I love breakout boards. There, I said it. With any hobby I take an interest in, I always seem to end up buying masses of accessories, usually before I’ve even acquire the skills to use them! I’m a little further along on my Pi journey now, so I think these impulse purchases are becoming more relevant with time (wife…are you reading this?).
This week another package came through the letterbox – a ProtoLab GPIO breakout board from AlienSpec. It’s a bit of a fresh approach compared to some of the other offerings on the market, and its classy white ‘iPod-era’ colours caught my eye on eBay. It had to be mine!
Let’s take a look at the board and its features…
I received my ProtoLab today – a Tuesday – a work day where I’m a lot less likely to have the motivation to get the soldering iron out. Lucky for me, the board comes pre-assembled, saving me a few burnt fingers. Happy days!
The ProtoLab is quite a deceiving little number. Without close inspection, you could be fooled into thinking it was just a perfboard-style breakout board with some terminal blocks around the side. You sir, would be most incorrect with your wild assumptions!
The stylish board in fact packs a lot of functionality in a subtle, tidy and low profile package. If the rare white silkscreen doesn’t catch your attention, the features probably will.
For the eccentric makers among you, the ProtoLab comes with GPIO expansion pins pre-assembled – so you can add another board on top of this one for some really hardcore prototyping. I must try this one day, although I’m sure I’ll break the Pi’s limits and witness a puff of smoke!
By now you should have noticed the terminal blocks on top. These are broken out into sections such as SPI, I2C, UART, GPIO and so on. They are labelled on the outside, helping you avoid errors, and there is even a separate section for power to keep things tidy.
I can imagine these would be very useful if you’re working on a robotics project where the parts may be a bit further away than a traditional jumper wire can reach.
If you were looking for something a little more permanent, the terminal blocks are also broken out again to 0.1″ connection points you can solder directly to, or even add jumper wire headers like this:
I’ve never really got on well with the perfboard scene, I tend to make a mess of it and just end up in a fuss. Luckily I don’t feel too embarrassed of my lack of perf-skills, as AlienSpec promote the use of a mini-breadboard stuck directly on top of the board.
I personally prefer this approach – combined with the terminal blocks it makes the board much more reusable.
The next feature on the list that I’m very eager to experiment with is the SOIC breakout area. I didn’t know about SOIC until got this board – it stands for ‘Small Outline Integrated Circuit’.
As I understand it, some of the smarter port expander chips these days come in the tiny SOIC format (a bit like the MCP23017 but much smaller), and this section of the board is ready to accept a chip soldered directly, or you could solder headers to use an adapter if you’re not sure how well that precision soldering might go.
This changes EVERYTHING for me – smaller chips, more ports, allowing me to fit more on a breakout board! Watch this space for SOIC info/tutorials soon.
Sometimes the Pi is a bit of a wimp when it comes to power. Packing a featherweight 3.3v and with tight amperage limits – occasionally you have to look elsewhere for the juice.
The ProtoLab accommodates this with 2 strips of connected 0.1″ points, which are in turn connected to a terminal block. A very easy and clean way of getting power to the board points.
Another nice touch, and quite a practical one in terms of safety and awareness, is a small LED that AlienSpec have added next to the GPIO header. This is lit whenever the Pi is on and the breakout board is connected.
As I say, it’s a good way of staying aware of live circuitry, and also knowing if the board is correctly connected or not.
It’s a GO!
I really like this board, and will certainly be using it for a project soon. From the cool styling to the clever subtle functions – It even brought the world of SOIC to my attention, something I hadn’t heard of before (hey, I’m “Average” remember?).
I’d definitely recommend this if you need something versatile for your next project.
Want one? Go to AlienSpec.co.uk