We’ve got a couple of hardware hackathons coming up in San Francisco and New York, and I’ll be staffing the hardware giveaway / advice desk. The eternal #1 question: Which controller should I use for my Thing?
My main criteria are:
- What prior experience does the maker already have?: software, hardware, both, neither? I have two types in mind: beginners and time-crunched hackathon attendees.
- What’s the project? — to properly balance size, connectivity, processing power, price, suitability for manufacturing, all that good stuff.
- Arduino code compatibility: whatever your opinions, it’s the standard.
- Strong company support and community engagement: I’m including some useful tutorials for each.
I’ve stuck to 3–4 top recommendations per category; if you want an exhaustive comparison, check out Make’s Guide to Boards.
Although I do test a fair amount of free hardware, this guide is based on my true personal opinions from using the tech and helping others. I’ve bought a number of these boards out-of-pocket, for personal use, simply because they are awesome. But I haven’t tried everything (yet)… Enlighten me with your favorites!
▶ Best controllers for basic projects
I’ve recently fallen in love with the ATtiny. If you’re building a lot of something (smart holiday gifts?), and don’t need wireless connectivity or many pins, these are gold. But like, really cheap gold. They can run Arduino sketches just fine, and there are versions with different levels of power and memory. The DigiSpark is an ATtiny85 board that plugs directly into your computer, without using a whole separate Arduino + programming circuit.
The ESP8266 is another option for small builds: it’s crazy cheap; you can typically get five ESP8266–01 modules for $10. Plus, it can host its own WiFi network — serving a web page or acting as a dummy access point, great for pranks. :) Compared to the Photon, it has fewer pins and is less beginner-friendly; compared to the ATtiny, it requires more complex breadboard-juggling and an FTDI cable (which may need drivers). But it’s a solid platform for cheap smart-home projects, and it’s new and incredibly popular, so there are abundant excellent tutorials online. It also lends WiFi connectivity to a number of other boards, so pick your flavor.
🌿 Best tools for home automation
🏃 Best tools for wearable tech
🚀 Best tools for robotics
Tune in weekly for the ongoing Hackster 101 beginner series: You’ll learn the basics of Arduino code, working with these boards, and more.