It’s probably not that evident from my blog that I like to play with Arduino from time to time. It’s actually my favourite prototyping platform because it’s inexpensive, and easy to get started on – despite its limited power and lack of integrated debugging. As a result, I have more Arduino boards than I can count!
Just the other day, I saw a post about the IBoard Pro from one of my favourite online stores, Little Bird Electronics. While they aren’t the cheapest place, they sure have great support and carry local stock – definitely worth checking them out if you’re in Australia. With only one in stock at the time of viewing, I knew I had to order it! At $44.55 from Little Bird Electronics at the time of writing, it’s fantastic value – read on for more details.
This morning, it arrived on my doorstep without so much as a knock, in a new-style Australia Post Express Satchel. I didn’t realize that there was a new design, which took me by surprise.
Inside, there was a thank you card and a sticker – a Little Bird specialty.
The actual goods were in a medium sized, full colour cardboard box. It’s quite dramatic with its black and blue colouring.
The box itself has some “inspirational” words on it, rather generic, but also a label that tells you what’s inside – in our case, an iBoard Pro.
As you can see, this board is a product of Itead Studio which also offers other services such as PCB manufacturing. This is just one of several Chinese companies which produce prototyping equipment, for example DFRobot and Seeedstudio. Of course, you can buy the product from their web-store direct, but at the time of writing, they are over 290 boards in backorder!
The product supplied is just a single PCB – very well packed in the box. While it is Arduino Compatible by virtue of having the bootloader, it is not Arduino Shield Compatible. This is definitely a point worth remembering.
The PCB itself is red, and is very featureful.
We can see that the board has:
- An ATMega2560 CPU at 16Mhz by Crystal – with the generous memory that the Mega 2560 has.
- A switching converter DC input which is highly efficient and can accomodate input voltages from 7-30V.
- Ethernet built in using a Wiznet W5100 chip and 25Mhz crystal, fully compatible with the Arduino libraries. Also features Power over Ethernet (but not much details on that).
- A DS1307 Real Time Clock, with 32khz crystal but with no battery supplied.
- A microSD card slot.
- An Xbee wireless module header setup already integrated, with a side connector for serial.
- A 24L01 Wireless Module header.
- Headers for serial and parallel LCD modules.
- Header pins for all analog input channels, set up for “brick” modules, as well as UARTs. (I actually prefer this, having many Vcc pins for each sensor!)
- A test (pin 13) LED and status LEDs for the Ethernet interface.
- An ICSP header.
- A reset button.
The rear of the board doesn’t have much …
It is clear why this board is so attractive – this board integrates many devices, thus avoiding the problems with shield compatibility, and the board itself is cheaper than the Arduino Ethernet Shield ($61.94) or the Arduino Mega 2560 ($66.00) alone, and is nearly functionally equivalent. It brings PoE, XBee support, and RTC as well.
It’s not the first board to bring Ethernet and Arduino together – the Freetronics Etherten ($69.95) definitely comes to mind, but it isn’t that cheap and it might be quite constrained by the use of the ATMega328P which sees little free RAM/Flash after the required libraries are included. On the upside, the Freetronics Etherten retains the Arduino shield compatibility and 5v logic level. But this board is more featureful, and still cheaper.
It is larger than your regular Arduino boards (an old Mega used in the comparison), but when you compare the shields you need to add on to reach the same level of functionality, you are definitely still ahead. Notice that you would still need an XBee shield or careful wiring …
So, what are the catches?
- No USB interface on the board. Instead you will have to interface it to a 3.3v level serial interface – such as an FTDI Basic or similar. You will have to purchase this additionally, but one can be used to reprogram multiple boards.
- Logic voltage is 3.3v which may complicate interfacing with existing shields even when re-wired due to need for voltage level shifting.
- Pins are all-over the place and are remapped and not clearly marked on the board, so one must consult the documentation.
- Pins used for the on-board devices cannot be reused for other purposes – a bit of a duh thing.
- The chip is soldered on – so you will need to take care not to short any pins or you may send the whole board to the graveyard.
- No Arduino-shield compatibility due to the layout and the voltage – this may mean less convenience or bigger mess when prototyping, and the inability to use any existing cases.
- Powering the board can be rather interesting – it does not make sense to power the board from 3.3v from the FTDI basic as that will burn out the FTDI chip (due to limited current). You may need to modify it to bypass the 5v into the 5v bus of the board – but the best method is just to power from an external power supply into the barrel jack – but that means you do need to buy or repurpose a power supply!
- Because it isn’t using anything fancy USB-wise, there won’t be any Arduino-library operated keyboard/mouse emulation features.
Full documentation and schematics are provided here.
It’s probably best not for beginners, it’s more in the league of the Arduino Mini Pro/Arduino Pro series due to the need for care and the specific requirements to power and program the board.
I managed to modify my Sparkfun FTDI Basic 5v to be a 3.3v output – and connect it to the IBoard and program it with working auto-reset. One just has to select Mega 2560 as the board type.
The DTR is connected to DTR, RX to RXI, TX to TXI, and GND to GND. I was expecting to connect RX to TXI and TX to RXI as logic would normally dictate, but that did not work, and this does.
This may be due to the way the signals are defined for that particular type of header.
It’s very cheap, and it does what it promises. It might be a bit difficult to work with initially, and it may not support existing Arduino shields – it is much less likely to need any shields given the large number of peripherals included onboard. In fact, with its capacious CPU, microSD, Ethernet, RTC and many analog inputs – this already turns out to be a very proficient data logging combination!
The small cons of (pretty much) requring a power supply by barrel jack, needing to get a lithium coin cell for the DS1307 and needing a USB interface are of little concern once your project has been completed and merely needs to run. It’s an ideal board to let it run on its own with a complete project.
What you might find a problem with is securing supply. It’s definitely going to be popular. It’s probably not the best board for beginners, but more experienced users will definitely be pleased by not having to manually work out how to get many shields to work with each other …
And of course, thanks to Little Bird for getting it to me so quickly!