BBC micro:bit - is it just for education?
In 2015, the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) gave away a
development board called the BBC micro:bit (named after the BBC Micro)
to every Year 7 (11-12 year old) student. The goal was to try to "encourage kids
to learn how computers work, rather than simply consuming media on
them." I do not live in the UK, so I did not get one. However,
they are now being sold commercially. The $15 dollar board has a bunch
of goodies packed in, including Bluetooth, a 5*5 led matrix, two
buttons, an accelerometer, and more! But is it any good? Let's find out!
The box does not give much information as to what's inside. It does say
that a portion of the sales from the micro:bit goes to the Micro:bit
Educational Foundation. Let's open the box!
Inside there is a quick start guide, a "safety guide" which is not very
helpful, and the board itself, packaged in a very strange anti-static bag.
Here's the micro:bit itself! It is quite small. Here it is next to a
Raspberry Pi Zero in a case:
The micro:bit has a Micro USB connector. When I plug it in to my computer,
it powers on and runs a demo program showcasing the hardware. The LEDs are
The demo program is only interesting for a minute or two. Time to try
The quick start guide tells me to go to the website "microbitworld.me". I
try going there, but it seems to not exist anymore. I was able to find
microbit.org. It seemed relatively straightforward to program, it used
Python first. I was easily able to make text scroll across the screen. I
also tried the Microsoft language. I built a sound-effects machine by
connecting my headphones to the alligator clip terminals on the board.
When it came time to upload my code, all I had to do was download a .hex
file and put it onto the micro:bit's internal storage (it shows up as a
I had previously made a program for my Pyboard, which also runs
Micropython, called iSec (different from iSec Capture), which is a
miniature security system featuring a code that would need to be entered
to stop an alarm. A page on the iSec is (hopefully) coming soon! I was
excited to try to port this to the micro:bit, which uses a slightly
different syntax for accessing pins. But how could I put the micro:bit
into a breadboard?
Enter the Sparkfun micro:bit breakout board ($5)! This plugs into the
bottom of the micro:bit and gives you a place to solder header pins. Some
people would be upset at having to use a breakout board, but I like the
idea. If I have multiple circuits that use the micro:bit, I can unplug the
micro:bit from one and plug it into another.
The final feature I want to cover didn't work for me. It was the micro:bit
app. The micro:bit has Bluetooth connectivity, which should allow one to
flash the board from their phone. Since the software development is all
done online, you should not need a computer to program it. However, I was
not able to get the micro:bit to pair. I am not sure if this affects the
"radio", which allows two micro:bits to talk to each other. I am not that
sad that this feature doesn't work, because I would never want to code it
from my phone anyway. I would prefer a real keyboard.
I rate the BBC micro:bit 5 stars out of 5. Here's why:
- The board is very easy to use, and the programming languages
are very well supported.
- The breakout may be a pain for some people, but it allows the
micro:bit to be swapped between different circuits easily.
- The built-in hardware allows one to get started as soon as they
get the board.
- The Bluetooth not working is not a problem for me, as I wasn't
planning on using it anyway.
- Even the board is targeted towards schools, it still is great
for other people.
Here's a comparison between Pyboard and micro:bit:
||$15 + $5 for breakout board
||5*5 LED matrix, two buttons, Bluetooth, accelerometer, compass
||One button, accelerometer, microSD slot, four LEDs, real time
||16 MHz ARM Cortex-M0
||168 MHz ARM Cortex-M4 w/ hw floating
||1048 KB, expandable with microSD
||Antistatic bag, quick start guide, "safety guide"
||Antistatic plastic box, two stickers
|GPIO ports (without hardware attached)
As you can see, the Pyboard is much more powerful than the micro:bit,
but that comes at a price. It is twice as expensive as the micro:bit with
the breakout board! Most projects don't need that much power, so I would
recommend getting a micro:bit instead of a Pyboard if you want to try a
board running MicroPython.