Beginner microcontroller and FPGA kits

Thread Starter


Joined May 11, 2013
Hi all,
Recently I discovered an awesome lecture/course on embedded system while procrastinating on youtube (UNC- Charlotte ECGR 4101/5101 Embedded Systems if anyone is interested). I found it interesting because I'm a software developer who always wished he was an electronics engineer. Instead of taking the approach of learning circuitry, I thought I'd start a level or two down from where I'm at now with my computer knowledge and jump into microcontrollers. The course I've been following uses the Renasas RX63N which has loads of features and lots of stuff built onto the board so you can have some fun without buying peripherals. It can be had (in Australia) for $86.

I started looking around for alternatives though to see if there was something better out there. Unfortunately I don't know too much about this area so it's been hard for me to figure out what would be beneficial to me and what wouldn't. I own an Arduino but I think it's a bit too high level and I'm not really learning much from it. I considered a Raspberry Pi but I think it's a bit over kill for most of the things I want to do.

My main goal is to learn something new and interesting. I want a separate microcontroller development board and a separate FPGA development board and be able to connect peripherals to them and make them do something. There's no real world application for them at this point in time... I just want to know how to use them and maybe from that I might get ideas on how best to utilize them if I need to make something in the future. I basically want exposure to different technologies and have an understanding on how they work.... their limitation and advantages, etc.

I have a few leaning projects in mind... like use sensors on both boards and transfer their readings to the other (or even to my pc) using as many communication methods as possible. That's the type of exposure I'm looking for... I want to get my hands dirty with as many technologies as I can. They're mostly pointless or trivial projects but I want to know more about them and I think this is the best way don't you think?

I have a few hobbies that will probably benefit from what I plan to learn. Namely my remote control plane (and quad copter eventually) and also my CNC machine which is in early construction stage. There's also projects I have in mind that I'm not sure how to go about until I know more about microcontrollers, etc...

After some research, I've seen a trend developing where people are gravitating towards ARM microncontrollers in favor of PIC/Atmel AVR. I don't mean to start a holy war but I've pretty much set my sites on an ARM Cortex M4 variant. For FPGAs, I think I'm going to go with an Altera Cyclone IV. I've picked these two mainly because I found very well laid out ebay store which specifically sells development boards. This particular store has generic peripherals which plug into just about every development board he sells... whether it be PIC, AVR, ARM or FPGA. I've emailed him for a quote but it looks as though I can get about 20 different peripherals along with an ARM Cortex M4 and an Altera FPGA for well under $200 (AUD).. possibly even $150 (waiting on his response).

I don't want to post any links but there stores aren't hard to find. As usual though, I'm not sure on the alternatives to what this guy is selling. The products are STM32F4DISCOVERY STM32F407 STM32 ARM Cortex-M4 Development Board and EP4CE10 EP4CE10F17C8N ALTERA Cyclone IV FPGA Development Board. I'm not sure if they're rubbish as I get overwhelmed with info when trying to read up on them. The Arm board looks pretty standard and generic, it's sold by lots of places and I've watched plenty of youtube videos about it. The FPGA on the other hand is difficult to find decent information on.

Really all I'm after is something I can plug peripherals into and write some C code (assembler if needs be) and have a functioning embedded device which has taught me something. My biggest fear is I'll buy something and get bogged down with configuration issues because they're difficult parts to use. From what I can tell though I've picked fairly newbie friendly devices. Am I headed down the right path or should I be doing/buying something completely different?

Any advice/opinions are welcomed. :)

Thanks for reading!


Joined Oct 2, 2009
Necessity is the Mother of Invention.

I suggest you start by finding a real project as a goal. That is the best way to learn.

I am biased in my selection of dev boards. I would have suggested Arduino but have little working knowledge of it.

I am currently developing exercises using the TI MSP430 LaunchPad for people such as you. Check out my blog on this site.

I have a lot of knowledge using the STM32F4 Discovery board and find it is a very powerful system.