Adafruit, an open-source hardware company, has released a number of products to help people learn basic and advanced coding skills. Here we are looking at the Adafruit Circuit Playground Express Base Kit which teaches you to code through a programmable circuit board.

In the box

The Circuit Playground Express Base Kit contains a circuit board with labels for all the components, an external battery holder, and an A to Micro-B USB cable. Dozens of code samples and tutorials are available on the web, giving every user access to plenty of material for self-teaching code. The Circuit Playground Express is also an ideal tool for educators who want to teach coding in the classroom.

Design

In terms of design, the Circuit Playground Express board intentionally leaves all of the circuitry and labels uncovered, allowing the user to see each piece of the board clearly — which makes for a somewhat crowded but ultimately understandable appearance. The circular, compact design allows tons of features to be packed into a small space. It isn’t sleek or lovely, but it is highly functional, which makes it a practical option for watching code spring to life.

Hardware

The hardware itself is jam-packed with features for you to program. There are ten mini NeoPixels that can display any color, as specified by the corresponding Hex code. A built-in motion sensor can tell if you’re shaking, tapping, or dropping your device. The temperature, light, and sound sensors can also be programmed similarly, so you can pop it in the fridge, shine a light on it, or sing a note into it and watch your code react in real time.

Eight input and output pins for digital and analog commands are compatible with alligator clips, so you can control outside devices without having to do any soldering. The built-in speaker sounds a little bit crackly at times and struggles to play extreme low and high tones– it is by no means a high-quality audio device, but it can clearly play different tones and even recorded voices. (As far as I can tell, the can’t actually do any recording — but it can store and play pre-recorded audio with the speaker).

The buttons and switches on the board are pretty straightforward, with A and B being the two main buttons, a slide switch, and a reset button for easy rebooting. An infrared receiver and transmitter can respond to a standard remote control or send signals to another device if programmed correctly. The Circuit Playground Express seems sturdy in spite of all of the features being exposed and condensed into a small board, and each piece serves a function.

Compatibility and Software

The board is compatible with a number of free open-source code writing programs, so it doesn’t cost you anything extra to write code. For code editing, I’ve personally been using Mu, a free and simple Python code editor designed for beginners that can also be used to write in CircuitPython.

If you have no previous knowledge of code, you can also program your board using Microsoft MakeCode, a JavaScript-based editor that implements a drag-and-drop interface to teach the fundamentals of code structure without requiring you to write any code yourself. Adafruit’s website comes with a full tutorial and guided tour of the project, so if you ever feel lost you can refer to the site for guidance, and plenty of projects are available for you to download and modify. You can also get a library of functions from Adafruit’s website, which can be saved to the board and imported into your code for you to use while writing your code.

Performance

The performance of the device is reliable — when connected to a power source, it does everything you need it to do. You can save your code directly onto the device and connect it to battery power, which allows you to take your code everywhere you go. I’ve found that the audio performance falters a bit at very low or very high tone frequencies, but everything else has shown to be reliable and easy to use. The mini NeoPixels are capable of intense brightness and rich colors, and none of them have blown out in spite of the fairly rough situations I’ve put the board through.

The buttons don’t stick and the device is always able to detect when they’ve been pressed, meaning any button-related commands in the code are seamlessly executed. All of the problems I’ve encountered are because I wrote the code incorrectly, not because the device was failing. Fortunately, simple mistakes in the code don’t cause any major meltdowns, allowing you to learn by trial and error with no negative consequences.

Conclusion

Overall, the Adafruit Circuit Playground Express is a great learning tool for students of all ages. The pocket-sized design is totally portable and packed full of features to explore. The hardware is reliable and sturdy. It has proven to be easy to use, and Adafruit provides ample tutorials to streamline your learning experience.

At $25 for the board itself and $30 for the base kit, it’s a worthy investment for anyone who wants to learn to code.

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