We're often asked questions about the BBC micro:bit. So here's a summary of answers to some of those questions.
What is the micro:bit? Is it like a Raspberry Pi (small computer) or an Arduino (micro controller)?
The micro:bit is a micro controller. So it's like an Arduino, in that it doesn't run a full operating system, but runs compiled binary code that can access a variety of built-in or connected input devices such as buttons and sensors. It can also control a built-in grid of Lights (LEDS) or external components like motors and switches. External components can be connected though 20 different pins. Since those pins also allow access to 3.3volt power, and some common interfaces known as i2c and SPI, a range of ready-made components are also compatible with the micro:bit.
What would kids do with a microbit?
'Out of the box', they would either pair it with a mobile device, like a tablet or phone, or plug it into the USB port of a computer. From that point, there's a number of different ways that code can be written for the micro:bit: a number of visual drag-and-drop block languages, or text-based Python. These are accessed through a browser, app, or installed editor software, and then compiled to a binary format 'hex' file that is sent to the micro:bit to run.
Why is the micro:bit good for kids to start with, rather than Arduino, or any of the other Micro Controllers?
The micro:bit already has the following built-in sensors:
- accelerometer for gestures and movement
- magnometer for sensing direction
The built-in output is in the form of a 5 x 5 grid of LEDs with radio frequency and Bluetooth send and receive capabilities. This allows scrolling of text, with combinations of variable brightness light animations and programmable communication with mobile devices, computers, and other micro:bits. Attaching a speaker allows for speech and music. Out of the box, the micro:bit does not have traditional wifi or network capabilities.
So the micro:bit is a small, portable device that can be powered via USB or from a variety of attached batteries. It's relatively inexpensive, although any differences in cost to some of the cheaper micro controllers, are won over in ease of getting started and connecting. Also, due to having familiar interfaces for programming, kids can get started straight away, using an app or web browser on their favourite mobile device or computer. Once they become more advanced, there's a plethora of accessories that can be plugged into the device, with multiple micro:bits able to be programmed to work together. The micro:bit can even be connected to, or programmed from, the small Raspberry Pi computer.