BBC Micro Bit: 10 things you need to know

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Introduction

BBC Micro Bit

In the 1980s, the BBC Micro computer was introduced to a generation of future programmers, with many going on to forge successful careers in the industry.

More than 30 years on, the BBC has lifted the lid on the BBC micro:bit, a new pocket-sized computer that lets anyone code, customise and use control other pieces of hardware through software.

It’s being supplied to around 1 million school children in a bid to address a growing skills shortage in the UK’s technology sector. After that, the Micro Bit will go on sale outside of schools through a not-for-profit organisation set up by the BBC.

So, why is it important and what can you actually do with it? Click on to find out

1. It’s more powerful than the BBC Micro

BBC Micro Bit

Despite being 17 times smaller and 617 times lighter than the BBC Micro (above), the computer that introduced programming to an entire generation in the 1980s, the BBC Micro Bit is 18 times faster.

It has 25 red LEDs and two programmable buttons, in addition to a raft of sensors – including a built-in compass, on-board motion detector, Bluetooth Smart Technology and five Input and Output (I/O) rings.

Small and light, the Micro Bit has been designed as a wearable device, although its slim nature means that it requires an add-on power pack fitted with two AA batteries to be used away from a power source. Could a future version rectify that? You wouldn’t want to bet against it.

2. It’s really easy to use

BBC Micro Bit

The Micro Bit is much more advanced than its older cousin, but programming for it has been designed to be as easy as possible.

It’s compatible with advanced programming languages such as Python and C++, and Microsoft has provided two coding languages – Microsoft TouchDevelop (a text-based language) and Microsoft Blocks (a graphical coding language) – to make coding easy.

In a demo given to TechRadar, Samsung demonstrated how a “Remote selfie app” can be created in just three lines of code, starting with a check to see if a button is pressed, followed by the Micro Bit contacting the tablet using Bluetooth LE, and then taking the photograph.

Got an Android tablet running 4.4 onwards? Then you’ll be able to do it too. Easy peasy.

3. It’ll work on tablets and laptops

Samsung

Because the BBC Micro Bit has its own dedicated website hosted on Microsoft’s Azure cloud service, users can access programming environments and learning materials on any internet-connected device.

The Micro Bit website hosts all code editors and stores the programmes written by users, in addition to hosting resources built for the Micro Bit (all of which can be accessed via dedicated Android and iOS apps).

By using Microsoft’s TouchDevelop app, coding can be compiled in the cloud before sending the results back down to the Micro Bit, requiring minimal local storage – great for for owners of more affordable tablets.

4. …and smartphones too

Micro Bit

Tablets and notebooks are great for coding on the go, but you might not always be carrying one around. There’s a better chance that you’ll have your smartphone on you, which Microsoft reckons is a good thing for two reasons:

First, most mid-range (and above) smartphones house the same sensors as a Micro Bit, meaning that, secondly, it’s possible to compile scripts and simulate programs on the go using Microsoft’s TouchDeveloper app without having the Micro Bit there.

Demonstrating the app to TechRadar, Microsoft Principal Research Software Development Engineer Peli De Halleux said: “Coding on the smartphone is a great experience. I’d even say it’s the best way of doing it because our simulator uses the sensors in your smartphone – including its accelerometer.

“You can code on the bus, in the subway or during your downtime, coming up with a crazy idea that you can then deploy on the Micro Bit. Our foundation idea for the project was building the environment to code on phones.”