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Recently, Amazon had a Vilros ultimate Rasperry Pi 3 kit on sale. That was an opportunity. The kit included a Pi SBC, case, power supply, NOOB on a 32 GB card, HDMI cable, heat sinks, and some breakout and prototyping items.

I don’t see this SBC as a hardware hacker’s best choice or even an educator’s best choice. LibreELEC is a very good example of its capabilities. This is a minimal customized embedded effort with a focus on running KODI so the SBC serves as a media center. That utilizes the graphics capabilities, the CPU capabilities for running a complete modern OS, and the built in peripherals to run a display and USB connected peripherals. Where it runs short is in power control and codec licensing (a purchase option for MPEG-2 DVD is available). A key benefit is that the NOOB easily gets you from out of the box to a turnkey media player with minimal hassle.

The SBC shines when it comes to USB or networking to talk to peripherals and supporting an interactive user interface. There are a few GPIO pins available that can be convenient but they are 3.3v digital only. If you want to get into control and sensing applications, you’d probably do a lot better with a microcontroller that has a whole zoo of built in capabilities.

For education, there is the Arduino and PICAXE but those are getting a bit old. Geoff’s Micromite is looking good for this market. Geoff put together Microsoft BASIC compatible firmware for a PIC 32 bit microcontroller. “You can use the Micromite as the intelligence inside any project that requires a medium speed microcontroller but without the hassle of programming in a complex language.” That is a very simple computer circuit with one chip and one capacitor running off a 3.3v supply. The firmware is open source and the project appears to be a good introduction into the world of PIC microcontrollers and PIC has a decent, free development environment to take off on this.

Of course, the Raspberry Pi Zero is a $5 full fledged SBC (see Adafruit) and there is a large pile of < $50 computers and development boards to play with. The ESP8266 is in the <$10 list to provide full WiFi connectivity with Arduino style IDE’s available to make IoT thingies that don’t need much else except a battery. So many choices and so cheap!

And if you can’t figure out some project to wire up and program, take a gander through Ebay, Seeed Studio, or some of the other hobbyist collections for kits or modules to do all sorts of things. The electronics hobby is not what it used to be. Now you can implement many things that were near impossible in years past, do so without having to invest much of either money or knowledge, and choose your own level of involvement from plug and chug down to designing your own circuits and building circuit boards and everything else.