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We like to talk a lot about development boards from Arduino or Raspberry Pi, but there are many different boards available on the market. We’re not talking about evaluation boards here, which are used for evaluating the performance of a specific component (e.g., FPGAs) in specific applications. Instead, let’s take a look at some different options for development boards you can use for prototyping or even full-scale development of a new device.
There are plenty of development boards for different IoT devices or embedded computing products that you can use for prototyping or for full-scale production. These boards are excellent tools for creating v1.0 of your new product. While we can’t present every evaluation board in a single article, we can show you some alternatives to Raspberry Pi and Arduino that offer comparable capabilities.
Top Development Boards for IoT
Any development board you want to use for an IoT project should include a few important features. These include:
- Processing power. This can be in the form of a microcontroller, FPGA, CPU, or other CPLD. A microcontroller is your best bet for programming your device as many manufacturers will provide the IDE you need. You might also be able to find some open source code online for your new board.
- Wireless capabilities. Your development board should provide wireless communication without including an external transceiver module. Some common protocols include Bluetooth, WiFi, Zigbee, and others. An Ethernet connection is also useful as a backup.
- Scalability. Ask yourself this question: what can I add to this board? Does the board communicate via GPIO, SPI, UART, or some other protocol? This will determine how your board can interface with other devices.
There is another aspect of scalability that should be considered: can you add a shield board? This is important for creating an integrated product with a compact footprint without redesigning and remanufacturing the entire board.
- Memory. Does the board come with the memory your application requires? This is rather important as you can only store so much data in your built-in Flash memory. A decent board will allow you to connect a MiniSD or MicroSD card to seriously increase data storage in your board.
Note that not all Arduino boards, except the Arduino Uno WiFi (which is now retired), include wireless connectivity unless you include a shield with a WiFi transceiver or an external Bluetooth module. Although Arduino is massively popular and plenty of open-source code is available for various projects, there are other options that include the capabilities mentioned above in an integrated unit. With these points in mind, let’s take a look at some of the top development boards that can provide functionality for specific IoT projects.
MediaTek Linkit ONE
The Linkit ONE board runs on a 32-bit MT2502A MCU (Arm7 EJ-S chipset) with 260 MHz speed. The Linkit ONE has a comprehensive set of radios, including GPS, GSM, Bluetooth, GPRS, and WiFi. It also comes with plenty of integrated memory (16 MB Flash, 4 MB RAM).
This board is rather large compared to Arduino boards and the other boards you’ll find in this article. The price is much higher than other development boards (around $60), but you will likely have less to add to the board to get it to work for your application. You can also easily build a shield board to connect to the GPIO pins, either from a simple through-hole protoboard or as your own custom board.
Linkit ONE development board. [Source: Mouser]
The ESP32 series of boards is an excellent alternative to Arduino with comparable footprint and cost (under $10). It also includes an integrated WiFi and Bluetooth v4.2 communication capabilities. Processing power is provided by 1 or 2 Xtensa® 32-bit LX6 microprocessor(s) at up to 240 MHz. It even includes integrated DACs, something that Arduino boards lack. Espressif provides an IDE for programming the board (uses C/C++).
While Espressif doesn’t provide a shield board for connecting to the module, you can easily build your own with minor additional expense; some possible addons include an SD card module to provide more memory. This gives you a compact system that can communicate with a variety of peripherals. There are a number of different variants of the ESP32 board (see Devkit V1 below).
ESP32 DevkitC. [Source: Mouser]
Digi XBee Series
If you’re familiar with Zigbee, then you should be familiar with the XBee series of programmable MCU boards and modems. The XBee series of modems can actually be used to add wireless radio capabilities to Arduino boards. This series of development boards provides short-range peer-to-peer and point-to-multipoint communication between IoT devices at 2.4 GHz (standard Zigbee, IEEE 802.15.4, or WiFi) or 900 MHz (Digi-Mesh, based on Zigbee). Digi offers a series of boards that support communication over LTE-M/NB-IoT networks with multi-band support, allowing communication via many different cellular carriers.
You’ll have to get a cellular plan for LTE-M communication, but there are many prepaid plans from different carriers which allow the XBee cellular-capable modules to communicate over long range. You’ll also need to use an appropriate antenna for your board if it is not printed on the PCB. The XBee3 Pro module outputs at a whopping 79 mW, providing communication up to 2 miles at 2.4 GHz. It is also programmable with MicroPython on an 8-bit MC9S08QE32CFT MCU. Note that communication via Zigbee or IEEE 802.15.4 at 2.4 GHz can experience interference when close to WiFi routers, so these devices are best deployed in remote areas for use in less data-intensive edge computing and sensing applications.
STM32 Nucleo-144 development board. [Source: Digi]
STM32 Nucleo-144 Series
The STM Nucleo-144 development board boasts less processing power but greater expandability compared to the previous modules. It runs at 170 MHz on a 32-bit STM32F746ZG MCU. While it doesn’t include WiFi or Bluetooth integrated onto the board, expansion boards are available for each technology while keeping the total price per board under $50. However, it does include USB and Ethernet connectivity, allowing you to easily program the board with STM’s IDE.
STM32 Nucleo-144 development board. [Source: Element14]
Hopefully the boards we’ve presented here will give you some inspiration for designing shield/expansion boards, or help you pick out the right development board for your next IoT device. With the PCB design tools in Upverter, you can easily design your own expansion board for these modules and start producing integrated devices.
Upverter® provides a browser-based platform for designing boards from start to finish, including expansion/shield boards or clones of any of the above development boards. If you like, you can import the project files for one of these boards into Upverter’s schematic editor and PCB editor. This allows you to easily integrate new components into your new IoT product.