If you are starting out you will have come across the most popular board The Arduino Uno. The IDE lets you to choose a board and use it instantly. There is no going the the manufacturer website and getting their compiler specifically for their chip, then buying a programming interface from them etc. All that is done under the hood and for Free!
These are pictures of an Arduino Uno showing relative size and details.
Right Photo Credit : kenming_wang
All you need to start Arduino Programming is:
For a walk through of exactly how to use the Arduino Uno and start
programming it in under 10 minutes you'll want to look at this page:
Using the components above you can start programming the board by
turning on and off the built in LED. The more interesting use is to
attach other components using the headers at top and bottom of the
board. There are many projects on this site that show you how to attach
different chips such as pressure sensors, colour light detectors, servos
etc. to make fully functional projects.
One interesting question is how do you start from scratch with a raw chip that has no programmed bootloader?
On the Arduino Uno, the chip is ATmega328P - someone had to program that chip and place it into the Uno board.
The way its done is to use the SPI interface attached to those six
pin headers you can see in the photo above and use a programmer device, called an
ISP programmer - (In circuit Serial Programmer), attached to a PC to do the job. It's really just a stream of digits (in
the correct format) that programs the chip.
The interesting thing is that microcontrollers are good at generating streams of digits and...
...you guessed it - you can use an Arduino as an ISP programmer. There's no need to buy
another device just use another Arduino Uno (or different Arduino board) as a
You can now get the bootloader into a chip so you can either restore a
chip or use the chip as a standalone device on a solderless breadboard!
Because the Arduino IDE is easy to expand there are many chips that
you can program simply by downloading additional code for the IDE.
There are two interesting microcontrollers that give you three very different capabilities:
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