Microcontrollers: Stamp, Picaxe, Microchip, Atmel? Assembly, Basic, C? Which way to go?

I have started getting into some different types of programming for microcontrollers lately. I have wanted to learn C for Microchip’s line of microcontrollers, and now that I have begun I have found it to be relatively expensive. There are pros and cons for every platform, so I am going to blog on my experience so far.

  • Basic Stamp – www.parallax.com
    PROS:
    Starter kits are available for about $100usd that are fully functional.
    Compiler and programmer are included with starter kit.
    Uses Basic language.
    CONS:
    Chips are $50 each.
    Slim range of chips available.
  • Picaxe – www.rev-ed.co.uk/picaxe/
    PROS:
    Starter kits are available for less than $70usd depending on which chip you want.
    Compiler and programmer are included with starter kit.
    In-circuit programming is possible with Picaxe chips and how-to info is available from the help menu of the Picaxe IDE. Also, any Picaxe chip can be programmed without purchasing demo boards as the programming circuit is the same as the in-circuit programming setup.
    Chips range from $4usd to $12usd depending on the pin count.
    Uses Basic language.
    CONS:
    Cannot be used commercially.
    Has a range of chips from 8 to 40 pins, but you pay for functions that you may not use or need.
    My favorite 28X1 IC is about $11usd, which is a steep cost since I use them in lots of projects.
  • Microchip – www.microchip.com
    PROS:
    Wide range of chips available with the perfect one to suit your needs.
    Chip cost ranges from cents to around $10usd.
    Program in your favorite language – Assembly, Basic, C
    Can be used in commercial products.
    Assembly is very inexpensive since a compiler is free.
    CONS:
    Compilers for languages other than Assembly are not totally free. Freeware compilers are free, but have limited capability. Basic compilers range from $100usd to $300usd. C compilers range from $50usd to $thousands!!! Some compilers have free trials.
    Programming boards for each chip also cost money.
  • Atmel – www.atmel.com
    PROS:
    Wide range of chips available.
    IDE is free and supports all languages.
    CONS:
    I don’t know enough about this manufacturer, but it seems like they might be better suited for the hobbiest who wants to program in something like Basic or C.

So if you are ready to get started, here are some kits to get you started. These kits may or may not include extras like sensors and components, but are a place to start your programming experience. They are in order from simple to difficult.

Basic Stamp: Startup – $170.00usd plus shipping [Languages: Basic]
Item #: 27807 from Parallax.com $160.00usd plus a $10usd 9v adapter.
This comes with all that you need to start making projects with microcontrollers.

Picaxe: Startup – $70.00usd plus shipping [Languages: Basic]
SKU #: 28521 from HVWTECH.com $70.00usd
This kit comes with an experiment board that is capable of programming 8, 18, and 28 pin chips from Picaxe. It includes an 18 pin IC, but other ICs can be purchased. NOTE: This is a kit that must be soldered together by you, but I’ve done it, and it is fun. Just follow the directions.

Atmel: Startup – $108.00usd plus shipping [Languages: Assembly, Basic, C]
Part #: ATSTK500-ND from Digikey.com $80.00usd
Part #: ATMEGA8-16PU-ND from Digikey.com $4.00usd (This is the ATMEGA8 IC that you’ll need. Kit may not include an IC)
SKU #: 47000 RS-232 to USB adapter from HVWTECH.com $24.00usd (if your computer lacks a serial port)
The STK500 kit is able to program many ICs from Atmel. Expansion boards can be purchased to program other types of Atmel ICs. Their IDE includes all that you need to program their microcontrollers in multiple languages.

Microchip: Startup – $50.00 for Assembly, $200.00usd for C, $300.00usd for Basic plus shipping [Languages: Assembly($50.00usd), Basic, C]
Part #: DV164120 from Microchipdirect.com $50.00usd
SKU #: 41010 from HVWTECH.com $150.00usd (C compiler with wide chip support) or
SKU #: 40060 from HVWTECH.com $250.00usd (Basic compiler with very wide chip support)
The PICKIT 2 from Microchipdirect.com comes with “almost” all that you need to program many 8, 14, and 20 pin ICs. It comes with a 20 pin IC, but the free compilers are limited in what they can do.

Part #: AC164110 $10usd and part #: AC162049 $40usd from Microchipdirect.com gives the PICKIT 2 up to 40 pin support. This is what I use, and it also makes programming multiple chips simpler as the chips are held in with a lever instead of being crammed into a socket.

Also, try the HI-Tech C compiler freeware version with the PICKIT 2. It is free, but with a cost. Read my other review on HI-Tech here. It’s much more difficult to learn and use, since it is mainly for commercial users.

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