I’ve been playing with the TI LaunchPad the last day or two since I’ve been home in the US. I ordered two when they launched, but I was abroad and only just started playing with them, and I have some first impressions to share.
If you haven’t heard about the LaunchPad, it’s essentially Texas Instruments’ unofficial attempt at breaking into the hobbyist market currently dominated by the Arduino platform and Microchip’s PIC line. TI naturally has an extensive microcontroller product line as well (the MSP430 series), but typically these chips have found use in industrial designs since they fall into the “extremely low power” category of controllers. (Likely) looking to change that, and at least looking to get young developers and students hooked on the MSP430 line, TI recently developed and launched the LaunchPad development platform as what appears to be an MSP430 based direct competitor for Arduino. Perhaps most importantly, they are selling it for $4.30, almost certainly at cost or loss. You can read more at the link above.
The first thing I notice trying to get the thing up and running is that the packaging and general product is very nice. The board is small but not skimping on functionality for this type of purpose. The box which is attractive and protective) includes a MiniUSB cord, some stickers (a nice touch), some headers and a crystal, and maybe coolest, a second IC. Two ICs AND a dev board for $4.30! That alone is worth it. The board is nicely solder masked (red) and silkscreened (labels for all components and board functions, logo). All in all, it’s a nice package, especially for the cost.
The included demo is cool and reasonable: the IC prepopulated to the board (the MSP430 G2231) includes an onboard temperature sensor (or maybe the ADC samples an input diode or something, details on the temp sensor are unclear after a few minutes of research). By just powering on the board, the LaunchPad compares the current temp to the temp at startup and lights a green (greater) or red (lower) LED accordingly. The LaunchPad also reports the temperature over UART to the virtual com port, so a simple serial reading application on the computer can monitor it (demo implementation in Processing available for download from the wiki above).
But here’s where the headaches start. For comparison, I’m going to start by describing the Arduino experience: on Windows, Mac, or Linux alike, download the Arduino IDE (you can’t really call it that, but it does integrate an editor, a debugger, and a serial terminal). On Windows, you then install it. On Mac, you copy the download to /Apps. On linux, you either double-click the downloaded package or you used a package manager anyway and you’re already done. And keep in mind, this is by hobbyists for hobbyists.
In contrast, there are two software packages for the LaunchPad, IAR and Code Composer Studio. I’m still unclear which does what. They are both Windows-only, Mac and Linux are both officially unsupported, though if you’re adventurous you can compile and debug on the command line. Moreover, the installation on Windows 7 is anything but smooth. My first attempt to install IAR failed and, as I write this, I haven’t yet tried again since I’m still trying to install CCS (for which I’m on attempt two, attempt one stopped responding). While the CCS install has finished, it experienced so many errors that I can only cross my fingers that things will work.
That’s pretty unfortunate since the device looks promising on the hardware side. For now all I can hope is that the software does work and I don’t run into too many issues with USB support in my virtual machine. With any luck, Installation will be the end of my major problems, since the LaunchPad is pretty hard to refuse at $4.30 and 220µA/.5µA/.1µA current draw in active/standby/off.