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Mike Riley

Dr. Dobb's Bloggers

March Modness: Gleason Research Handy Board

March 09, 2009

Continuing this month's coverage of programmable embedded systems, Gleason Research has created a product ideal for prototyping and educational scenarios.  Read on for more about the Handy Board.
While Gleason Research has designed a number of different board configurations (expansion boards, controller buses and sensor/motor kits to name a few), their flagship product remains their MIT Handy Board.  This $319US system consists of the main GR Handy Board with a rechargeable battery base, and:

  • GR's USB Interface/Charger Board w/RJ11 connector cable
  • a DC Adapter
  • a manual and CD-ROM containing Mac and Windows development software with examples

The board consists of a fairly straight forward chip design and is ideal for those hobbyists and students graduating from something like the LEGO MindStorms/NXT products to something a bit more advanced, yet still approachable enough to start using right away.  The CD-ROM included in the kit contains simple but effective software tools for both Mac and Windows along with a video of Gleason's entry in an early '90's MIT robotic competition.  While it's a bit dated, it does show what a creative user can build with the Handy Board system.

The reason for Handy Board's ease of use is its various sensors and motor drivers that can be used to connect to expanded modules in sophisticated configurations.  The  6811 microcontroller-based board has 32K static RAM on board for programming the various IC's.  The product ships with the Interactive C programming environment, the same one created for the early LEGO robotics line.  Various contributions have been made to extend the programming environment as well as useful routines that have been posted on the company's website.  For those interested in a deeper dive into the board's design, Gleason Research has even posted the Handy Board's schematics online as well.  There is also a somewhat active Handy Board Yahoo Groups-based discussion forum that provides a good source of community-generated conversation threads.

Overall, I was mildly enthusiastic in the board, though it didn't hold my interest compared to the other "March Modness" systems I am covering.  The 32K static RAM was enough room for simple demos and behaviors, but given the cost of the board compared to others I tested, it didn't deliver the value I expected.  Still, for educators, tinkerers and fans of the LEGO Mindstorms line looking to go deeper into embedded systems design, the Handy Board provides a useful introduction to embedded systems design.

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