Next up is the PICAXE microcontroller.
The PICAXE is made in the United Kingdom
and a lot of its users are based there. This is
of little consequence though, because you
can buy them from US-based vendors (like
SparkFun) and support forums on the web
consist of people from all over.
What I love about the PICAXE is the
wide variety of chips it can contain —
everything from the tiny eight-pin to the
mighty 40-pin units. Regardless of the scale
of your next project, chances are there’s a
PICAXE to fit your needs. There are several
kinds of boards, as well. There is a small
eight-pin prototyping board which costs about $4. On the
other hand, there are some really large boards for mega
projects, like the 40-pin style which is about $30.
The smallest PICAXE is the 08, which was later replaced
by its superior cousin, the 08M. An 08 sells for about $3,
making it ideal for smaller projects that don’t require as
much code and horsepower. The 08 can support about 40
lines of code, so you will need to trim down your scripts to
fit. The PICAXE team is clever since they design many of
their boards with hobbyists like you and me in mind. For
instance, their Axe023 board has a built-in H-bridge 1A
motor driver (the microcontroller can control motors for
things like robots), so making a device that can putter
around is really simple.
Another great thing about the PICAXE is that all you
have to pay for is the hardware. Once you have your chip,
all the software and documentation is included. PICAXE has
three manuals in .pdf format on their website, and each
one provides a wealth of information — more than enough
to educate any user on the intracacies of the PICAXE
development tool. The software editor is straightforward
and easy to use. Just type the code and click “upload” to
load it onto the chip that’s connected to your Mac or PC.
All the code for PICAXE is written in Basic, and is not
hard to learn with practice and the available manuals. I find
Basic to be the ideal language for hardware; it’s a breeze
compared to other languages like C. PICAXE code is pretty
straightforward. You still use all the things other languages
have (like loops), but you can do it with a lot less effort.
About three lines of code can give life to any hardware you
have connected to your chip.
There is a very active user group for the PICAXE.
On their forum ( picaxeforum.co.uk), users share ideas
and help each other out on a daily basis; this gives the
beginner the ideal support he or she needs.
My PICAXE recap:
- From an aesthetics perspective, PICAXE has some
rather ugly boards (orange and black are so last year).
Our last microcontroller to look at is the loveable little
blue board that has scaled the microcontroller ranks to find
a special place in the hearts of thousands worldwide: the
Arduino. The Arduino differs from the PICAXE and the
BASIC Stamp families quite a bit. In fact, it runs off a
completely different chip. Both the BS and PICAXE run on a
PIC chip. The Arduino is powered by an ATMega.
Only five years ago, the Ardunio was familiar to only a
few and had a very small group of users. Today, the
Ardunio is one of the most popular microcontrollers in the
Despite its power, the Arduino is great for the beginner
as there is a nearly unlimited amount of documentation.
Even the least tech-savy user will be capable of building
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