Gadgeteer – Microsoft’s Hardware Hacking Platform You Haven’t Heard Of

Guy McDowell 04-09-2013

Microsoft is still in the innovation business. If you don’t think so, you haven’t heard about Microsoft’s open source electronics prototyping platform called Gadgeteer. You read that right – Microsoft and Open Source in the same sentence. Wanted to build a little invention you had in mind? Maybe you’re already programming C# and would like to work with some different hardware. Are you a technology teacher looking for a platform with which to teach? From the student to the professional, Gadgeteer can help you make your ideas a reality.


For those of you not familiar with the growing field of electronics prototyping platforms, we have dozens of articles, and even guides, on the Arduino Getting Started With Arduino: A Beginner's Guide Arduino is an open-source electronics prototyping platform based on flexible, easy-to use hardware and software. It's intended for artists, designers, hobbyists, and anyone interested in creating interactive objects or environments. Read More and Raspberry Pi Raspberry Pi: The Unofficial Tutorial Whether you're a current Pi owner who wants to learn more or a potential owner of this credit-card size device, this isn't a guide you want to miss. Read More platforms. Each of those platforms has their own strengths, such as Arduino’s massive flexibility through the use of shields, and the Pi’s complete computer convenience right out of the box. However, the Gadgeteer has the power of Microsoft behind it. No matter what you think of some of Microsoft’s products, they do have some of the best minds in technology working passionately for them. I think their sense of awe for technological advances still exists, and they want to infect you with it as well. Let’s take a look at what Gadgeteer can do for you. Maybe you want to take a run at doing some home automation Home Automation Guide With Raspberry Pi and Arduino The home automation market is flooded with expensive consumer systems, incompatible with one another and costly to install. If you have a Raspberry Pi and an Arduino, you can basically achieve the same thing at... Read More , like James Bruce did with the Arduino and Raspberry Pi?

The Hardware

You can get started for around $50 with just a basic .NET Gadgeteer mainboard such as the FEZ Cerebus ($30) and a USB module ($20) for connecting to and powering the main board.


If you decide that you want to try several projects in this platform and get really familiar with it, you might look at one of the starter kits. The FEZ Hydrahacker kit ($299.95) comes with a deluxe mainboard, the USB module and several other modules that you can mix and match for various projects: 4.3″ display with touchscreen, USB Client DP Module, 2x Button Module, LED Strip Module, Potentiometer, Radio FM1 Module, Joystick Module, 10cm IDC cables, LightSense Module, Tunes Modules, Serial Camera L1, SD Card Module, 128 MB SD Card, and a Reusable Plastic Storage Box. If you do any work with these sort of things, you can begin to see the possibilities already.



Already working with Arduino and want to give Gadgeteer a try? There is Gadgeteer hardware that will play nicely with your Arduino hardware. Take, for example, the FEZ Cerbuino Bee ($40). It’s a nice little hybrid of the FEZ Cerebus mainboard with Arduino compatible headers.


Right now there are several board manufactures making Gadgeteer components, such as Love Electronics (UK), Mountaineer (Switzerland), Sytech Designs (UK), and GHI Electronics (US). This is usually a good indicator that there will be hardware support for the foreseeable future.

If you’re looking at creating a custom enclosure, consider 3D printing. James Bruce shares 9 Apps To Easily Make 3D Printable Objects 9 Apps To Easily Make 3D Printable Objects One of the problems with 3D printing is getting a hold of things to print. You can of course download pre-made objects from a variety of places like Thingiverse; but if you want something unique... Read More . From there, your projects could take on any form!


The Software

Microsoft makes getting into the programming end of the Gadgeteer as affordable as it can get – free. What you need to get started is Visual C# Studio 2012 Express. If you have the complete developer’s suite already, that’s good too. You may need to also install the .NET Micro Framework 4.3 Software Development Kit (SDK). Again… free. Saikat Basu shares a bit about the relatively new studio in The Official Launch Of Visual Studio 2012.


If you’ve used any of Microsoft’s programming studios, you know that they really are pretty user-friendly. The learning curve isn’t too steep for even those who have never typed a line of code. The fact that it is a Visual Studio, a fair bit of programming can be done in a drag-and-drop manner. Eventually, you’ll want to jump into the code to tweak things, but this gets you started. If you’d like some tutorials to get you started, Microsoft has compiled a couple for teachers to use with students. How about making a digital camera or a stopwatch? You can be your own teacher! You don’t get the summer off, though.

Once you have those applications installed, you can start looking at the software packages for each module with which you would like to work. There are hundreds of packages, snippets of code, and documented projects to learn and draw inspiration from. That’s just at the one link – search the web for even more. If you’re a bit intimidated by the thought of learning to code, don’t panic. Danny Stieben has an article, 5 Interesting Ways To Learn To Code 5 Interesting Ways To Learn To Code Many people have realized the importance of learning how to code as a life skill. No matter where you go, and what job you have, it’s always seen as in a positive light if you... Read More , to help ease you into it. James Bruce also has a nice two-part article on The Basics Of Computer Programming The Basics Of Computer Programming 101 - Variables And DataTypes Having introduced and talked a little about Object Oriented Programming before and where its namesake comes from, I thought it's time we go through the absolute basics of programming in a non-language specific way. This... Read More .


The Community

The difference between a successful platform and one that lingers in darkness is the vibrancy of the community that exists around it. You might have the best platform on Earth, but without an active community of developers, it sits on the dusty shelf. If you’re a programmer, I’m sure you can think of at least two examples like this.

The Gadgeteer community is actually quite large, very active and it represents the gamut of hobbyists, neophytes, and engineers. In fact, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE, read I-Triple-E), published an article in their Spectrum newsletter by Steve Hodges called, Easy Prototyping With Microsoft Gadgeteer. That lends all sorts of geek cred to the platform.


Microsoft has also stated that they are committed to seeing the Gadgeteer platform grow. A direct quote from the Microsoft Codeplex site states, “It is not unheard of for corporations to open source technology while they walk away from it. This is not the case with .NET Gadgeteer.”


It is not unheard of for corporations to open source technology while they walk away from it. This is not the case with .NET Gadgeteer.

Seems pretty solid to me. What do you think?

The Takeaway

For electronics hobbyists, the Arduino and Raspberry Pi have been the kings of the hill for the last few years. It’s good to have a third option, especially if it is one that carries the support of a world-class team already. I’m not certain, but I suspect that as the hobbyist trend continues to grow, the Gadgeteer platform will become a strong second, or even first option – if people can get over their unmitigated disdain for Microsoft. I suspect that Gadgeteer will open many new ways for Windows-based systems to interact with our environment as well. Will that be a good thing? If it gets people involved in shaping the technology that shapes their world, then, yes, it is a very good thing.

What do you think? Looking to experiment with hardware hacking? Want to pick up a new programming skill? Already working with Arduino or Pi and want to try something else? Or maybe you’re an early adopter of Gadgeteer and would like to let us know about your experience. That’s what we have the comment section for – it’s where the real learning is done.

Image Credits: NashMicro Pong Build via NashMicro

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  1. Anonymous
    September 26, 2015 at 4:15 am

    I just purchased a Fez Cerebus Bee from Mouser and just realized that it's not really an active platform (discontinued in favor of the FEZ Reaper according to the GHI site).

    There doesn't seem to be any download information about it (schematics, firmware, getting started docs, what version of micro .net to use, etc)... the only link on the forum that mentions Fez Cerebus Bee documentation is dead:

    Anyone know if where to download this info?

    • Guy McDowell
      September 30, 2015 at 5:28 pm

      I'd call Mouser or GHI directly to see if they could e-mail it to you, or point you to a download site.

  2. Anonymous
    September 23, 2013 at 8:28 pm

    It's hardware so it can be made to work with whatever you want. Just feed it the right signals and off you go.

    • Guy M
      September 23, 2013 at 9:27 pm

      Yes and no. Yes, strictly speaking this is true. No, if you want to be able to do rapid prototype development.

  3. David
    September 7, 2013 at 5:33 am

    Wonder if these hardware can interface with Mono on Mac/Linux or it only works with official .NET with Visual Studio 2012...

    • Guy M
      September 23, 2013 at 9:33 pm

      You can develop the code in C# or BASIC, if I understand correctly. So if you have a way to code those on a Mac or Linux I would think you'd be fine.

      I'm not completely certain how you would download the code from your computer to the device though.

      For a more definitive answer, you'd be best to ask at the forums on one of the sites listed.

  4. Guy M
    September 5, 2013 at 2:43 pm

    Hmmm, I think that is a GRAND idea! Mr. Jackson Chung, over to you....

  5. Chris M
    September 5, 2013 at 2:28 pm

    I'd love to see that starter kit in a giveaway. And I'd love even more seeing an e-mail saying I won it.

  6. M
    September 5, 2013 at 11:22 am

    Unfortunately, Microsoft is its own worst enemy.

  7. dragonmouth
    September 4, 2013 at 9:17 pm

    Another example of Microsoft's me-too-ism; imitation, rather than innovation. Microsoft's expertise lies in software, not hardware and that is what they should stick to. None of their hardware attempts have been a success, resounding or otherwise. Even XBOX, their most successful hardware, is not making Microsoft much money.

    • Ben J
      September 5, 2013 at 5:34 am

      But that Xbox is a loss leader for them. It is the software/games/subscriptions that pay off for them. Yes this form is just another 'we can do this too" type thing but it will pay off for them in the long haul.

    • C Bailey
      September 5, 2013 at 7:39 am

      I can't find an exact date but it looks like Gadgeteer has been going longer than the Raspberry Pi, although not as long as the Arduino. Microsoft are a truly inventive company, personally I think they just don't market themselves very well.

      If only the Gadgeteer had come along then people would scoff and say "Ha! It's for nerds!"... the Raspberry Pi comes along and people say "Wow! Let's teach the world to program!".

    • Paul
      September 5, 2013 at 11:50 am

      dragonmouth, I strongly disagree. I can verify by having worked with all three platforms mentioned in the article that the Gadgeteer platform is pretty innovative and clearly not just a "me-too" thing.

      The 8-pin ribbon system that interconnects the hardware modules and sensors is pretty innovative, for example. I've never had to turn on my soldering iron once with Gadgeteer, unlike Pi or Arduino.

      For my money, it's *not just* about the Gadgeteer platform / SDK, it's *just as much* about extending the Visual Studio experience to reach the "internet of things" in the long run.

      If I recall correctly, Gadgeteer was started by MS Research back in 2008.

    • Guy M
      September 5, 2013 at 12:17 pm

      I don't know the actual numbers, but I think your average person would be shocked at how many consumer devices have their firmware written in C#, or at least written in one of Microsoft's Visual Studios.
      I see this move as Microsoft's way of trying to ensure there is another generation of firmware and hardware developers out there. It wouldn't surprise me if MS bought some of the start-ups that might result from this platform.

    • dragonmouth
      September 5, 2013 at 1:30 pm

      "your average person would be shocked at how many consumer devices have their firmware written in C#, or at least written in one of Microsoft’s Visual Studios."

      You have just proven my point, Guy. Software not hardware.

      "It wouldn’t surprise me if MS bought some of the start-ups that might result from this platform."
      As part of their 3E strategy (Embrace, Extend, Extinguish).
      MSFT just Nokia's Devices (phones) Division. Let's see how well they do with that or is it going to be another misfire like Zune.

    • Tiago
      September 5, 2013 at 5:16 pm

      Microsoft has been making hardware almost since it started and it is really good hardware. They have just focused on what was profitable at the time:

      Another aspect is that Microsoft is not the only one making hardware for Gadgeteer. It is open source and many hardware companies are making them.

    • Guy M
      September 23, 2013 at 9:36 pm

      "Like Tiago said, the point IS that the hardware platform IS open source. Anyone can make and sell Gadgeteer compatible hardware without any licensing with Microsoft." he types with his Microsoft ergonomic keyboard, and then submits his reply with a left-click on his Microsoft wireless mouse.