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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 19th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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What can't you do with this thing?

1 March 2013

Some time ago I ordered a couple of little ARM-based development boards from China.

I ordered them from eBay seller tangqianchi and waited, and waited and waited.

The tracking number I was given simply said "picked up" but then all activity ceased.

The seller said "you wait, it come" -- so I waited some more.

Because they had a 99.8% positive feedback, I was prepared to give the seller the benefit of the doubt and wait beyond the period allowed for claiming a refund through the eBay buyer protection plan and PayPal's similar option.

The products never turned up and now the seller ignores my attempts at contact. It seems this is a common ploy -- keep the buyer optimistic with emails but only until they no longer have an option to place feedback.

So my advice is, avoid buying anything from eBay seller tangqianchi.

However, I still wanted the product so I ended up ordering the same thing from Deal Extreme and this time I was luckier -- it arrived within two weeks.

So what did I buy?

Well these are really cute little ARM Cortex M3-based boards, complete with a 2.8 inch TFT LCD touch screen.

Okay, the screen does have a somewhat limited viewing angle and can challenge this aging geek's old eyes when using a small font-size -- but for the money you sure get plenty of "bang".

Unfortunately, the documentation (which comes on a mini-CD) is awful.

Most of it is in Chinese -- although the sample code isn't too bad -- although definitely not for beginners expecting an Arduino-like experience.

Fortunately, there's plenty of documentation and template/library code available for the STM32F103 family of processors so anyone with a modicum of prior microcontroller experience won't have too much difficulty getting started on the learning curve -- which only leaves one question...

What do you do with a board like this?

Well the options are pretty limitless really.

Providing you're willing to invest the time and effort, and have the ability to cut or port the code, this little unit could be turned into almost anything.

Right now I'm turning one into a piece of test-equipment for a company that makes full-sized helicopters. They'll use it for testing and calibrating things such as governors, rotor alarms, tachometers and the like.

To create this functionality I'm simply tossing the thing into an "off the shelf" plastic box, adding a little interface circuitry that buffers a couple of the GPIO lines and writing some code to provide a touch-screen-based user-interface and other functionality. Toss in a small lithium battery plus charging circuit and viola... a fully self contained bit of kit that looks like a million dollars but costs a lot less than you'd expect.

It's simply not worth creating custom hardware for bespoke electronic systems these days when you can grab these major building-blocks for about US$30 including shipping. They are a blank slate onto which you can draw whatever functionality you need.

I'm thinking of using one as the basis for DIY RC system -- the only other bits really needed being the case, a couple of dual-axis sticks, some switches, a battery and RF module.

As for processing power -- well they roundly trounce your average AVR-based Arduino system in almost all areas, except perhaps, ease of programming.

Perhaps Aardvark readers might like to come up with some ideas for projects or products that could be based on these little boards. What would you like to build or see built using this ARM-based processor board and its LCD touchscreen?

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