The $5 PI – where to for other platforms ?

The following is a opinion piece.

Keeping your products relevant in the ever changing maker world, along with the industries the hobbyists / students eventually get into is quite a gambit.

When I first read about the Raspberry PI I was fascinated by the idea of something so potent sitting on a form factor the size of a credit card. However, since I have my tool chain and am busy I never placed an order for one. The landscape changed there when the PI 2 came onto the scene as Windows 10 compatible and so now I have one.

Since its purchase it has been set  up and it runs, but the need for Visual Studio 2015 Community put any further work on hold. But that has since released so I just need to get back into it.

Then I heard a $5 PI and for a moment it had to sink in. $5; that is bargain!

Back when I got into Embedded Programming the PIC16F84 was the big news since it was re programmable on the fly. That innovation now seems trivial 15 years down the line. The flash variant, something capable of competing with on the level of a cheap tablet is obtainable for $5. Nope, its a different era now. Better get use to it!

Interestingly, everyone I know who has the original PI says they have successfully built a Media Server and that what its doing at the moment. Streaming their audio content across their homes. And no I am not generalizing, that ‘s what they did with them. So do we consider a PI as a serious development platform for the masses or is it a very powerful something to use over a weekend?

I am not going to refer to any particular project, but the answer is yes. The PI is a very serious development platform and has been used in some very kewl projects. The Microsoft IOT page is one example of how the PI has found a niche in the embedded community of developers.

So what about the humble 8 BITs ? Why spend money on a curiosity board or even a BluBerry[DEVCC] if the PI is the better option?

Well on price, that’s tricky. I know for one the volume that I would have to push into production to get the PCB down to $5 on retail – well lets just say I would make more money having a garage sale.

The 8 BIT tool chain if you take ARDUINO and PIC Microchip into consideration is low cost, not ultra-low cost. The Arduino tool chain is free except for the cost of the PCB. Microchip’s products at the very least require a PICKIT. Unless of course you buy a chipKit DP32 and then you are on par with an Arduino, but not the same as the $5 PI.

In the midst of the comparison, the elephant in the room is really:” Is 8 BIT and everything else under threat and noncompetitive given a $5 bench mark set by the PI.”

The practical engineer would use a platform that gets the job done, even if it is a $5 PI. By that reckoning, the 8 BIT devices have their place. The latency is how to attract new customers to a tool chain investment that starts in the $19 region i.e. the Sparkfun Redboard and the BluBerry DEVCC boards and goes up from there.

I once heard the expression “That solution is a cannon to take out a flower!” In other words the PIs can be overkill for all solutions, just as much as an 8 BIT device can be under powered or have just the right amount of features for their market segment of applications.

One aspect of the skill set to use a pi, is Python – the language. Where as I would argue getting an 8 BIT pic to do the basics is much simpler.

Every seminar I go to, the marketing revolves around how the 8BITs are getting better. They are getting cheaper with more program memory, core independent peripherals and so on. Although, as much as the existing client base may clap hands at the release of these devices, the cost conscious hobbyist may not let go of his or her $5 PI; even to the extent of having it buried with them.

That said, the work I have been doing with IOT with 8 BIT Arduino and 32 BIT PICs ensures for me that they have a way to go. Especially in the unforgiving environments that I have / and plan to install them.

So for the Makes out their “bated breath”; or is it time we innovate as well in ways that we have never before. Rather than development PCBs offer ready made solutions, with the option to update / enhance the code as required.

I vote for the innovation, it would not hurt to dust off the thinking cap and rather do something with it than worry about a $5 bench mark.

Michael Havenga, Embedded Enthusiast and Maker 

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