Quick post to help those new to the physical computing ecosystem recognize microcontrollers, prototyping platforms, single board computers (SBC), and embedded systems out in the wild, via Ask MAKE:
…a lot of people wonder the same thing about the various physical computing devices we use for making. To start simply, a microcontroller is a small computer that is built into a single chip. It has its own processor, memory, and programmable I/O pins. The Arduino is often referred to as a a microcontroller, but that’s not entirely true. It uses an ATMega chip as a microcontroller, which is surrounded by circuitry that makes it easy to use and program. It can be properly called a prototyping platform that’s based on a microcontroller.
An embedded system is a small computer that is usually non-programmable by the average user, but functions in a similar way to any other microcontroller system. Embedded systems are most often used in existing consumer electronics, such as cellphones, MP3 players, even your microwave.
A system or computer on a chip is an entire computing system that fits onto a single chip (or IC). The difference between this and a microcontroller is one of degree. A system on a chip is generally more powerful and capable of running entire operating systems rather than just being able to execute discrete actions.
The Raspberry Pi uses the Broadcom BCM2835, which is considered a system on a chip. Hardware is built around this for easy prototyping – similar to the Arduino, but more robust and sophisticated (onboard SD storage, A/V outs, etc.) With all these capabilities, the Raspberry Pi is considered a single-board computer, with a system on a chip at its core.
I hope this clears things up for you. These technologies are obviously still burgeoning, so if anyone cares to weigh in with more (or different) knowledge, please do so in the comments.
Adafruit has had paid day off for voting for our team for years, if you need help getting that going for your organization, let us know – we can share how and why we did this as well as the good results. Here are some resources for voting by mail, voting in person, and some NY resources for our NY based teams as well. If there are additional resources to add, please let us know – adafruit.com/vote
Stop breadboarding and soldering – start making immediately! Adafruit’s Circuit Playground is jam-packed with LEDs, sensors, buttons, alligator clip pads and more. Build projects with Circuit Playground in a few minutes with the drag-and-drop MakeCode programming site, learn computer science using the CS Discoveries class on code.org, jump into CircuitPython to learn Python and hardware together, TinyGO, or even use the Arduino IDE. Circuit Playground Express is the newest and best Circuit Playground board, with support for CircuitPython, MakeCode, and Arduino. It has a powerful processor, 10 NeoPixels, mini speaker, InfraRed receive and transmit, two buttons, a switch, 14 alligator clip pads, and lots of sensors: capacitive touch, IR proximity, temperature, light, motion and sound. A whole wide world of electronics and coding is waiting for you, and it fits in the palm of your hand.