Getting started with Arduino

I love Make magazine. It captures the excitement and joy of tinkering, experimenting, and modifying things for fun. This is an experience I have had over and over through the years, beginning in my early childhood. I was that one kid that always took all of his toys apart, usually putting them back together with “improvements.”

I have learned so much from doing things this way, probably more than I have learned from books. I am a book lover, but more than that, I am a tinkerer. I’m never content with knowing theory, I have to get my hands dirty and experiment, often before I bother to learn the theory.

It is this very personality trait that caused me to enjoy a book I read this week, Getting Started with Arduino. The book is published by O’Reilly as part of their Make: Projects series. There is also an accompanying website dedicated to the project.

The book begins with a description of Arduino. This is an open source electronics prototyping platform designed for experimentation and learning. It was originally begun as a way to teach designers how to build prototypes of the projects they are designing, along with simple embedded software development. It turns out that is is a really fun-sounding hobbyist platform, too. I’ll get to the “fun-sounding” bit shortly.

The book is written in a way that an interested, but completely inexperienced person should be able to pick it up and read it, comprehend it, and begin to use the platform. I think that is possible. The text gives a clear and easy introduction to electronics without bogging down the casual newcomer in the details. In the long term, you would certainly want to study in greater depth from other resources, but for a person just looking to get started actually doing something, this book is ideal. It describes the Arduino hardware, gives an introduction to programming that is easy to follow and should allow any reader to play along with comprehension.

This is where I was unsatisfied: the software IDE and hardware drivers are easy to install and run on Windows and MacOSX, but not on Linux. There is a link in the book to a page that gives details of how to install on Linux, but it is more complicated and may turn some potential users off of the idea. I know that it’s ironic for a tinkerer to not want to tinker, but remember, the target audience is people who love to get their hands dirty without knowing or having to figure out the details in advance. There are links on that page to instructions for installation in various Linux distributions, but all that I checked were at least one release out of date. As I write this, I’m running the 64 bit version of Ubuntu 8.10, but the most recent Ubuntu instructions were for 8.04. Could I figure it out? Of course, but these missing details are disappointing.

My final evaluation is that the project looks like a lot of fun, and the book really is an enjoyable read. I can think of several uses for the hardware without even trying and it would probably be a blast to play around with. I will watch the project and hope to see the usability and interactability with Linux made/kept more up to date. When that happens, I’m in. In the meanwhile, you will probably find me at the electronics surplus/reclamation shop or the swap meet and garage sales for looking for my potential victims, I mean, experimentation platforms.

12 thoughts on “Getting started with Arduino

  1. As to my final comments, I realize that most people use Windows, and a growing percentage, especially among geeks, are using Macs. I’m not an operating system zealot and don’t wish to disparage those platforms or the author’s choice to support them primarily. I just have a different preference and prefer to put my time and effort into things that work well/easily with my preferred OS.

    🙂

  2. If you load Simple Message System on your Arduino,
    you should get my shell script package. Full IO & PWM
    control. AD scaled to mV and CSV formatted for import
    to most spreadsheets. Now with a GUI via xdialog.
    See . Package is called
    SMS1.tgz.

  3. Arduino is a great project! The Creative Commons licensed schematics are the real innovation. Most people won’t need that of course, but to take the level of openness into the electronics layout itself is a great push forward. Advanced users should be able to use those schematics with open source PCB layout applications like these:

    If the original Arduino hardware that you can purchase doesn’t fit your needs, the open layout schematics give you the ability to customize as long as you share the new layout with the community under the terms of the Creative Commons licensing. Fantastic!

    If you have not purchased any units yet, but you are looking to try your hand at it I would recommend going over to sparkfun and buying the wearable Lilypod starterkit. Lilypod is an arduino based system to make wearable electronics. It uses conductive thread you can sew instead of soldering…that is wicked cool.

    -jef

  4. The book was published October 2008, is it reasonable to expect that instructions for Ubuntu 8.10 would have been available in time for the final drafting of the book?

    And have you subsequently contact the project with updated instructions for Ubuntu 8.10 to add to the arduino website?

    The arduino project does a reasonable good job of getting people started on pretty much any linux distribution. But they can’t be expected to keep up with distribution changes on their own. Linux uses need to ping them with updates.

    http://www.arduino.cc/playground/Learning/Linux

    They even have instructions for Xandros, the leading consumer pre-installed linux distribution. That’s great for all the EEE uses out there who want to tinker.

    -jef”Proud owner of a handful of bluetooth enabled arduino devices”spaleta

  5. Hey, Jef. You have a good point. I hope I didn’t come off as grumpy or frustrated. At the same time, arduino.cc is a website dedicated, not to the book, but to a very live and active project. Maybe there just aren’t many Ubuntu users enjoying Arduino and helping update the site?

    My comments still stand about this being a very interesting and cool project, and I hope my one negative comment didn’t detract too much from the overall positive impression I have of Arduino.

  6. Good to see other Ubuntu users into Arduino tinkering 🙂

    Cheers for the heads up about the book, I’ll have to check it out.

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