The name Arduino has become synonymous with DIY technology. Many people started their journey into electronics and robotics with one. Here at MakeUseOf we have covered their use extensively, from a beginner guide to get you started to more complex projects like a Laser Turret.
There is no doubting the influence these boards have had, but a question remains: should you use a genuine Arduino board in your project? Perhaps not. Here’s why.
1. There Are Better Alternatives
For the sake of clarity, we need to make a distinction. There are officially produced Arduino products, and third party products which fall under the name Arduino as they are based on the official Arduino’s open-source design. They are functionally identical except from the trademarked Arduino name, though clone boards are usually much cheaper.
Lets begin with a couple of practical points. Despite their wide use in the Maker scene, in most cases an Arduino brand board is easily superseded. We are big fans of the NodeMCU board, and for good reason.
Where almost all Arduino boards lack on-board connectivity the NodeMCU has Wi-Fi as standard courtesy of its ESP8266 chip. Where the similar sized Arduino Nano has a clock speed of up to 16 MHz, the NodeMCU boasts speeds of up to 160 MHz. The NodeMCU is capable of running a Node.js server on-board, saving you from the misery of C++. The reasons go on, but our mini video review below explains all the details.
If connectivity is not what you are looking for, then look no further than the current king of the hill: the Teensy 3.2. These tiny boards have around the same $20 price tag as an Arduino Nano, and out perform them in almost every way. When tested for raw speed against an Arduino Due and Mega, the Teensy wins every time.
The Teensy 3.5 adds only $5 dollars to the bill, and boasts 40 I/O pins while remaining tiny — Teensy, if you will.
While these two boards won’t replace Arduino boards in every situation, they do give us pause for thought. Even if you know exactly which Arduino board you would use for a project there is a good reason not to buy one from Arduino themselves: price.
2. There Are Cheaper Alternatives
The Arduino Project describes itself as open-source hardware. This means that anyone can build and sell them provided they do not actually use the Arduino trademark and credit Arduino accordingly.
This inevitably means that someone, somewhere will be able to build them for cheaper than the official Arduino suppliers. For the price of a single official Arduino Uno you can buy four clones that not only do the same job, but use the same Atmega328 chip.
There is another option that side steps this question altogether though. You don’t have to worry about who is building your board if you do it yourself.
3. Home-Brew Arduino
Since the Arduino hardware is open-source, you can get the full designs for the boards and build your own from scratch.
Admittedly this is not as convenient as buying one and you’ll struggle to make a fully functional board for cheaper than a clone, though with the change in price of certain components and economies of scale, it makes for a cheap weekend project.
This method is especially useful if you need to add control to a small aspect of your project and don’t need the full functionality of an Arduino board — you can pick and choose the features you need in order to save space and money.
4. Looking for Pins in All the Wrong Places
This next one won’t mean much to some of you, and will infuriate others. Anyone who has used an Arduino Uno will have noticed the strange gap between pins 7 and 8.
This gap measures 0.16 inches (4.06mm) while every other pin has a spacing of 0.1 inches (2.54mm). The reason for this oddity? According to this post on the official forums by a guest user claiming to be Arduino co-founder Massimo Banzi, it was all a mistake in early production.
While seemingly minor, this has some very specific ramifications. Every single shield, add on, or accessory designed to work with the Uno must follow this silly pin spacing or not be compatible with it. This mistake remained not only in the Uno, but on every full sized Arduino board since to retain compatibility. It has never been, and likely will never be, rectified.
For a project based on an open-source maker ethos, having your most popular line of products not even attach to a breadboard without buying a specific prototyping shield or wonky offset headers is mind boggling. Thankfully the newer, smaller boards like the Micro, Nano, and the MKR1000 don’t have this problem.
5. IDE Woe Is Me
Depending on how experienced you are with open-source coding software you may or may not agree with this statement: the Arduino IDE, while functional, is horrible to use.
Some of you might find that statement harsh given that it is leveled at a piece of open-source software, but anyone who has spent any time with it will be familiar with its quirks. Code formatting is almost non existent. There is no code completion. The C/C++ framework of the Arduino language isn’t exactly the friendliest to novice coders, and unless you are planning a future using these languages they are arguably not the best ones to learn (these are much easier to learn).
Probably the best way around this problem is to use the Visual Micro plugin for Microsoft Visual Studio (VS). While the pro version has a decent price tag to it, the free version allows the addition of Arduino libraries.
This allows you to use all of the quality of life features that VS brings, and use the Arduino IDE simply to upload code to your board. It could be argued that a complicated fully featured IDE is overkill for Arduino, and that the simple text editor like functionality of the Arduino IDE is perfectly fine. Personally, having switched, I find the idea of going back to the Arduino IDE a non-starter.
But still, since they made their platform open-source we should want to use official Arduino products shouldn’t we? Perhaps not.
This article has been intentionally hard on Arduino, and I’m sure many will disagree with some of the points made. One thing that cannot be denied is that for all of these faults, Arduino have been and continue to be a major driving force in the DIY electronics scene.
Ultimately, it comes down to personal preference. You can side step these considerations by creating your own boards or buying clones. You can stick with official products to support the company and their distributors. In the long run, so long as you are having fun and learning new things, does it even matter?
If you’re in the market for an Arduino — be that a genuine board or a clone — make sure you first take a look at our board buying guide.
What are your thoughts on some of these issues? Are we totally off the mark here? Have you got your own issues with Arduino we failed to cover? Let us know in the comments section below!
Image Credit: Sergey Panychev via Shutterstock.com