It's Sean!

UK freelance journalist, author
and writer Sean McManus

Printed from www.sean.co.uk. © Sean McManus.
You are here: Home > Blog Home > Sean McManus's Writing blog: Coding with the BBC Microbit

Sean's Tech and Writing Blog

Coding with the BBC Microbit

08 December 2016


I've just spent a bit of time playing with the BBC Microbit, so I thought I'd share my experiences with you. The BBC Microbit is a pocket-sized programmable board, designed for use in education. Originally, it was given out to some children in UK secondary schools, but the BBC has now established an independent foundation to look after the Microbit's future, including helping to promote its use worldwide.

There are many things to love about the Microbit. It has battery power by design, so it's highly portable and even perhaps wearable. The board itself is compact and light, so the only real restriction is the battery pack (2 x AAA batteries). It has easy connectors for electronics projects, and a built-in compass, accelerometer and Bluetooth LE networking. The 5x5 grid of LEDs on the front is a bit more limited than you might expect (on the Amstrad, ZX81/Spectrum and other 8-bit machines, you usually worked with 8x8). But the software features a character set, so you don't have to create your own letter images (as I did with my text scroller for the Unicorn HAT on the Raspberry Pi), which is a huge plus.

BBC Microbit photo

The BBC Microbit. The grid of LEDs is in the middle. The buttons are on the left and right. The bottom is used for connecting to other devices and circuits.

The software runs in the browser, and appears to use cookies to recognise you and recover your 'saved' scripts on your return. That kind of thing makes me nervous, but you can download your scripts (both the source code and the compiled code) to your computer and re-upload it later if necessary. To set up an account for saving your work, you need to be a teacher or Code Club volunteer with an authorisation code.

You have a choice of different editors you can use for creating code on the Microbit, including MicroPython, Microsoft PXT (in beta), Microsoft Block Editor, Code Kingdoms Javascript, and Microsoft Touch Develop. There are also apps for Android tablets and iPads that enable you to send your code wirelessly to the Microbit using Bluetooth. I started with Microsoft Touch Develop, and have also tried Code Kingdoms Javascript and Microsoft PXT. In all of them, I found it a bit harder to get around than it is in Scratch. Some of that might be because I've been using Scratch for many years now, but I thought the interface could perhaps be a bit more intuitive. It's irritating in the two Microsoft editors I've tried that the blocks only appear when you click the button for the block type, so you're guaranteed that every block will need at least two mouse actions to add. Some of the blocks are type-specific too, so there's a different show block for numbers and letters, which seems like unnecessary complexity. It might be a result of there being several layers of language and translation between the user interface and the Microbit code. I think the software will become more intuitive as I use it more, and it's clear that it provides easy access to the rich capabilities of the device. Having a bitmap pattern as a standard language element feels natural and easy to use, especially where the pattern is made up of filled in cells, as in PXT (rather than ticked boxes in the older Touch Develop). I tried playing with the compass but couldn't calibrate it successfully (which involves drawing a circle using the device). It might be that you need a much bigger room than I am in.

To get the code onto the Microbit, you compile it, save it to your computer, connect the Microbit using USB and then copy your file across to it, like an external drive. A couple of times this failed for me, and I think it's because the Microbit will reject files that have spaces in them. That's unfortunate, because if you save the same file twice to your computer with the same name, the second time it has the filename "originalfile (1).hex".

So, anyway, here's a Christmas project I made today using Microsoft Touch Develop, which you can recreate on your Microbit (or using the on-screen simulator) at www.microbit.org. It's called Secret Santa. You shake the device to open your virtual present, and see what you've won. There are ten gifts: five are for the naughty, and five are for the nice. I've had some fun coming up with the gift ideas. It takes a while for the gift to scroll across the screen, so I've made some of them start with the same words to heighten the sense of suspense. Shake the Microbit for another turn. You can press the two buttons for some Christmas messages too. Obviously, you can customise this code to display random messages on any topic when the device is shaken, and you can change how many messages there are too by altering the "pick random" block.

Touch Develop code - contact me if you need help accessing this

More Touch Develop code - contact me if you need help accessing this

For more Christmas fun, check out my Scratch advent calendar!

Bookmark and Share
Permanent link for this post.

Dip into the blog archive

June 2005 | July 2005 | August 2005 | September 2005 | October 2005 | November 2005 | December 2005 | January 2006 | February 2006 | March 2006 | April 2006 | May 2006 | June 2006 | July 2006 | August 2006 | September 2006 | October 2006 | November 2006 | December 2006 | January 2007 | February 2007 | March 2007 | April 2007 | May 2007 | June 2007 | July 2007 | August 2007 | September 2007 | October 2007 | November 2007 | December 2007 | January 2008 | February 2008 | March 2008 | April 2008 | May 2008 | June 2008 | July 2008 | August 2008 | September 2008 | October 2008 | November 2008 | December 2008 | January 2009 | February 2009 | March 2009 | April 2009 | May 2009 | June 2009 | July 2009 | August 2009 | September 2009 | October 2009 | November 2009 | December 2009 | January 2010 | February 2010 | March 2010 | April 2010 | May 2010 | June 2010 | August 2010 | September 2010 | October 2010 | November 2010 | December 2010 | March 2011 | April 2011 | May 2011 | June 2011 | July 2011 | August 2011 | September 2011 | October 2011 | November 2011 | December 2011 | January 2012 | February 2012 | March 2012 | June 2012 | July 2012 | August 2012 | September 2012 | October 2012 | December 2012 | January 2013 | February 2013 | March 2013 | April 2013 | June 2013 | July 2013 | August 2013 | September 2013 | October 2013 | November 2013 | December 2013 | January 2014 | February 2014 | March 2014 | April 2014 | May 2014 | June 2014 | July 2014 | August 2014 | September 2014 | October 2014 | November 2014 | December 2014 | January 2015 | February 2015 | March 2015 | April 2015 | May 2015 | June 2015 | September 2015 | October 2015 | December 2015 | January 2016 | February 2016 | March 2016 | May 2016 | July 2016 | August 2016 | September 2016 | October 2016 | November 2016 | December 2016 | January 2017 | April 2017 | Top of this page | RSS

Books by Sean McManus

Scratch Programming in Easy 

Steps

Scratch Programming in Easy Steps

Raspberry Pi For Dummies

Raspberry Pi For Dummies

Learn to program with the Scratch programming language, widely used in schools and colleges.

Set up your Pi, master Linux, learn Scratch and Python, and create your own electronics projects.

Super Skills: How to 

Code

Super Skills: How to Code

Web Design in Easy Steps

Web Design in Easy Steps

Learn how to code with this great new book, which guides you through 10 easy lessons to build up your coding skills.

Learn the layout, design and navigation techniques that make a great website. Then build your own using HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.

More books

©Sean McManus. www.sean.co.uk.