Your $400 Hardware Lab

No surprise, but I love engineering. I love being able to create and build whatever I can imagine. A critical part of this though, is putting together a decent lab! Like everyone else, I’m on a budget. Here’s how you can put together a good digital electronics lab for under $400!


Obviously, this isn’t included in the $400 price tag. A quiet, nice spot in your house or apartment is a must. In real-estate-expensive San Diego, I get by with an overly large desk (10’x4′) from Ikea in my 1 BR apartment.

Multimeter: $15

You need to be able to measure resistance, capacitance, and voltages. I use this multimeter. Gets the job done, has auto-ranging and auto-turn-off.

Logic Analyzer: Saleae Logic Analyzer $150

The most expensive single thing I have on the list but this is a great, great kit for $150. Full Linux compatibility, USB based, 50MHz, 8 channel logic analyzer. When you can’t figure out what the heck your microcontroller is up to, hook this up and see what the signal levels are doing! This really helps you out of jams. With 8 pins, you can monitor the logic levels on all of the pins of an ATtiny85 with 2 logic probes to spare!

Microcontroller Programmers: $50

I’d recommend either going with AVR or PIC. Something of a Intel vs. AMD rivalry among hobbyists. I use both, both can get the job done. I like AVR’s just a touch better as the Open Source community support is a bit more active. The AVR Dragon is a good AVR programmer, and the PICkit 3 is a good PIC programmer. Both work with Linux, and are about $50 each. If you’re very new to microcontrollers, you might want to look into getting an Arduino, but the cost of Arduino and Arduino shields will be more expensive than a basic microcontroller with basic sensors.

Breadboard ($15)

You don’t really need a 1200 row breadboard. I use a 120×10 breadboard, gets me along fine. I recommend having a few ZIF sockets lying around though, you don’t want to bend the pins on your microcontrollers!

Power Supply. ($15)

I know one of the first things I was told in my electronics classes is that the Bench Power Supply costs $1500, and don’t dare break them! This might be true for professional power supplies, but its really easy to build one of these for $3 and a 12volt wall adapter. I used to have to hook up a battery to my breadboard before I made myself one of these, which was annoying, costly, and inconsistent as the battery wore down. I recommend this kit from Sparkfun with a 12v wall plug. The circuit diagram is here, you can make one for yourself if you’re so inclined.

Fundamental Parts kit: ($63)

  • Assortment of Resistors ($10)
  • Assortment of Capacitors ($10)
  • Assortment of Logic Primitive chips (7xxx series from TI) ($15)
  • 5-10 microcontrollers (you may trash a few 🙂 ) ($20)
  • 3-4 colors of Solid Core 20 Gauge wire ($9)
  • Serial, USB cables (Probably already have some lying around)

Fundamental Hand tools kit: ($75)

  • Soldering Iron ($25, I like my 45W Craftsman soldering iron well enough)
  • Wire strippers ($10 any other stripper than this one annoys me)
  • Small screwdriver kit (Flathead, phillips, torx) ($15)
  • Adjustable Lamp ($25)

A full featured digital microcontroller lab for $383. God Bless America!

If you don’t want to chip in that much money to put together a lab, and live in a moderately-sized city, see if you can find your local hackerspace! Even with a hackerspace available to me, I like to have my own electronics setup in my house.

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