The “Free Devboard” Trap


Of the various sites the electronics hobbyist should consider for their RSS reader, Hackaday is decidedly one of them. Last month, they announced the arrival of Microchip’s MPLAB Express Board and IDE. It’s a simple little board centered around the PIC16F18855, and featuring the web-based development and programming features first introduced to the world through the mbed platform. Better still, Microchip had 2000 on hand which it was giving away, free of charge. PIC devices feature prominently in many of my electronics projects, such as CardPOV (PIC18F25J50) and RGBSaber (PIC18F2221) so put my name in for one of the devboards on the Microchip web form. After all, the boards didn’t cost anything; what did I have to lose?

What Does a DevBoard Cost?

It took roughly a week, but the board arrived at my house. No sooner had it, though, when I felt a twinge of guilt. I had fallen into “the free devboard trap”. This happens when a hobbyist adopts a new piece of tech on the basis that it’s free, rather than the merits of the hardware in question.

I’ve fallen for this trap once before, when the original mbed came out. Free mbed kits were being offered up to interested early-adopter hobbyists, to learn about, develop community, and legitimize the kit to the greater electronics community. A friend and I had taken up this call and acquired a free pair of mbeds, that we might develop some of the first tutorials concerning their use. There weren’t any grand plans for the devices, though. The chip they were based on wasn’t going into any of our hardware designs. We didn’t have any particular projects planned for the mbed. We had gotten them for the purposes of developing content for the sake of content, and for the fact that the cost to us to do so, was zero.

I spent about two weeks working on the mbed: learning how it worked, writing a web tutorial or two. In that time, the main thing I learned was that cloud IDEs were not the model I wanted to use for electronics development. The ‘free’ devboard had an opportunity cost: two weeks I could have spent working on anything else related to my electronics hobby (learning valuable new things, working on meaningful projects, creating unique, valuable content that I had any interest or desire in supporting).

Fast forward to the present. The MPLAB Express devboard is sitting on my desk. Time to ask some questions.

  1. Am *I* going to use or value the MPLAB Express Cloud-based IDE? No.
  2. Is the drag-and-drop USB HID programming model something I would ever implement in one of my own projects? Probably not, no.
  3. Do I have any projects specifically in mind for this board? No.
  4. Is the core chip (PIC16F18855) worth dedicating my present time to investigating? Not for now. It has some nice features (<$2 a chip and a 1-32MHz programmable internal oscillator are both nice pluses), but none of my current projects are a good fit for this device.

In sum, although the MPLAB Express Board has interesting properties and is probably worthwhile for some, my time would be better spent on most other hobby electronics endeavors. Recognizing this, I took the only reasonable course of action, and gave the board away to an ECE student, who might be able to do more with it.

Escaping the Free Devboard Trap

At some point or another, many hobbyists will be presented with the allure of free stuff: a device manufacturer trying to push a product to early adopters, a marketer offering free parts or tools in exchange for reviews and writeups (cheap marketing). If this is you –  pause, stop, hold that impulse for free things for a second. Consider: why do you want the free <insert thing here>? What are you going to use it for? What else could you be spending your limited time, attention, and willpower on?

Maybe you’ve already fallen for the free stuff trap. If so, don’t fret. If you’re under some sort of agreement related to said free stuff, fulfill the agreement and move on – learn for next time. If you aren’t under any sort of obligations with the free stuff – drop the excess,  focus on what’s important. Together, we can save time and focus on what really matters.

Do you have a good story of being caught in the trap of free stuff? Sound off in the comments below!

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