How to choose an electronic project kit

mallinson-electrical
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How to choose an electronic project kit
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Before you choose an electronics kit, it would be good to have some idea what you can expect.
This review will aim to dispel some of the mystery, and allow you to make an informed choice.
There are a lot of different electronic sets on the market, but basically, they should all do the same thing, which is give a taste of the fascinating world of electronics.
In the real world, electronics dominates our lives. Computers, TV and mobile phones seem to come out and be replaced, at an ever accelerating pace, leaving you wondering if you could ever catch up.
Here’s the good news. The fundamental principles of electronics haven’t changed for 30 years and more. Yes, it’s got smaller, and yes, it’s got quicker, but a transistor is still a transistor. Buying an electronic project set should give a good grounding on how stuff works, and what the parts look like.
Don’t be under the illusion that an electronics set is going to make your child a genius. They can work through every project in the book, and still not be able to fix your DVD player. What it will do is hopefully spark an excitement for learning, and encourage them to experiment and create beyond what the kit provides.
Most electronics kits are designed for age 12 and up, choose the right electronics kit and it will become the first step to a lifelong, rewarding hobby.
What should you be looking for?
Types of Kit
Electronics kits come in two basic forms.
  1. Real world components (divided in to two distinct forms)
    1. Solder to make a single project
    2. Solderless to make many projects
  2. Chunky component blocks
The solder to form a single project is beyond the scope of this review, and to be honest, as good as they are, it is probably not the type of kit you would get for a first intro to electronics.
Real world components kits are made up from the actual components industry uses to make some of our technology, this therefore has the advantage that the components can be re-tasked and re-used beyond the introduction given by the kit. GOOD
The real world components can however be a bit fiddly at first, and require some concentration when building up circuits.
With component block kits, the fiddly side of building circuits is all but eliminated, making it easy for younger learners to build. They are pretty much impractical for building and developing beyond the bounds of the electronics set. They also tend to be much more expensive per piece than the real world kits.

Why buy an Electronic Projects Kit

The main reason your child will be asking for an electronics kit is that you can build projects. The projects are usually working circuits that have some use. They will be bigger and less refined than the device they are emulating, but should demonstrate how it works. An example of this might be a night light, where the output (an LED) is controlled (switched on-off) by the input (a light dependent resistor).

The main reason that you should buy one is education. An electronic kit has the potential to get your child ahead of the curve. Learning is much deeper when the child is unaware that they are learning, and a good kit will encourage this. Most schools have limited time in the curiculum for electronics, and yet it is a subject which has real world potential. If you do buy your child a set, you are giving them a great gift- Potential

Making the choice

Age of the person getting the kit

  • Under 12    – Go chunky, be prepared to help
  • Over 12  – Go Real World, be prepared for lots of questions

Budget

  • Under £10 – Some reasonable kits at this price, but read carefully what is included
  • £10 – £20 – A huge range in this bracket, expect to get 6-10 circuit projects and good instructions
  • Over £20 – Expect a lot from a kit at this price, lots of components, great instructions. This would also be your budget for an entry level “Chunky” Kit

Knowledge

  • None – Look for an entry level kit, with simple, clear instructions
  • Basic – May have done some at school, real world parts all the way, the kit will form a great basis for further experiments
  • Good – Already making circuits, This is the group the solder kits are aimed at

Power Source

  • Battery – The majority of kits are battery powered. It is safe and simple, typically they require a 9v battery and this should last for about 2 weeks of experimenting, less if they are really keen
  • Mains power – Typically from a mains transformer, there is always the inherent danger of electric shock – steer clear, unless you are sure you can keep the child safe
  • Solar – Some of the newest kits are using solar power to make robots, cars etc. Although fascinating, they don’t tend to have many projects. Still, worth a look

Construction

  • “Spring -board” – typical of many of the long established kits, the circuits are built by bending a spring to open the coil and push a component wire in. The circuits tend to get very big very quickly, limiting what can be achieved.
  • “Bricks” – typical of the chunky type of kit, the circuit is built by clicking the component blocks together. Imagine lego with components inside and you get the idea. Very easy to use, but also quite limiting in scope
  • “Breadboard”- typical of the latest real world kits. The components are pushed into holes on a plastic base, which, is the same system used to prototype circuits in industry. The components can reach high density on the board, allowing quite complex circuits to be built. Also able to be used beyond the kit.
  • Not every kit has circuits to build; some are just a pack of parts. Although this usually represents good value, it will be a bit disappointing if you don’t know what to do with them.
 
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