Educational Micro:bit Gets an Overhaul with Speaker, Microphone, New SoC, and More

More powerful SoC, new audio capabilities, more secure edge connector, and even a hidden touch-sensitive input button — at the same price.

The Micro:bit Educational Foundation has officially launched an upgraded version of its eponymous educational-centric development board, moving to the Nordic nRF52833 system-on-chip and adding an on-board microphone and speaker among other improvements.

Launched back in 2015, the micro:bit was a partnership with UK broadcaster the BBC to encourage computational education in schools by providing a robust all-in-one microcontroller-based development platform suitable for early years use upwards. The original micro:bit uses a Nordic nRF51822 system-on-chip with Arm Cortex-M0 microcontroller, a secondary NXP KL26Z chip for USB communications, and features an NXP MMA8652 three-axis accelerometer, MAG3110 three-axis magnetometer, and a 5x5 single-color LED matrix, plus two user-accessible tactile buttons. Additional interfaces are broken out to five banana-plug- and crocodile-clip-compatible rings and an edge connector at the base of the board.

In its first major refresh since launch, the micro:bit is receiving a major upgrade — and adding its first on-board support for audio projects. The new micro:bit board, which will replace the original model in the channel, includes an on-board MEMS microphone with LED indicator and an no-board speaker - in addition to existing support for driving a buzzer through the GPIO pins.

The speaker and microphone aren't the only upgrades: The new model switches to the more powerful Nordic nRF52833 system-on-chip, doubling the flash storage from 256kB to 512kB and boosting the RAM eightfold from 16kB to 128kB while also offering Bluetooth 5.0 BLE from the original's Bluetooth 4.0 BLE. The USB bridge processor has also been swapped out, to the NXP KL27Z with double the RAM at 32kB.

Other changes to the board's design include four dedicated GPIO pins instead of three, a dedicated I2C bus for user peripherals rather than sharing with the on-board devices, an LED power indicator, a physical power-off switch, and a boost from 90mA available current for external hardware to 200mA. The crocodile-clip connections have also been redesigned, with a notch offering more secure connections.

There's even a semi-hidden bonus feature: In addition to the two existing tactile switches, labeled A and B, there's a third user-accessible switch taking the form of a capacitive touch sensor wired into the micro:bit logo. Existing micro:bit accessories, meanwhile, will be fully compatible with the new model, as will software — though code will need to be recompiled before it can run on the new processor.

All existing programming languages, including the block-based MakeCode and embedded MicroPython, have been updated to include support for the new hardware. New programs written post-launch, or existing programs recompiled for the new board, will produce a "universal binary" format which runs on both the original and revised micro:bit.

While the new model is being announced today, though, hardware won't be available until some time in November; pricing, meanwhile, remains the same as the current model — despite the new features and more powerful processor. More information is available on the micro:bit website.

Gareth Halfacree
Freelance journalist, technical author, hacker, tinkerer, erstwhile sysadmin. For hire: freelance@halfacree.co.uk.
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