So far we've been playing with the Sparkfun Inventor's Kit. The real magic happens when you realise what other gadgets are available to connect to the Arduino. There are "shields" which attach to the top of the Arduino board and give you additional functionality, or you can just use the jumper wires. You can connect it via WiFi, Ethernet or Bluetooth. You can connect a GPS module so it knows where it is in the world. You can make it write to SD cards, send texts, operate stepper motors, linear actuators, LCD screens or pretty much anything you can think of. They don't have to be Arduino-specific components, as you are entering the world of "real" electronics here. Googling or searching YouTube for "cool arduino projects" leads you down a rabbit-hole which never ends. So, after a bit more late-night browsing and a surprisingly reasonable amount of money, some more bits arrived to play with.
One of the more interesting components was a GPS module. I had to solder the provided pins in place, which wasn't too hard - use the breadboard to hold the pins in place while you solder. Then it was trivially easy to connect the 4 pins required (power, ground, transmit and receive) to the Arduino, then use the TinyGPS++ library to talk to the GPS. In no time at all I had the unit reporting its position via the USB port, and also displaying it on the LCD screen from the SparkFun kit. I'm not by any means an electronics expert and I was amazed at how easy it was to get it working.
Over the next couple of weeks I built that project into a small jiffy-box, with the idea of it being a "reverse geocache". Essentially, when you turn it on, it tells you how far it is from where it wants to be, and how much time you have left to get it there. The game is to, without being given specific directions, work out where it wants to be and try to get it there within the time limit. Unfortunately it does look quite a lot like a bomb at the moment:
I also ordered a Pro Micro, which is similar in abilities to an Arduino Uno, but in a smaller form-factor - and costs about $2 delivered. I had to solder the pins on, which wasn't as tricky as I was expecting. Soon enough we had the Pro Micro talking to the GPS and reporting its position via the USB serial port:
Then, err, some more bits arrived, in the form of a Freenove Ultimate Starter Kit. Did I mention these things are quite addictive? I really must cut down on my late night Arduino browsing.
This kit is quite cool too. It doesn't have a printed manual, but has one you can download and it's quite a bit more comprehensive than the Sparkfun one. It also includes their version of a Uno, and some cool sensors and displays. So we built this thing which makes a light move faster or slower depending on how far away it senses an object to be:
The chips on the left of the breadboard in that video aren't doing anything, they're just there to stop them being damaged floating around in the box of bits.
I could go on, but I think you get the picture. Playing around with Arduino has really re-kindled my interest in electronics and programming. I'm a bit late to the party, but now that the platform is a few years old it really works well, has lots of documentation and sample code available and a big community for support. A lot of fun and education can be had by adults and kids for not too much money, and if you want to get into more serious projects, Arduino will help you do those as well.
Where to from here?
A good place to start is the official Arduino page. While the hardware and software are open-source, use of the Arduino name and logo has some restrictions. If you want to buy official boards and thus support the original creators of Arduino and fund their future development, buy from them. But there are many perfectly fine and legal cheaper clones out there. The official page also has a FAQ and lots of tutorials etc.
I created an Arduino beginner thread on OCAU which has turned into a useful resource and general Arduino discussion thread, so feel free to share your projects and ask questions in there.
One enthusiastic Australian supplier is Freetronics, who make a starter kit you can probably rush out and buy today from your local Jaycar if the bug has bitten you hard. Speaking of which, Jaycar have a dedicated Arduino page. Other vendors recommended to me include Core Electronics (Australia), tronixlabs (Australia), Adafruit (USA), Freenove (China) and Tayda (Thailand).
Sometimes you just need one bit to complete a project, so it's nice to be able to get things immediately in Australia. But if you're willing to wait the several-weeks shipping time from China, you can get components a LOT cheaper on eBay and AliExpress, who are essentially an eBay for Chinese manufacturers. If you search on AliExpress for "arduino" and sort by cheapest price, there are many interesting bits and bobs for under $1 or $2 AUD shipped.
There's a huge amount of tutorials and documentation out there. Pretty much any project you can think of will already exist in Google, with a tutorial and code to borrow. Jeremy Blum has some good Youtube tutorials, but search and you will find many more. Instructables have lots of project guides and a free Arduino class. If you haven't got the hardware but want to play anyway, circuits.io have an online lab simulating Arduino boards so you can test projects and programs.
Phew! Hopefully all this has encouraged you to have a go with Arduino - it really is a lot of fun. Feel free to jump into this thread on OCAU if you have any questions or want to show off your projects!