BBC micro:bit review: The free Raspberry Pi rival every kid will love

BBC micro:bit review: Programming

Unlike a Pi, where programming is done on the device, you’ll need an existing computer to program the micro:bit. The device arrives running a simple program to introduce you to the buttons, accelerometer and LED matrix. Connecting it to a PC is simple: plug it in via its micro-USB port and it appears as a removable drive, with no drivers required. The micro:bit is entirely cross-platform and compatible with any USB mass storage capable operating system.

There’s no need to install any development software, either. Programming the micro:bit is carried out in the browser on the BBC micro:bit website, using one of a choice of different code editors: Code Kingdoms’ JavaScript, Microsoft’s Touch Develop or the same company’s Block Editor – a child-friendly drag-and-drop environment that should be familiar to anyone who has used MIT’s Scratch.

A simulator is also available, for testing code without a physical micro:bit to hand. When compiled, code is downloaded as a hex file and simply dragged to the micro:bit’s drive to flash and run.

Python support is also planned, but at the time of writing was not available in the browser. However, those eager to play can write Python programs and install them on the micro:bit using uFlash, a command-line compilation and flashing utility compatible with any computer capable of running Python.

BBC micro:bit review: Bluetooth

The jewel in the micro:bit crown, though, is its Bluetooth support, which allows the device to be paired and programmed via a smartphone or tablet app. The app, developed in partnership with Samsung, is compatible with both Android and iOS devices.

When paired with a micro:bit – a process that involves noting down a pattern of LEDs and inputting a PIN that scrolls across the matrix – it’s possible to turn it into everything from a device for finding a lost phone to a remote control for music playback.

BBC micro:bit app screenshots

It’s even possible to use the micro:bit without access to a desktop or laptop. Code can be written in any one of the browser-based editors, saved to a user’s account, and then loaded into the app for wireless flashing to a paired micro:bit.

The process is slow: where flashing a simple program over a USB cable takes a few seconds, you can be waiting up to five minutes to flash the same program via Bluetooth. And the connection process can be finicky as well. It paired fine initially, but then disconnected and I had to delete the pairing and start again before it would work once more. I suspect that this is likely to improve over time, however, as the application is developed further.

BBC micro:bit review: Verdict

The micro:bit is an undeniably impressive project, with a huge amount of potential. It’s easy to get started with, a doddle to program, and thanks to the quality of the documentation and variety of resources available, it’s highly accessible. In other words, it’s perfect for its target audience: young kids taking their first steps in coding.

The big question, however, is the price. For anyone not receiving one through a school, the micro:bit will have to compete with everything from the £4 Raspberry Pi Zero to the £28 Genuino 101 and Raspberry Pi 3 (both devices that include Bluetooth), as well as the £15 CodeBug on which the micro:bit was originally based. As of yet, though, the BBC is silent on commercial availability and pricing.

See also: Raspberry Pi 3 review – built-in Wi-Fi and faster processor take the Pi to the next level 

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