – $18.95, Small, Really Small
Cons: More expensive than the other options, non-replaceable* chip

SparkFun Electronics has it for $18.95 + $4.41 shipping. (That’s the 3.3V version. There is also a 5V version.)

(Note that SparkFun also has the Arduino Pro which is just a dollar more, and comes in 3.3V and 5V versions as well, but at almost $20 and a surface mounted chip, I’m not as interested in this one.)

Photo by Windell H. Oskay, www.evilmadscientist.comSome Rights Reserved

Diavolino comes from Evil Mad Science, and it’s red, and has flames. The Diavolino does not come with a socket for the chip, so add another $1.50 or so if you want one. As for power, you can get a battery pack for an extra $1.00. There’s an extremely detailed assembly guide which I think any beginner would be comfortable following.

Pros: Cheap – $13.00, Nice power options
Cons: Large, No socket included

Evil Mad Science has it for $13.00 + $5.55 shipping.

So that’s my quick rundown of cheap (non-USB) Arduino boards. It should be noted that almost all of these get cheaper as you buy more of them. For instance, the RBBB is $12.50 for one, but just $9.50 each when you buy 10 of them. Also, while it makes the most sense to use an FTDI cable to program these, for any of the boards that use a socketed chip, you should be able to pull the chip, put it in a USB-equipped Arduino, program it, and then return it to the non-USB board. In theory anyway… Note that I also didn’t really talk about what model these are based on, most appear to be based on the Duemilanove or the slightly older Diecimila. How you use it will determine if this matters much. All boards mentioned use the ATmega328, though many show outdated photos with older chips on their product pages, so always read the specs!

And if this isn’t enough, take a look at the spreadsheet of many more Arduinos, which may be slightly dated, but is definitely a nice long list.

(Update: When I say something is “not replaceable” it may be better to say “not easily replaceable” at least by a beginner. — Thanks to Milwaukee Makerspace for pointing this out.)


Cactus Wireless Flash Triggers

I picked up a set of Cactus Wireless Flash Triggers from Gadget Infinity many months back, and never got to review them. Now seems like a good time…

The first thing to know is that they are cheap. This is the good part, and the bad part, depending on how you look at it. In the photo studio at work we use Pocket Wizards. They are high quality wireless flash triggers that work properly every time. They’re also about 10 times the cost of the Cactus triggers. If you are a professional photographer who wants close to 100% reliable operation, Pocket Wizards are the choice. (At least, that’s what every review tells me, as well as my limited experience using them.)

Of course for the Strobist on a budget, you’ve got to get started somewhere. I did a lot of reading in the Strobist group on Flickr (and elsewhere) on the Cactus triggers, and finally decided that for under $35 I should find out for myself. I ended up ordering the V2s (version 2) triggers as the v4 (version 4) triggers were not available at the time. (These triggers are also often called “ebay triggers” as you can get cheap, wireless triggers on ebay quite easily, but I did order directly from Gadget Infinity.)

My first tests involved putting in the batteries and pressing the “test” button on the transmitter. I’d press the button maybe 50 times, and it would make the LED on the receiver light up maybe 30 times. Not exactly great. These were all at close range too, so distance was not a factor in these tests. I then connected the receiver to an old Sunpak auto 433 D and took some real photos. Again, the results were good but not great. It would fire most of the time, but on occasion it would go maybe 4 or 5 times in a row without firing. The distance for these tests was maybe 25 feet.

Cactus Wireless Flash Triggers

Cactus Wireless Flash Triggers V2s with a new Panasonic CR2 battery. Inset shows a rubber band to help keep the battery cover in place.

I did a bit more reading of reviews and comments around the web (there’s a great one here, by the way) and one comment I found mentioned that replacing the batteries would help with the reliability. I ended up getting some new batteries from DealExtreme, a 5 pack of Panasonic CR2s for under $7.

A new battery in the receiver made all the difference for me. I’ve been shooting with a Sunpak auto 144 D and a Sunpak auto 433 AF with good results. Again, keep in mind that I’m not a pro doing half-day photo shoots with models, but just a guy who wants to learn more about off-camera lighting techniques on a tight budget. (I’ve tested the triggers with our studio strobes via a sync cable plugged into the receiver, and that works great as well.)

Just for fun I tried the “test” button again to light up the LED on the receiver, and out of 200+ tests, I only saw the LED not light up twice. Much better results than before the new battery was installed.

Keep in mind, these are the V2s models, not the newer V4 models. I’m actually pretty satisfied with the v2s for now and see no need to upgrade to the V4s. With everything right in the world, the V4s should be an improvement on the V2s’ but things are not always right in the world.

If I had to sum up it, I’d say the Cactus Triggers are “good but not great.” They’re definitely a good value, and a great way to get started in off-camera lighting. Heck, even if you do have Pocket Wizards or another well-known name in wireless triggers, these Cactus triggers might make a cheap backup solution in case of an emergency.

(Just a note, I actually have the V2s model, not the V2. I believe the V2s is a newer version of the V2.)


One Year with the Asus Eee PC

It’s been a full year since I got an Asus Eee PC, so I thought I would review…

We can start with my first impressions of the Eee PC.

Throughout the year the little computer has served me well. It’s almost always in my backpack and ready to use. Being just 2 pounds is a definite plus for something you always carry around. Lightweight is definitely a top feature. As for battery life, well… I really expected better. With wifi on, I typically see under 3 hours, which isn’t great, but again, small computer = small battery, so I can live with that. The power adapter isn’t too big, so I always carry that around as well. The battery does seem to drain more than it should in sleep mode, so I typically turn if off when not in use.

Asus Eee PC

Connecting via wifi was only an issue at my own house where I had a weird setup (which I’ve since fixed) and anywhere else it worked fine. One annoying issue is disconnecting an external monitor/projector. The Eee PC thinks it’s still there and you can’t see the parts of the screen you want to because it assumes some higher rez display is there, it’s annoying, and worse case, requires a reboot to fix. (I’m used to the way the Mac dynamically deals with monitors being connected/disconnected and does the right thing.)

As I wanted a unit that “just worked” (as much as a Linux computer can) I stuck with the default Xandros OS on it. I contemplated trying Ubuntu a few times, but things like “recompile the kernel for wifi to work” or other such warnings turned me off. Besides, for the way I use the thing, I didn’t think I’d see much benefit from a different OS.

So after one year how am I liking the Eee PC? There have been a few small issues, but none I couldn’t deal with. For the price, it was worth if. Of course today you can get a much better little PC for even less money. It served me well through Web414 meetings, and BarCamps, and anywhere else I needed a computer on the go. (Unless I needed Mac-specific applications, in which case, it was totally useless.) The screen is small. I’m glad to see that 1024 pixels wide is what the newer machines are using, as 800 pixels just doesn’t cut it. All in all, I’ve been pleased with the Asus Eee PC. (I’ll be following up with another post specifically about how I hosed it all up.)