Hi there, I'm Phil. I live in an electronics factory and regularly need to pluck microcontrollers out of my feet when walking around barefoot. I thought I could bring some of that joy to you in a gift guide.
It's going to be a little different than just the usual crap you can buy — it's a guide that can start you on an amazing journey of building electronics and learning new skills. If you're really motivated, you just might invent something new.
Let's get started! The question I get asked the most is "where to start" — lots of people see all the DIY projects here on Gizmodo and just don't know where to begin. I've put together some favourite tools, resources and beginner electronics kits that will get you going and give you something fun to show your friends. You don't need to buy many things either, since many of the kits and gadgets are "open source" — you can buy the parts, etch a circuit board, "breadboard" it or in some cases just build parts of them with what you may have at home by cannibalising a junk drawer of fail-gadgets.
The Tools Starting out on your electronics adventure? Want to wield the mighty soldering iron? Tired of saying "I'd totally get into electronics if I only knew what tools to get..."? Working with substandard equipment is a terrible way to learn electronics: A lot of frustration with too little success. The right tool set will keep you progressing without the stressing. This toolbox contains carefully selected hand tools that will last you for many many years. Keep in mind that you don't need to buy this tool pack — just look it over (itemised on the product page). Consider it a list of good things to have to get started. You may even have some of these tool collecting dust in the garage already! $US100 [Ladyada's Electronics Toolkit]
Make & Build Stuff Now that you've got the tools, what's next? Microcontrollers! These are basically cheap, tiny computers that you can run simple programs on, control motors and make stuff happen based on sensor data.
For the longest time BASIC Stamp/PIC was the dominant chip that hobbyists used, and still to this day PICs are very popular. However, over the last few years an open-source project from Italy called "Arduino" — named after the Italian king Arduino of Ivrea, who ruled from 1002 to 1015, of course! — it has captured the hearts and minds of many beginners. No one knows why it's so popular (over 100k units!) but I'd say it's because the software to program them runs on Mac, PC and Linux, there's a huge community of artists who make amazing things and share them, and it's pretty inexpensive. And since it's 100 per cent open source, you can make your own versions, improve on them and sell them if you wanted to.
What do the following projects all have in common? Google Street View on a hacked stationary bike, electronic wallpaper, secret-knock door opener, Ghostbusters proton packs, Barbots, skateboard etch-a-sketch and a Twitter toilet that tweets your poo... They're all made with Arduino!
Make & Build Stuff You don't need to buy an Arduino, you can "make" one using a breadboard and a lot of parts — but let's say you want to dive in and pick up an Arduino with enough projects to teach you how things work, and help you explore microcontroller basics. Covers LEDs, transistors, motors, integrated circuits, pushbuttons, variable resistors, photo resistors, temperature sensors and relays. I suggest the Arduino ARDX experimentation pack for $US85. If that breaks the bank, choose from less expensive packs: a $US65 starter pack, a $US50 budget pack or just a straight-up $US30 Arduino.
If you can scrounge up the parts on your own you can always download and print up the free booklet which includes all the lessons. If you're the book-learnin' type, there's a great little one called Getting Started With Arduino, $US13, written by Massimo Banzi, co-founder of the Arduino Project.
Make & Build Stuff The Arduino is great and there are a lot of "shields" to expand its functionality (music, GPS, internet), but what if you want to get your hands dirty and make something more complicated? Here are three of my favourite beginner electronics kits to get you started — as always, they are open source so you could make these on your own too.
The first lets you juice up all the gadgets — MP3 player, camera, mobile phone, etc — that you plug into a USB port to charge. The Minty Boost is small and simple but very powerful. If you have a new or old phone that always runs down, make one of these to get a lot of extra talk time. Be sure to check the project page for the latest compatibility notes for many devices. $US20 [Minty Boost kit]
Make & Build Stuff Relive the fun of CES 2008 everyday with TV-B-Gone. People are still polarised about the whole CES thing. Everyone was complaining that CES sucked because it was just about "giant TVs" and when someone turned them off for a few seconds the interweb world freaked out. I don't have any opinion on it, other than that CES should be more exciting than a TV-turn-off freak out. That said, the TV-B-Gone is a wonderful device to learn the ins-and-outs of IR signalling, and it's fun to turn off TVs in store windows that are closed at night to save power. (That's what I like to do.) The new Universal TV-B-Gone kit is an ultra-high-power version of the TV-B-Gone (assembled), able to reach 45m and can be used anywhere in the world. Plus, you make it yourself. $US20 [TV-B-Gone (kit or assembled)]
Make & Build Stuff Spell words in the air with your bicycle wheels using SpokePOV, an easy-to-make electronic kit toy. The project includes a free schematic design and open software for uploading and editing stored bitmap images. Perfect for those late-night Critical Mass rides or your Burning Man transport. $US100 for triple; $US38 for one [SpokePOV]
Hackable Electronics and 3D Printing Next up, I put together some of my favourite "gadgets" that aren't necessarily kits but are hackable. Many companies are inviting their customers to hack and mod their devices, the folks are the pioneers!
The Chumby does so many things it's hard to actually tell someone what it is. I usually say it's an internet alarm clock that runs widgets. Most people seem to get that, or they'll get curious enough to check out the site. The latest version, the cool retro-looking Chumby One is out. The product is open source, so you can hack it, mod it, get the source and schematics and best of all make widgets for it. (Chumby trivia: The engineer behind it, Bunnie Huang, is one of the best engineers in the world. If you're old school, you'll remember him as the first person to hack the original Xbox, and as author of Hacking the Xbox: An Introduction to Reverse Engineering.) $US99 [Chumby; Gizmodo]
Hackable Electronics and 3D Printing Bug is the Lego of computers. Make a GPS camera MP3 player? You can! It's a modular, open-source system for building whatever comes to mind, by plugging little modules into each other 'til you get the desired functionality. If you want to program them, you need to know Java, but there are also a lot of apps you can just download. BUGbase core $US450; assorted modules from $US70; monster kit $US750 [Bug Labs]
Hackable Electronics and 3D Printing MakerBot is a new entry in the world of 3D printing. Based on the open-source RepRap project, Brooklyn-based MakerBot is becoming the default install for any self-respecting hacker space. (Well, that and a laser cutter.) The MakerBot can print 3D objects you make or download — Thingiverse is a great source. The coolest thing I've seen lately is a print out of Thom Yorke's head. $US700 [MakerBot]
My Fantasy Gadget The Giz gang asked me to name a "dream gadget", and of course for me it's something that makes things: A "pick-and-place" machine, namely the MDC 7722fv from Japan. You could use it to make iPhones in your living room if you really wanted to. I have one now, so at least for me, the fantasy has became a reality. I'm currently making accelerometers and Drawdios (musical pencils) but next year expect to see an open-source watch and who knows? Maybe you'll see me selling cloned iPhones on Canal Street in NYC, next to the counterfeit DVD and purse dudes. Over $US30,000 [MDC; US distributor]
Phil Torrone is the senior editor at MAKE magazine and creative director for Adafruit Industries, an open-source hardware manufacturer in NYC. In the interest of disclosure, please note that many of the products you see above are sold though Adafruit and Make, but it just so happens, the source for the best info is also the source for many of the goods.
All Giz Wants is our annual round-up of favourite gift ideas, including amazing attainable objects and a few far-out fantasies. We'll be popping guides catered to different interests several times per day for the next week, so keep checking back.