How to choose and work with a microcontroller for beginners


I am new to microcontrollers and saw that there are so many different types.

I am familiar with the Arduino family of microcontrollers but I also noticed that there are other types like the picaxe microcontroller.

What is the difference between an Arduino and something like the picaxe? Do they work the same way? Is the picaxe easy to use? Do we simply need to program them by connecting them with to an external computer the same we do with Arduino microcontrollers? What language do they use and do I need to download a special software to be able to program them?

I would like to build a rocket and put sensors on board (altimeter and other sensors). Do I need to have a microcontroller onboard connected to the sensors? Would the sensors output get recorded in the microcontroller memory? Is that how the process would work? I guess I would need a very small and light microcontroller to place it on the rocket. What is the smallest Arduino microcontroller I could use for an application like this?

Thanks! Fused

Google found this:

// Per.

The different families of microcontrollers are pretty much all the same under the hood. And you will need to get past the "know nothing" stage to appreciate the subtle differences between the different devices within a manufacturer's range.

The Arduino system generally uses Atmel Atmega microcontrollers and (IMHO) the special strength of the Arduino system is the ease of getting started and the extensive help available here and elsewhere on the web.

Choosing a microcontroller for a project is not at all the same as (say) choosing a plastic model kit. If you buy a plastic kit for a Boeing 737 then you can be sure all the parts are there and instructions. But with a microcontroller you will need to learn at least the basics of programming them (Arduinos use the C++ language) and also learn what the different features do before you can start planning how you are going to build a project.

Arduinos make that learning phase fun so my recommendation would be to get an Uno and get started.


I started on Picaxe. What attracted me was the low startup costs. You need a programming cable (which is a USB-serial adaptor), a Picaxe chip such as 08M2, a breadboard and a few sundries like switches, resistors & leds. That's why it's such a good idea for schools, who need to buy 30 of everything. Arduino cost more than twice that, but I was unaware of all the cheap Chinese copies. For me, the language difference BASIC vs C was irrelevant, I has used both before. The fact that I could plug a Picaxe into a breadboard was also an important factor in my decision, but I was unaware of Nano, Pro Micro etc and had only seen Uno. I didn't like the shield idea much, and still don't.

But I outgrew Picaxe in less than 18 months. Yes, you can get more powerful Picaxes, but they cost more, similar price to Arduino. And even those more powerful Pixaxes are still painfully slow compared to a standard Arduino. And Picaxe's version of BASIC is one of the worst I have ever used. 20 years earlier I used BBC BASIC, which was so much better than Picaxe BASIC. Picaxe BASIC almost encourages bad programming practices, forcing you to use GOTO, GOSUB etc.

So I bought a Nano and never bothered with Picaxe again. I wish I had done more research in the first place and not gone down the Picaxe cul-de-sac.

So I'm sorry of that sounds like a completely negative condemnation of Picaxe. I did learn a lot while I was using them. But I could have learned that on Arduino just as quickly.

To squeeze a BASIC interpreter onto such a tiny chip was quite a feat!

From my (admittedly limited) understanding of the Microchip microcontrollers, a picaxe is a PIC chip that has the BASIC language permanently installed on the chip. PIC microcontrollers are similar to AVR chips in their form and function. For many programs that only use high level C, (no direct pin or register reading/writing, etc.) few changes are needed to translate PIC <-> AVR.

Since the Microchip bought Atmel, I believe we will see refinement and consolidation of the AVR and PIC products, over the next few years. Currently, there are mountains more sources of support and available add-ons for the AVR microcontrollers as compared to PIC. The choices for picaxe are even more limited. This points to AVR becoming the winner in Microchip’s line of products.

Perhaps the biggest selling point for AVR microcontrollers is the Arduino IDE. It is expandable and robust. the PIC IDE is similar but less capable. There is not a huge and helpful forum to help you understand how to use it. Microchip, on the other hand, has done a better job of marketing to the education market (especially grades 7 through 14), so you are as likely to encounter PIC products in school classes about microcontrollers as you are the ubiquitous Arduino.