6 Best Arduino Alternative Microcontrollers
Since the design of Arduino is open source, there are many clones of the original range available online for significantly cheaper than the official boards. Using a clone board can save you a lot of cash , and these boards do everything that Arduino boards do, but they might still not be exactly what you are looking for.
There are many great alternatives to Arduino out there, all with their own differences and benefits. In this article we will look at some of the cheapest, fastest, and most interesting alternatives to the Arduino range.
1. NodeMCU: The Cheap Arduino Alternative
One of our favorite boards of recent years is the tiny but versatile NodeMCU . Similar in size to the Arduino Nano and Pro Mini, this board packs a few extra punches that set it aside.
The NodeMCU (otherwise known as the ESP8266) can run the familiar Arduino architecture. What makes it more versatile is the ability to program in Lua directly on the board. Combine this with onboard Wi-Fi and a similar pin layout to Arduino boards, and you can see why many consider these miniature microcontrollers to be a powerful alternative.
Alongside this extra functionality, a real benefit here is the price. They are an affordable alternative to most of the Arduino range. We used one in our Wi-Fi controlled PC case lights tutorial, and for almost all DIY electronics projects the NodeMCU makes the perfect ally.
2. Teensy 3: The Fast Arduino Alternative
When talking about speedy alternatives to Arduino, it’s hard to find anything better than the Teensy board range. Now on iteration 3.6, these small boards are similar in form to the smaller Arduino Nano and Arduino Micro boards, but pack a hidden punch.
The latest Teensy 3.6 uses a 32-bit 180MHz ARM Cortex-M4 processor, giving it an astounding level of computational power for its size. The latest release comes with an on board microSD card slot for added on board memory. Teensy are also a viable alternative in terms of cost, with the 3.6 board costing just over $30. YouTuber MickMake has a detailed video benchmarking the board, and showcasing some of its abilities:
As mentioned in the video above, the already beefy onboard processor can be overclocked, giving even more speed to this pint sized wonderboard. These boards have become the go to for many tinkerers as they are compatible with the Arduino IDE using the Teensyduino library. This works in tandem with Teensy’s own loader software to make writing and uploading code familiar to anyone who has worked with Arduino boards.
The Teensy also works as a USB HID device, much like the Arduino Pro Micro. This makes it perfect for builds which require the board to be recognized in this way, like our custom shortcut buttons project.
The Teensy range of boards are growing in popularity, and it’s easy to see why!
3. MSP430 Launchpad: The Low-Power Arduino Alternative
While price and speed are important factors in most DIY builds, power consumption is also a regular problem. Logging devices, designed to be left on site for some time can struggle with sustaining their function even with modern beefy battery banks.
A solution to this can be found in the MSP430 range of boards. Seen as a go-to low power alternative for over 15 years, many users report an operational current draw three times lower than comparable Arduino boards. For a run down of the MSP430, see Ben Heck’s introductory video:
Finally, the chips provided with these boards require few components to act as stand alone microcontrollers in your projects. This means that any development board in the range can be used to upload behavior to the chip before placing it into your projects, cutting down on space and allowing for a greater range of uses.
If power is something on your mind, maybe give the MSP430 a look!
4. STM32: The Multi-Tool
While almost all Arduino like development boards have a wide variety of uses, one newcomer takes the prize for being the most versatile. These boards, also known as The Blue Pill colloquially, are similar in size to the Arduino Nano and Pro Micro. Compatible with the Arduino IDE, they will seem familiar to anyone who has played with Arduino boards before. YouTuber Great Scott! has a great run down of the similarities and differences between the Blue Pill and similar Arduino boards.
As the above video shows, these boards provide a few more options for budding DIY makers, though that is not the whole story. Alongside the standard STM32 boards, ST also produce the Nucleo range.
These microcontrollers all have the STM32 chip at their heart, but come in a huge range of different options. Whether you are looking for performance which rivals the Teensy board, a low power option for battery-powered devices, or up to 144 pins, these boards will have a version perfect for your project. The full rundown of available boards are documented on ST’s website.
Add to this an array of shields much like the more familiar Arduino boards, and you’ve got yourself a swiss army knife of a microcontroller for almost any occasion!
5. PocketBeagle: The Linux Alternative
While Arduino boards are perfect for simple interfaces and physical interactions, sometimes you need a little more. This is where the Linux-based PocketBeagle comes in.
Some of you might wonder why this board is in this list given that it appears to have far more in common with the Raspberry Pi Zero than any Arduino board. While this is true, the PocketBeagle does have some perks which make it a contender.
The PocketBeagle has five analog inputs along with 44 GPIO pins and a microSD slot. This tiny Linux board is incredibly versatile, and has a foot in both Arduino and Raspberry Pi camps.
If you want a microcontroller that works like an Arduino, but has all the benefits of a full on-board operating system, PocketBeagle might be the one you’re looking for.
6. DIY: The Homemade Alternative
If you are looking for a truly custom budget alternative to Arduino, then consider building your own from scratch .
This method is definitely not for the beginner, and the resulting controller still requires a FTDI USB To Serial Interface Cable in order to program the chip. This method is perfect for those wishing to learn how Arduino boards work, or for projects requiring the hardware to fit into a very specific space. In this instance, the stand alone Arduino circuit was used to control a pulsating cube of LEDs , that you can make too!
It will also save money compared to the price of an official Arduino board, but when there are much cheaper alternatives and Arduino clones available now you really need to want to make your own to justify doing it!
Which Arduino Alternative Do You Use?
While Arduino certainly still rule the roost in terms of single board microcontrollers, there are many other great microcontroller boards you can choose from. Since the launch of the first Arduino, there have been many variations on the form, and much discussion as to which type of microcontroller is king.
There are so many options for home brewed electronics projects now, that there will almost certainly be something perfect for your needs. Most importantly, have fun!
And don’t forget about your friends who love DIY projects when a present is due, here are some great gift ideas for Arduino fans :