State of the Union on Primary Physical Computing

as viewed by Simple Simon 🙂

We live in VERY exciting times when it comes to physical computing with a growing number of devices that can control external lights/motors and respond to inputs from sensors and switches (and events/data on the Internet)

Executive Summary

Crumble is the best device for class use, then CodeBug in second place.  Crumble is the easiest to use and wins because of built in motor/servo control but Codebug is catching up and its in-built matrix and buttons and battery are very useful.


The oldest platform around and has the most support from both hardware and software point of view.  Its cheap (Clones for £10 or less).  Does need a driver installing which can be a problem on locked down school network.

Fantastic range of methods to program it and it has the best one, mBlock, which looks/feels like Scratch 2 with the extra blocks needed for the Arduino


Latest device on the market and actively being developed to add features.  Its basically an Arduino type device with a 5×5 LED matrix, 2 buttons and 4 connectors that can be used as digital outputs or analogue inputs.  Just the other day – it can also control RGB NeoPixels.  Little bit more than £10 but no doubt deals can be done for class sets.  Small range of add on at moment but most Crumble add-ons can be used with it so not an issue.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t use a Scratch based interface – its uses Blockly from Google.  So a new way of connecting blocks together is needed and its not as easy and friendly as Scratch but it is powerful.

Pros: Coin-cell battery holder so only one that runs truely standalone once unplugged from USB.  Matrix and Buttons.  Can do a lot without ANY extra hardware

Cons: Blocky as native programming environment – Its not Scratch based.  To code the CodeBug, you have to use an online website, download the code, unplug and re-plug the device while holding down one of the buttons and then drag and drop the code onto a USB Drive letter that appears !  NOT the most child friendly of ways and potentially quite time wasting during whole class lessons.


Been around for over a year now – very similar to CodeBug but with no matrix or inbuilt buttons but it 2 on-board LEDS and can directly control 2 motors as well as servos and RGB NeoPixels.  It comes with a nearly Scratch-like interface so its much easier to get started using it if teachers/pupils familiar with Scratch.  Wide range of add-on Crumbs (switches/sensors etc) available from both the manufacturer and other retailers.

Pros: Stable, Cheap in class quanties – wide range of addon crumbs/sensors. Simple Scratch like programming enviroment. Will control motors and servos directly.

Cons:  Needs external battery pack for most things so its an essential addition

Raspberry Pi

Nothing has changed on the software front in terms of getting the Pi easier to use in classrooms without dedicated HDMI monitors but its still the number 1 device to use for robot vehicles and of course it runs Scratch natively so software is not an issue.  Wide range of add-on boards – can do anything!  Its everywhere including the ISS!

The Pi is in a differ price league (once you’d added essential extras to use it) but the recent PiZero launch (£4 !!!!!!!) means a working WiFi one can be made for £12 and this might make it game changer especially if it can be interfaced via USB to another computer/laptop

Pros:  Its a full computer – not just an add on board – does everything – Runs Scratch natively- Tons of add-ons

Cons:  Expensive

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