Article by Suzie Murray
Computers are great. They can save lives, change lives, and sometimes they’re responsible for wasting lives. What could be better?
Microcomputers. Like computers but smaller, sturdier, more accessible. The joy of the Raspberry Pi is not just that ‘A Scientist shrunk your computer’, but the ease with which you can plug in anything you like, and make it do whatever you’d like. By stripping back the surface, microcomputers become much more versatile.
However the smaller size demands compromise on features, and the Pi treads a fine line. The Raspberry Pi errs on the side of complexity, but it comes at the cost of some educational benefit: they’re fantastic machines but they aren’t quick to use without a background in computer science. The Makey Makey Go leans the other way, and opts for über simplistic crocodile clip connections, which I’ll come to later.
The BBC microbit does everything the Raspberry Pi set out to achieve. It’s easy to code, easy to use, and super cute. I thought I was appreciating the microbit, and then I showed mine to two 10 year old girls. I did not give the 4×5 rectangle of magic half of the credit it deserved. If Harry Potter rode in on a unicorn, carrying a candy floss machine, I’m fairly confident they would continue to modify the microbit code. The clear connection between the code they wrote and the results they got made it satisfying to learn with.
The documentation makes it really easy to learn the ropes. Straying from the usual program doc format, it’s almost bizarrely easy to stay awake during and after reading. These are written for people to learn from. The docs are also a good go-to for if you’re not sure what you’d like to achieve. The code included is easy to modify and learn from, whether you’re happy with computers or technically challenged. Because everything is online (including the program GUI and compiler), everything is in one place and it’s difficult to lose files when they’re auto-saved onto a cloud.
My biggest gripe would be the output pins. Initially I was impressed by the tickling project, and so enthusiastically, naïvely, I made the pilgrimage across school to the physics department to haggle for some spare crocodile clips. Woe is me. Nothing I tried worked. Energy which could have been spent catching Pokémon, wasted. If you’re looking for devices to network, the micro might not be for you.
That said, the microbit is my favourite toy of the summer. I feel that I’m being fair in calling it a toy; not demeaningly but because I truly enjoy using it. The process of investigating, writing, and importing your code is not just satisfying, but painless. I haven’t seen a bad review yet.
If you want to buy a microbit, the best spot to preorder looks to be from Tech Will Save Us for £15.