One is an introduction to electronics, the other is a master course to electronics
You've been thinking about an electronic kit for you or your kids. You would like to learn to learn more about electricity, or maybe a science fair coming up and you need project ideas. I will describe two excellent choices, although for different reasons. In some ways, the difference between these two kits is the differences between Godzilla and Kermit the Frog. Both are green misunderstood puppets, but other than that, they are vastly different.
What is Arduino?
An Arduino is a programmable micro-controller with I/O pins to connect to other circuits. In simpler terms, an Arduino is a miniature computer that you can hook up to things like motors, lights, and many other components. An Arduino is often used as the brains of a hobby robots, but the possibilities are legion, from fart detecting remote controls, to jackets covered in lights that flash with the beat of any music playing.
How To Get Started With Arduino?
To get started with an Ardunio, you are going to need the actual Arduino and then a breadboard, some wires, resistors, and then some fun components like LEDs, sensors, buzzers, and so forth. The Arduino home page has getting started guides, but you will want to pick up a more detailed book from Amazon and even Electronics For Dummies if you really want to get serious with making your own projects. After that, you can get additional components from RadioShack, digikey, or even from old toys with electronic parts.
You will need a computer (Windows, OS X, or Linux) to program the Arduino's micro-controller. The kit above comes with a USB cable that connects to the Arduino and your computer. Finally, you'll need to download free software to write programs, that you will then send to the Arduino.
An Arduino is Better Because:
The primary strength an Arduino has over Snap Circuit kits is the flexibility and program-ability. If you know what you are doing, you can hook anything electronic up to an Arduino. And then you can write software to make that electronic invention behave however you'd like. You can build robots that walk, talk, sense the world around them, hook up to the Internet, and more. The Arduino is the brains behind real, serious, and useful projects.
As you might guess, these features adds a ton of complexity to using an Arduino. You really need to be careful and have an understanding of electronics to understand how to accomplish your goals. An Arduino is excellent for high school and college students. Any younger than that will need a lot of parental supervision and involvement.
An Arduino is the Godzilla of science kits, crushing all the competition, but adding an element of danger as well. Even though most of the time you'll just be connected to a 9 volt battery, you need to know what you are doing or you might get a small shock.
Snap Circuits is a series of kits created by Elenco Electronics, Inc. The idea is instead of wires, you have blue plastic bars with metal running down the center. At even intervals, there is literally a snap embedded in the plastic. This allows the plastic bar to snap on to components that have snaps bases, or other plastic bars. It is very intuitive, easy, and simple. No stripping of wires, or soldering. I have noticed with a lot of love and play, the snaps become weaker over time, but after 5 years, you may be ready to move to something more advanced anyways.
How To Get Started With Snap Circuits?
The kits vary in by price as the number of components and projects increases. The simpler SC-100 kit starts at $22, with the more advanced SC-75- going for $80. I found the middle range SC-300 kit at $35 a good balance for me and my kids.
The kits come with Project Guide Books and directly related to the SC number. In other words, the SC-100 has 100 projects and the SC-300 has 300 projects. The difference between the projects can be slight, so divide the number by 5 to get an idea of how many significantly different projects are described in the book. For example, the SC-300 really only has about 60 unique projects. The projects have easy to follow diagrams and even describe some of the principles of electricity and science.
The kits come with components such as LEDs, motors, sound components, and switches. All of the components are specifically for Snap Circuits and have snaps mounted on them for easy use. You'll need two to four AA batteries depending on which kit you get.
Snap Circuits is Better Because:
It's easier and self-contained. The Project Guide Books will show you many ways to use the same component to give a deeper understanding of exactly how each part works. And even if you aren't ready to learn about electricity, you can still build some fun projects to show off. Although you can fry the included Snap Circuit mounted LEDs by mounting them without the proper resistor, for the most part the kits are robust and encourage experimentation. The parts the kits come with are fun and tactile and have visual and auditory feed back. You can make a plastic fan spin and even (safely) launch, create light shows with blinking LEDs, and simulate space battles using the sound components, as well as many other projects.
Snap Circuits are a great introduction for kids to the world of electronics. The box says for 8 and up, but with adult guidance, you could even cut a year or so. Snap Circuits are the Kermit the Frog of electronics. It's fun, encouraging and educational. Although you may outgrow it, you'll always have found memories of it and want to share it with your kids.
If you take the Arduino kit mentioned above, remove the actual Arduino and add a great book of project, you'll have something like Snap Circuits. In other words, Snap Circuits is a very easy introduction to bread boarding and experimenting with circuits. There is no programming with Snap Circuits. And for that reason, Snap Circuits is extremely limited. On the other hand, there is no better introduction to electricity for children than Snap Circuits.
If you enjoyed learning about the Arduino, check out my other article Lego Mindstorm vs Arduino for more details and comparisons.