HackSpace magazine

The HiFive board packs a frankly comical amount of processing onto a microcontroller board. There’s a 150MHz, RISC-V-based SiFive FE310 that is the main processor. An ESP32 handles WiFi and Bluetooth, and a SEGGER ARM-based chip handles USB I/O. On top of all that processing power, there’s 48 RGB LEDs, a light sensor, an accelerometer, and a compass. If you need more features, there’s a micro:bit-style edge connector for hooking up crocodile clips or expanders.

You can get either the bare PCB (for £49.50) or the Inventor Kit (£64.50), which also includes a case, an audio board, crocodile clips, and a battery pack (requires three AA batteries – not included).

You can program this using either Scratch-like block coding (following Doctor Who: Planet of Adventure) or MicroPython (following Doctor Who: The Book of Brilliant Inventions). Both of these guides are narrated by Doctor Who actor Jodie Whittaker. There’s an additional Intro to MicroPython course, which follows a more traditional style of teaching programming, and Glitch Manor, which is a game to help you build up your programming skills in block coding. You can also create blank projects to do whatever you like.

All this coding is tied into the Tynker programming web interface, which means you have to be on an internet-connected computer to write the code. You can download it to your device straight from the browser (either via USB or Bluetooth). While the internet requirement will annoy some, it means that there’s nothing to set up or install – just plug your board in, head to the website, and get started.

The ESP32 module gives the device WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity

This website is behind a login screen, and each HiFive comes with a registration code that lets you set up an account with access to the HiFive resources. Be careful when setting up an account as it doesn’t direct you to enter an email address, but without this, there’s no way of recovering forgotten passwords. You can create a parent account and link this to one or more child accounts. However, only one child will have access to the guides. Other children (and the parent) will be able to create blank projects for the HiFive Inventor.

The integration of storytelling and programming works well, with the programming sections directly on the web page. For blocks, this is a mostly graphical experience, while with MicroPython the code sections are in line with the text telling the story. The result really is impressive, and the programming feels like a seamless part of the storytelling.

There are ten lessons in each of the guides. It’s hard to say how long this will take to go through as there’s room for playing and experimentation in each of them. Once you get to the end of the guide, you can create projects and program the board using the Tynker interface. However, some learners may find it a bit of a shock to go from the directed style of the guides to a blank project. At this point, there’s less material available for HiFive than for more established programmable boards. While there’s certainly the potential for lots of building and experimentation with this board, some learners may feel a little lost once they’ve finished the guides. That in itself, though, does mean they’ve worked through one or more programming courses, so getting a learner that far is an achievement in itself.

We liked the guides. They’re engaging and have enough storytelling to entertain while also enough programming to be useful. For a young Doctor Who fan, this could be a great way of learning to program. It’s especially useful as many children will be able to progress with minimal assistance. The combination of block coding and MicroPython means that quite a wide age range is accommodated. Officially, the kit is for ages seven and up. Obviously this depends on the child and the amount of assistance you can give them, but this feels about right to us.

For people drawn to RISC-V because it’s built on the philosophy of open-source hardware, the locked-down interface for coding will no doubt be a disappointment, but they are not the target market for this board (and there are a growing number of more open RISC-V boards catering to their needs).

This board is unashamedly built to help children learn to program. There are a number of other boards that fill this niche, but what makes this one special is the step-by-step Doctor Who-based guide that accompanies it. This is much more of a walkthrough experience than with some other programmable boards aimed at the educational market. There isn’t really a right or wrong solution here: it’s all about learning styles. Some students will prefer the guided approach of HiFive; some will prefer the more freestyle approach, where you get a programmable board and a range of projects that you can pick and choose.

This is expensive when you compare it to other microcontroller boards, but that’s a bit of a false comparison. What you’re really getting here is a walkthrough of how to code, led by Doctor Who, and it also happens to come with a microcontroller board that you can practise on. For learners who prefer a guided approach, this is one of the best introductions to microcontroller programming we’ve seen.


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