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Ask Slashdot: Good Books and Tools For a Software/Hardware Hobbyist? 85

postermmxvicom writes "I have a friend who is a mechanic, but enjoys tinkering with software and hardware as a hobby. I want to get him a gift that will either broaden his horizons or deepen his understanding in these fields. He is proficient at soldering components and removing them from circuit boards. His programming experience is with a wide variety of scripting languages. He recently used teensy and arduino boards and an accelerometer to add some bells and whistles to a toy car he made. He also used his knowledge to help a friend find and correct weaknesses in his shareware (that would have let 'customers' share more freely than intended). He is fascinated that people can create chips to modify existing hardware. Do you know of any good books or kits (or even tools of the trade) that would appeal to a hobbyist and allow him to grow? Is there anything that might also play off of his handyman/mechanic abilities?"
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Ask Slashdot: Good Books and Tools For a Software/Hardware Hobbyist?

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  • by bugs2squash ( 1132591 ) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @03:09PM (#40832557)
    I really liked MSP430 state machine programming by Tom Baugh. I learned a lot about state machines, and they are basic to many applications.
  • by Ashenkase ( 2008188 ) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @03:12PM (#40832621) [] Could be a good mix of the two?
    • So, yeah, telling a nanny state to fuck off is high on my list of priorities.

      This is especially good for someone who has shown interest in hardware/software hacking but is just getting started.

      I gave a mindstorm set to a nephew and it's easily the biggest home run I've ever hit with a gift since I bought my wife an engagement ring more than 20 years ago.

      This kid didn't really have any experience with hardware/software programming and every time I go over to my sister's house and see what he's gotten up to w

  • Tools Make things (Score:5, Insightful)

    by DeTech ( 2589785 ) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @03:14PM (#40832655)
    As an engineer and tinkerer I have to throwin a plug for increasing his capabilities. If he has a multimeter, get him a scope. If he has a dremel tool, get him a mini mill (shapeoko), etc.
    • Yeah, go back in time and pre-order one of those shapeokos before they close the pre-ordering.
      • by DeTech ( 2589785 )

        Sorry, there's another production run coming...soon...

        But I'm sure you can find something else to complain about though.

  • by xxxJonBoyxxx ( 565205 ) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @03:14PM (#40832659)

    >> "I have a friend who..."

    C'mon, man up and admit that YOU have a question. (This is Slashdot, not Penthouse.)

  • Arduino for sure... or Netduino if he swings that way.
    • by DeTech ( 2589785 )

      Arduino for sure... or Netduino if he swings that way.

      He recently used teensy and arduino boards and an accelerometer to add some bells and whistles to a toy car he made.


    • by Annirak ( 181684 )

      I know everyone loves Arduino, but I don't get it. If you think you can explain it to me, first read specs of Raspberry Pi []($35 and runs Linux, has Ethernet, USB, etc.) and STM32F4DISCOVERY [] ($15, 210 DMIPS, FPU, 1MB of flash, 192kB of SRAM, has USB host/device/otg, onboard 3-axis accelerometer, mic, stereo DAC with speaker driver, JTAG debugger also built in).

      With those two on the market, I don't see what Arduino is for...

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Arduino is designed to be used by artists. The tutorials are amazing. So, anyone who wants to create something can just string together several tutorials and have a truly awesome project.

        The other thing is that the Arduino is extensible. When you get tired of Arduino's programming language, you can write in C or assembler. If you want to create an inexpensive stand-alone project, the Arduino board becomes, effectively, a chip burner.

        The first year electronics students, at the college where I teach, use

      • The Raspberry Pi barely came out! Granted, you can now do stuff just like arduino []. However, there are caveats:

        Important Note: The RPi Wiki takes pains to remind you that these GPIO pins are unbuffered and unprotected, so if you short something out, you could fry your whole Pi, so be careful! There are a number of other breakout boards being developed that should make this safer.

        Like an AC posted earlier, the barrier to entry is significantly lower for Arduino simply due to the easy step-by-step tutorials available. In a year or two, I'm sure there will be many great tutorials for the Raspberry Pi and friends.

      • What the Arduino crowd have done fantastically well is get a load of people who wouldn't normally mess with a microcontroller to do just that. The community is the strength. There are hundreds (thousands?) of microcontroller demo boards out there, but without the support network they're hard work to use. Not impossible, but development is slower, and restricted to users with more time/enthusiasm. As someone with no previous microcontroller experience you could buy an Arduino kit, unwrap it in the morning, a
  • MAKE (Score:4, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @03:15PM (#40832691)

    subscribe him to MAKE magazine.

  • Web Browser... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by swanzilla ( 1458281 ) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @03:16PM (#40832697) Homepage
    ...and a nudge in the direction of Sparkfun, Adafruit, Hack-a-Day, et. al. This particular community is vast and welcoming for the most part. Example code, parts lists, and detailed write-ups are all over the place.
  • GoodReads [] has a selection that might spark his interest.
  • It's been several days since the last Raspberry Pi comment, so perhaps it's time to dig it up again.

    Am excellent board for the casual hardware/software tinkerer, and there is a book out soon, and vibrant community.

    • If only their USB stack was robust enough that I could play MP3s without it locking up when I change volume with "amixer"...

      (But I have yet to try the latest Raspbian, so it might be fixed now...).

  • by vlm ( 69642 ) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @03:25PM (#40832849)

    I want to get him a gift that will either broaden his horizons or deepen his understanding in these fields.

    If he's a reader: the ARRL handbook, the Art of Electronics, if radio shack still sells the Forrest Mims books get those...

    If he just wants to mess with ckts you could do worse than the 200 in 1 lab kits etc. "Snap circuits" are a bit expensive but a lot of fun.

    His programming experience is with a wide variety of scripting languages. []

    The little schemer book/series as appropriate

    I've found over a couple decades that no one really knows what to get me, but me. Maybe your best bet is wake him up early on saturday, feed him lots of pancakes, stuff $200 in his wallet, drive him to the ham fest flea market in your area, and see what he finds for himself?

    • +1 for both books.

      The Art of Electronics is an approachable introduction to electronics, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. It's expensive, but IMHO worth it.

      The ARRL Handbook has a soup-to-nuts electronics education in it, and the added bonus of a lot of other practical information and projects. This book has the added bonus of possibly inspiring your friend to become a radio amateur, where you get to tinker with all kinds of interesting stuff. I know a couple mechanics who greatly enjoy their ama

  • by Anonymous Coward

    >He is fascinated that people can create chips to modify existing hardware.

    Hook him up with some digital logic and HDL tutorials and get him a Xilinx Spartan-6 FPGA LX9 MicroBoard []. It's a basic FPGA dev board the size of a USB stick and (relatively) inexpensive.

    There are also USB stick microcontroller dev kits like the TI ez430 [] that he'd also probably have fun with as well.

  • loaders, linkers, libraries, supervisory mode... a basic 200-level CS book might give him plently of high-level fundamentals once he descends into the world of device-specific drivers.
  • What kind of budget do you have for this gift?

    A Safari subscription could be good... but then, your local library system may already offer access to this (mine does)

  • by StatureOfLiberty ( 1333335 ) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @03:29PM (#40832937)
    As far as ways to exercise his interests: Amateur radio is a great hobby for tinkerers. There are plenty of opportunities for exercising his soldering or other electronics related skills. Many aspects of the hobby are extremely computer friendly (Digital signal processing, APRS + many others). If he is in to model cars, rockets ..., a ham license gives you additional options for handling telemetry.
    • Re:Amateur radio (Score:5, Insightful)

      by toygeek ( 473120 ) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @03:54PM (#40833275) Homepage Journal

      Amateur radio is good, IF he is someone who is really social. I'm not, and I found it quite boring after a while. I think people forget that aspect of it. The whole idea of ham radio is to talk to other people, and quite frankly, I don't WANT to talk to other people for a hobby. I want to build things, modify things, break and fix things, etc. I do think that there are many aspects of the hobby that ARE enjoyable, but unless I NEED to communicate with *other amateur radio operators* then its useless to me.

      • Re: "The whole idea of ham radio is to talk to other people"

        Amateur radio does not at all have to be about communicating with other hams.

        For example:
        We use the amateur radio APRS technology to track weather balloons that we send up to 100,000 feet or so. I integrated all of the electronics and fabricated the balloon communications payload. I built all of my antennas. A friend projected the flight path and tracked the balloon in flight. We have flown 6 or so flights. It is a blast.

        Transmitting A

      • There is certainly the "talk to people" aspect in many facets of amateur radio, but there is plenty of other interesting stuff going on too.
        Like you, I am not very interested in the social side of things, but still I find a lot to do with my license, for instance []

        One thing I had to learn after being in the hobby for a while is that you really have to specialize if you want to get technical. The social crew mostly floats from whatever technology is popular to the next but never really u

  • Anything Arduino... Make bots / gadgets, automate the home, tinker everywhere... []

  • by donaggie03 ( 769758 ) <{moc.liamtoh} {ta} {reyemso_d}> on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @03:43PM (#40833127)
    Makes me immediately think of robotics. With that in mind, I'd suggest books like JunkBots, Bugbots, and Bots on Wheels: Building Simple Robots With BEAM Technology or Robot Builder's Bonanza. Maybe not these exact books, because they might be a little dated, but anything in that vein. You can also look at microcontroller programming (PIC, Arduino, ..), which allows you to do all sorts of things with feedback systems and motor control, etc. Of course there's the good ol' fallback too: Lego Mindstorms.
  • The Elements of Computing Systems [] is a great book if he really wants to get a grasp of computers from the level of logic gates on up.

    Working through the exercises in each chapter, you use HDL to design your own logic gates, build them into more advanced circuits (DFF, adder, ALU, etc.), and then a full-fledged Von Neumann computer.

    After that, you move into software mode, starting with machine language, then assembly, and finally a high-level Java-like language. Along the way your write your own symboli
  • The programming shop where I work has no books at all. We use Google. At my three previous shops, we had plenty of books but I rarely cracked one.

    The best way to learn programming is by doing and to have Google at your disposal when you have questions.

  • Hobbyist tools (Score:4, Informative)

    by Annirak ( 181684 ) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @03:50PM (#40833211)

    Bus Pirate []: good for looking at communication waveforms to debug problems. ($35)

    Logic Sniffer []: For more complex problems than the above, allows looking at parallel signals.($50)

    Raspberry Pi []: Tiny ARM11 700MHz CPU with powerful graphics, 10/100 ethernet, USB2.0 host (2 ports), HDMI out, and GPIO connector. Boots from SD card. ($35)

    MSP430 Launchpad []: inexpensive microcontroller development platform ($4.30)

    STM32F4Discovery []: Development platform for powerful microcontroller. ARM Cortex M4 with FPU, 168MHz (210DMIPS), Ethernet MAC, 2xUSB host/device/OTG, etc. etc. Board has stereo audio DAC with speaker driver, USB Micro-AB connector, 3-axis accelerometer, digital mic, 4 user LEDs, two pushbuttons (one is reset), and onboard debugger which is supported by open source tools. ($15) <--- take that, arduino

    • Curious about the SDM32F4 Discovery -- Can you point out a reference to a good open source tool chain, as well as a supplier for the base board? The web site won't let me order one, other places are out of stock...
      • by Annirak ( 181684 )

        If you're working on Linux, then just download gcc-arm-linux-gnueabi with your package manager, or build from source. If you're working on Windows, it's a little more complex; I have used OpenOCD [].

        You can order the STM32F4Discovery from Digikey, Mouser, Arrow, Avnet, Element14, Newark, etc. They're pretty widely available.

        Olimex has some good references in the software section of their USB JTAG page [].

  • by LodCrappo ( 705968 ) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @03:57PM (#40833299) Homepage

    consider an inexpensive FPGA board like the Altera DE1. There are nearly unlimited things you can build based off such a kit, whether you decide to look at it from the viewpoint of hardware, software or both. []
    (there are several other low cost FPGA boards, I just happen to use the DE1. It's quite adequate for a great many things, but there may be even better options out there by now)

    Also, consider amateur radio. If you have an active local club, it will server as a gateway into a whole realm of interesting things (many only tangentially related to radio) and an introduction to the people who are doing them locally.

  • A Makerbot kit might be nice for printing things in PLA plastic. Check out the Rostock printer. It's faster than the Makerbot and has higher resolution.
  • Looking at the ads alone will give you a ton of ideas ...

  • A friend of mine has a small company that sells development boards and kits for the Parallax Propeller platform. I'm not that into the hobbyist prototyping stuff, but he's told me a million times that what makes Parallax better than other options is the fact that you don't have to learn a computer language to use it.

    If your friend is a mechanic, he may enjoy a kit that my friend just designed call The Car Kracker []. Although that kit is specifically designed for BMW models, my friend made the kit himself and

  • Tools! (Score:4, Informative)

    by AtomicDevice ( 926814 ) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @04:41PM (#40833909)

    I vote tools.
    1) Really nice electronics-oriented multimeter. I'm sure he has one already, but it might be cheap/lacking in function/etc
    2) O-scope. Super handy and fun too. Old analog ones can be had for cheap. Check craigslist and ebay.
    3) Logic analyzer/Bus Pirate. I realize these are two pretty different things, but they fill a similar place in the "debugging digital stuff" category.

    Other than tools, I think some kind of audio kit/project would be cool. IMO nothing helps you learn more about how electronics really work than analog audio, synthesizers, amps, etc. It really helps connect the concepts of how voltage/current/power/etc are connected since it all ends up in a very tangible (audible) medium.

    Plus: Boom Boxes are sweet. It's a scientific fact.

  • They only publish excellent books, according to reviews on Slashdot.
  • I'm biased, but I think your friend would like "SolderSmoke -- Global Adventures in Wireless Electronics" [] SolderSmoke is the story of a secret, after-hours life in electronics. Bill Meara started out as a normal kid, from a normal American town. But around the age of 12 he got interested in electronics, and he has never been the same. To make matters worse, when he got older he became a diplomat. His work has taken him to Panama, Honduras, El Salvador, the Spanish Basq
  • The posted question doesn't provide enough information about the age or background of the person for whom we are making suggestions.

    It seems the presumption is the person for whom we are making suggestions is a child or youth between 9 and 16 years old. The person has disassembled, repaired, and programmed a moderate number of gadgets.

    The suggestions being offered are really good suggestions from a number of Slashdot readers who have experience as each poster suggests.

    As an amateur radio arduino electronics

  • Books are the wrong way to go.

    Try groups that get togeather. (Ham radio groups mentioned on are a good place to start - everyone's an hobbyist engineer.)

    Try web sites, like Try discussion formus on web sites.

  • The Maximite is getting a lot of attention is some quarters. Makes it VERY easy to get started in embedded software and hardware before moving on to more complex languages. Inexpensive too. []

Always leave room to add an explanation if it doesn't work out.