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Getting started building and programming microcontroller circuits presents a bit of a learning curve. The phrase 'bit of a learning curve' is a literary device called understatement. The curve sometimes feels much like a brick wall as you scrape your nose along it. No single step is impossibly difficult but taken together it may seem that way.

In this section I will introduce you to the tools I use. These tools, in conjunction with the projects on this site, may assist you to ease more gently into this interesting pastime.

 

Resources

Here is a list of resources that you may find helpful in your own experiments. Some of these are well known while others have been harder to find.

Software

MicroChipYou can find a range of free PIC compilers here. They operate in full mode for 30 days and then turn off advanced optimizations. Even with the optimizations turned off they generate good code.

I used to use mikroElectronika compilers exclusively but their dsPIC compilers were not yet mature at the time that I needed them. The mikroElectronika libraries still seem easier to use and I may check them out again once their new products mature.

mikroElektronika mikroElektronika manufactures tools for microcontrollers, and compilers for popular microcontroller series. Best of all for the hobbyist is that there are free versions of the compilers. They have code size restrictions but for getting started these are a great help. They offer C, Basic, and Pascal for a variety of microcontroller families.

dipTrace dipTrace is a professional and easy-to-use PCB Design software with a powerful autorouter. There is a free version for hobbyists. In this case there is a limit on the total number of pins (250) and some missing export options needed for professional manufacturing. None of these are show stoppers for the hobbyist.

If you are at a school, you may qualify for a free academic LITE version. This is similar to the free product but includes Gerber output which will allow you to send off your boards for manufacture should you hit on a good design.

Suppliers

Digikey CA
I now buy most of my electronic components from Digikey.ca. The shipping is very cheap ($8 within Canada) and quick, their selection is very good and prices are pretty reasonable. I still would consider Jameco and Mouse for hard to source components but only as a last resort.

MicroChipManufacturer of PIC microcontrollers. Supply very good PIC programmers for a very reasonable price. Check out the PICkit2.

Jameco ElectronicsSupplier of electronic components and equipment. Jameco has very cheap prices on some items. I've bought 5mm orange LEDs for as little as 2.5¢ each and 1/8 watt resisters for a penny.

I've used to order frequently from this company. In the past, I had my materials shipped by courier but recently tried USPS. It was a lot cheaper. No brokerage fees and I didn't have to pay GST at the post office either. Expensive shipments may still warrant using a courier but for most USPS seems adequate.

Mouser ElectronicsSupplier of electronic components and equipment. Not quite as cheap as Jameco but a much bigger selection.

The RobotShop Canadian Canadian supplier of personal robots, professional robots, robot toys, robot kits and robot parts for building your own robots. Their prices for components are very reasonable and they supply such exotic items as accelerometers, and solid state gyros.

Kysan Electronics Supplier of electronic components, testing equipment, and power products. They are an especially a good source of stepper motors. I was looking for a source of strong stepper motors for a CNC project. Kysan Electronics sourced these for me at a price that was much lower than any other I had found. The motors arrived in a timely fashion and work well.

Update Sept. 2010: I now have somewhat mixed feelings about the Kysan motors. I originally ordered six identical motors and over the intervening year, sitting about, one has seized up. The others seem fine but it is a bit worrying.

Other

Gold Pheonix - PCB Fabrication(Nov 2010) Gold Pheonix is a Chinese PCB fabricator. I've used this service twice with very good results. I sent them zipped up gerber files and I received great quality boards in under two weeks. There's a hobbyist special for 155sq.inches of your finished PCB's that is similar to the price you'd pay for only 2 or 3 boards elsewhere. In my cases I received about 18 of each of the two boards I've sent.