Resources for beginning Do-It-Yourself microcontroller circuits - links

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Resources for beginning Do-It-Yourself microcontroller circuits - links

Post  Ike on Mon May 03, 2010 2:01 pm

Hi all,

For any of you looking to get into building your own control circuitry (pump speed control, LED drivers and dimmers, syncing your fountain to music, etc) and don't have a lot of prior experience (or if you do and find it frustrating) I thought I would offer some link for getting started with microcontrollers using the same resources that I used to get started.

Acronym
MCU = Microcontroller
DIY = Do It Yourself

Microchip
Home Page

First thing's first, you're going to need a MCU. There are a ton of different brands to choose from when selecting your own processor but my personal favorite are PIC chips from Microchip. Why are they my favorite? They're the most popular chip for DIY electronics and best of all YOU CAN GET THEM FOR FREE!. Yes that's right, free. Microchip offers free samples of most of their chips that anyone can request. You can ask for up to three chips of three different types of MCUs for a total of 9 MCUs! I'm not sure if they put a limit to how often you can request samples but I've done it at least three times space out over a year or two.

Next, you need to pick an MCU. If you look through Microchip's catalog of MCUs you're going to get overwhelmed very very fast. They have a ton of different kinds. So if you're looking for an easy one to start with I would recommend the 16F88 in the PDIP package Link Its a decently simple chip but has a lot of functionality that you can grow into. The other big benefit is that its the spiritual successor to the 16F84 which is a chip that probably has more tutorials on how to use it then any other MCU out there. Just google 16F84 and you'll have pages and pages of tutorials. The one thing that the 16F88 offers over the 16F84 is that it offers an internal oscillator so you don't have to buy an external one and have very little surrounding circuitry needed to get your 16F88 working.

Programming and test boards:

MikroElektronica
Main Homepage
Programming Languages
Development Boards
Forums

MikroElektronika is probably my favorite resource for MCU programming. Why? They offer two very helpful things that will take 75% of the pain away from getting started with MCU programming.

Programming Languages... FREE! (sort of)
Unless you really want to learn assembly language (which to be honest I would rather be bitten to death by an angry hampster) you are going to need a language compiler. MikroE offers several different programming languages which are much nicer to work with than the standard assembly language. They have BASIC, C, and Pascal compilers. If you're just getting started and have never programmed much before I would recommend going with Mikrobasic as its probably the easiest to pick up.

The awesome thing about Mikrobasic and their other compilers is that they are free to download and use with one minor restriction, you can't make a program that is over 2Kb in size. That might sound tiny but to be honest its is highly unlikely that any of your programs will be anywhere close to that size until you get into really advanced libraries (like USB communication or Ethernet). So the restriction is not really a restriction at all! The demo versions of the languages are full featured versions and work excellent. The layout and tools they offer are fantastic. They also come with a lot of sample programs and libraries which you can look at to get yourself started. Want to use a Graphical LCD and a touch screen for control? They have libraries for that built in with example code already!

For a free compiler they offer an absolutely great place to start programming. They also have a very active forum where you can search for and ask your own questions. There are also several people who have built code libraries that you can use to aid you with complicated tasks (one guy built an entire ethernet library which is incredibly helpful if that is something you want to do)

Test Boards:

One of the things that can be very frustrating about MCU circuits is that when something goes wrong you can't quite be sure if its your program or if there is a flaw in your circuit. That's where MikroE's test boards come in. I have an EasyPIC5 board which you can find if you follow the links above. These boards connect to your computer via USB and have all kinds of test circuits built in already. What this does is allow you to focus on your program and not worry about the finer parts of your circuit wiring. They have LEDs and push button switches available for every pin of your MCU and things like serial communication connectors for talking to your computer and LCD ports for testing out those. They also have external add-on cards that include links to external circuits, GPS receivers, bluetooth, and other experiment boards. I do almost all of my program development on one of these boards and only move my MCUs to a permanent soldered board once testing on my EasyPIC5 is complete. These will save you a lot of frustration.

So, if you're looking to get started with MCUs and want to make an investment for future hobby projects as well as your fountain I fully endorse getting a test board to make your development cycle much easier.

If you have any questions about any of the MikroE stuff let me know and I'll do my best to help out!

Ike
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Re: Resources for beginning Do-It-Yourself microcontroller circuits - links

Post  John on Mon May 03, 2010 3:59 pm

That's what I like about you Ike, you never leave any detail out!!! Thanks for the intro to micro-controller shopping.
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Re: Resources for beginning Do-It-Yourself microcontroller circuits - links

Post  Ike on Mon May 03, 2010 4:18 pm

My extreme amount of detail probably comes from working in the pharmaceutical industry for a while now. If you want to sneeze you have to file 27 different forms with the FDA before they will even grant you a license to research the 50 year effects of your sneeze before you can even inhale. Very Happy

I would definitely recommend an investment in an EasyPIC board. Once I got one it cut my development cycles for my hobby project by at least half. I think I spent a whole week once agonizing over a circuit before I realized one of the leads for a resistor was loose lol. That was one of the clues that it was time to get something that let me more easily draw the line between program errors and circuit theory errors. Its awesome to just be able to plug and go! Plus they have external circuit connectors so you can plug your EasyPIC board right into your Breadboard.

I know what you mean about interupts, they can definitely be a pain! I have a USB oscilloscope I got on ebay that helps a lot with that. I can monitor my inputs and outputs to catch when things start going awry. You can pick up a pretty nice one on ebay for $50-$75. Just make sure you get one fast enough for what you want to do. I think mine is a 40Mhz (more then fast enough) and came from some random Asian company which made me a little nervous at first but it works great and I couldn't be happier. I left it at home in WY so I'd have to get back to you on what brand it is. (Remember Mr. Nyquist when looking at speed, you want to be able to measure at least twice as fast as your fastest signal, so a 60Hz signal needs at least a 120Hz sensor)

If you want some examples of interupts or need some help with them let me know and I can try to give you my two cents worth. I have a AC light dimmer program that uses them in Mikrobasic that I could pass you if you want an example.

Ike
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