September 25, 2010
It's nice to see that more people have started to get their LaunchPads. I've managed to log a few hours now and thought I'd share some of my impressions thus far.
Overall I give the new toy high marks. As everyone has heard, it comes in a nice little box along with two microcontrollers, both male and female headers, a clock crystal, and a USB cable. Setting it up was easy enough - with the exception of a truly massive software download. I just followed a few step-by-step instructions from the guide and the LaunchPad connected for me via USB on the first try.
As a project/demo board it's adequate. You get a couple of LEDs, a couple of switches, breakouts to all pins, and a USB connection that will show up as a serial port for PC-Launchpad communication. But what you really get for your $4.30 is a programmer that opens you up to a good complement of Texas Instruments' MSP430 series micros. This includes all MSP430 Value Line chips, eZ430 target boards, and any MSP430 device with Spy Bi-Wire capabilities.
Of course there's more to be considered with a platform than price alone, but to me it's an important factor. If you take a look at what TI has been lining up - not just with LaunchPad but with the Value Line chips and some of their target boards - things get pretty interesting. I'll resist the temptation to do a lot of price comparison to other platforms. Everyone knows what they've paid for other chips, programmers and project boards.
LaunchPad comes with a 14-pin, 2K flash MSP430 installed and preloaded with a demo program. Obviously this little guy is kind of wimpy compared to what a lot people are using here at LMR. It does about what you'd expect - it's got general input-output, 10-bit analog conversion, and SPI/i2c. These chips are 16 bit with a straight-up von Neumann architecture. If you clock them up to full speed they get 16 MIPS.
As with any micro, at the end of the day it will come down to whether the various pros and cons work for you and your project. For example, one of the MSP430's biggest selling points is extreme power efficiency. They run at 1.8-3.6 volts and have 5 modes that enable you to turn off various clocks and peripherals to save power. In standby mode they consume fraction of a microAmp and can wake back up in less than a microsecond. There are many projects that could really take advantage of these abilities, but if your project won't benefit from extreme power efficiency you might find working at low power and low voltage to be a nuisance.
Without a doubt the biggest problem with LaunchPad and the MSP430 series is the lack of good documentation to help beginners get started. Despite marketing LaunchPad as "an easy-to-use development tool intended for beginners and experienced users alike," TI really hasn't put together any appropriate introductory material. The 20 page LaunchPad User's Guide is insufficient, and the few code samples and projects from TI are clearly written for people who already understand embedded systems pretty well. On the bright side you'll find there are a number of LaunchPad blogs and tutorials popping up and there are also some general resources online for MSP430 programming from schools and hobbyists. These resources will continue to grow, but it will take a long time to get a good body of knowledge put together.
In summary - good micro, great price, not for everyone, not a lot of help for the beginner.
Looking forward to hearing what others think.