Sipping a Late Night Xpresso

When I started in the MCU world, evaluation boards were pretty expensive so I designed and built my own, but that was a decade ago and things have happily changed. A number of MCU manufacturers seem to have decided that development boards should be really low-priced, making it very easy to try out their products. Case in point: the MSP430 Launchpad from TI. I just bought one for $4.35. For that price, they might as well be giving it away. I also ordered the NXP LPCXpresso when I bought the Launchpad; even at $26.95, the LPCXpresso is very inexpensive, in my book.

Speaking of giving it away, I recently picked up a Renesas development board for free at a tradeshow. Well, it wasn't totally free, but it was close enough. I had to listen to a presentation for five or ten minutes.

Anyway, I've been acquiring these boards because I'm in search of an MCU family that is a step or two up in capabilities from my usual PIC processors. I have a little experience with ARM processors from using the mbed and the Beagleboard, but I need something lower-end and less of a complete system, yet more powerful than an 8-bit.

Working with new chip families can be a challenge. The first time I built something with an Atmel MCU, I inadvertently set the clock speed fuse bits the wrong way and effectively destroyed the chip. I understand it is possible to recover with a high-voltage programmer, but this was an SMT chip without the connections on the board necessary for the jolt back to life. I desoldered it with my heat gun and plopped on a new one. That experience has me wondering what traps I'll run into with an ARM platform.

Hopefully, the traps will be few and far between. When I bought the LPCXpresso, I picked the low-end LCP1114 processor version, so it shouldn't be too big a step up from what I use now. There's also a "LPC11U14" version with USB support. I've been adding built-in USB devices to my own designs lately, so that choice would have made sense, but I purchased the non-USB chip version just to keep things a little simpler for me at the start (or maybe because I made a mistake in placing the order.)

I am looking forward to trying out these dev boards, especially the LPCXpresso. One of its interesting features is that it has a built-in, stand-alone JTAG programmer and debugger. As purchased, the JTAG is part of the development board, but it can also be separated and then used as a stand-alone JTAG device to work with other development boards.

I also like that the LPCXpresso's IDE is based on the open-source Eclipse IDE. Even more, I like that it's a single-install that is fully configured for the board. I've run across other dev boards that require hunting down open-source components from different places, which makes installation a bit hit-n-miss for me. The downside of the single-install IDE is that it's a somewhat customized version of Eclipse, so I don't know if it will integrate with other compilers intended for use with Eclipse.

The mbed and Beagleboard have OSs, so this project with the LPCXpresso will be my first direct-to-chip ARM programing experience. The big question on my mind is: does more powerful mean more difficult to use, or does it mean a more complete part that's easier to use? My next step is to spend some time with the LPC, the Launchpad, and the Renesas development boards. Stay tuned to find out how it goes