Evaluation Type: Independent Products
Did you receive all parts the manufacturer stated would be included in the package?: True
What other parts do you consider comparable to this product?: I have worked with development kits from STMicroelectronics, TI processors (MSP430) and Silicon Laboratories - as well as the beginner items such as Arduino, PIC, and Basic Stamp.
What were the biggest problems encountered?: None
Thanks to element14 for allowing me to Road Test this product.
To first explain where I approach something like this, I will give you a little background. I am a Systems Engineer with degrees in both Hardware Electronics and Software Engineering. I have over 15 years of experience in laboratory/R&D environments in developing, building, and testing electronics systems. I’m also a hobbyist at home, building little projects that may or may not be helpful and that certainly cause my wife to roll her eyes occasionally.
That being said, I approach an item like this with both items in mind; from the engineer standpoint, and the home hobbyist.
Straight away, there is not much that comes with this kit. The board itself and “documentation” that is in the form of the cardboard insert to the packaging. However, on said packaging is the website (www.st.com/stm32f4-discovery) and a “Getting Started” instruction set. Getting started was simple enough and within 30 seconds of opening the package I had LEDs blinking. From the engineer standpoint, this isn’t a problem. I have a lot of USB cables around and I can certainly navigate the web. Home hobbyists are probably in the same boat with cables and web savvy as well – however the lack of information from the start can prove a little daunting.
The website gives plenty of information, from data briefs to technical notes. There are even a few application notes that go through using different hardware capabilities of the kit itself (such as the audio circuitry). The user manuals are pretty helpful in giving information and examples. For instance, the ‘UM1052: STM32F103xx/ STM32F100xx/STM32F2xx/STM32F4xx PMSM single/dual FOC SDK v3.2’ document gives the chip set architecture and examples on how to interface to different sensors/peripherals – even those not found on the board itself. The ‘UM1472: STM32F4DISCOVERY STM32F4 high-performance discovery board’ document gives good information about the board itself and the hardware that is used. This is especially helpful when going to design interface circuitry for the chip to control. The ‘UM1467: Getting started with software and firmware environments for the STM32F4DISCOVERY Kit’ document goes through each of the suggested development toolchains for use with the development board.
The hardware itself is setup nicely. The board is a clean layout and has all the signals run to external headers for connections. Sadly, the size of the board does not lend itself to many of the breadboard sizes available, but with a little ingenuity you can make it work. There are also various jumper settings on the board that allow changes to certain configurations. With the availability of signals and the documentation for hardware interfacing, the development board is a great tool for the bench top design method. Users can easily see where interfaces are and how to connect to them correctly. From the engineer perspective, all is where it should be. I can find signals and interface my systems to the developer kit easily.
The board also has the ability to replace/repair parts if needed. Engineers are more likely to attack this due to the SMT parts, but a hobbyist can jump in too with practice elsewhere first.
The kit comes with no development tool chain. So, while the price of the board itself isn’t bad for the home hobbyist, the price of the developer chain might hurt. There are four different toolchains that are recommended:
Each can get pretty pricey if going in for a full version. However, many of them offer Lite versions for discounted prices, or free. However, functionality will be limited. From the engineer perspective, this is not helpful – but in a work environment I just buy the developer set I need. From the hobbyist perspective, however, this can be a limitation. The Lite versions, though, usually do have enough functionality for the at-home-hacker to be able to make just about anything they wish. The TrueSTUDIO Lite version, for example, has everything needed. However, it does come with some ads and only supports assembly and C, whereas the Pro version adds C++.
As you can see, you need to be comfortable with C - or assembly - in order to program with this developer kit.
Overall – Engineer
This type of developer kit is right at home in my lab. I have the toolchains needed (I did download the TrueSTUDIO Lite at home just to see how it did) and I can easily get to the hardware. The sensors onboard are handy for certain types of projects, but the connection ability helps me to interface with any sensor type I need. As with any new processor it takes time to learn the programming. The examples provided on the website are helpful to get started, but due to the levels of functionality the chip has you need to read up. Luckily the documentation is helpful in this regard.
My initial project was to work up a robot control with this ARM “brain”. I retrofitted a platform that was using an Arduino MEGA to then use this processor. (Yes, big leap in brain power.) The interfacing went well but I found the programming to be a bit more cumbersome – though I would expect this due to the increase in complexity. Overall I was able to control the system – and had added sound ability though I didn’t program that in much. However, that really is just a tip of the iceberg for this processor. It has more math capabilities than the simple products so it is far more usable for high end projects.
Overall – Home Hobbyist
This might be too big of a bite to chew on right at first. If you are just starting in the world of processors, physical computing, etc. you may want to step back to the PIC, Basic Stamp, or Arduino to get your feet wet. While these will not have near the features or power that the ARM has, they will give you a look into the design chain. However, if your teeth have been cut on other development kits before and you have a nice feel for C, then jump in. Keep cost of the software in mind if you do need all the bells and whistles of the Pro version of any tool kit. If the Lite versions give you what you need, then by all means jump in and play with what this board has to offer. I will be using it in a project at home very soon.