Best DIY com­puter kits

From Raspberry Pi to Ar­duino, there’s never been a bet­ter time to build a com­puter. MARTYN CASSERLY re­veals the best kits

Tech Advisor - - Contents -

The Raspberry Pi reignited in­ter­est in the DIY home com­puter mar­ket. Thanks to the lit­tle marvel there are now a wide range of kits and plat­forms avail­able for users to as­sem­ble their own ma­chines, rang­ing from bud­get boards up to more ex­pen­sive com­plete kits that in­clude key­boards, ca­bles, bat­ter­ies, and even ro­botic arms.

Whether you’re look­ing for a project to tin­ker with, a chance to learn some cod­ing skills, or just a gift for

a cu­ri­ous child, it can be hard to know where to be­gin, so we’ve done our best to break down what you can ex­pect from the best DIY com­puter kits on the mar­ket.

Raspberry Pi 3 Model B Price: £26.69 from

Although it cer­tainly wasn’t the first DIY com­puter kit, the Raspberry Pi has quickly be­come the most widely known plat­form thanks to a few key el­e­ments. Firstly, it’s cheap; sec­ond, it’s Bri­tish (although pro­duc­tion was moved from Wales to China in or­der to meet de­mand); and third, it was adopted by schools all over the UK as an ex­cel­lent way to teach ba­sic pro­gram­ming and en­cour­age kids to in­vent their own tech­ni­cal so­lu­tions to prob­lems.

The suc­cess of the Raspberry Pi has seen a huge range of projects spring up around the plat­form, with Raspberry Jams (user groups were peo­ple show off their ideas) oc­cur­ring reg­u­larly around the coun­try, and in­deed the world.

There are ded­i­cated mag­a­zines and books cov­er­ing the kind of de­vices you can build, an ex­cel­lent web­site that has a va­ri­ety of fun projects laid out and ex­plained, and even a re­cent ini­tia­tive called AstroPi, which en­abled code writ­ten on a Raspberry Pi to be taken into space and used on the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion.

Raspberry Pi uses it’s own op­er­at­ing sys­tem, called Rasp­bian, but can also run with flavours of Linux and even a slimmed down edi­tion of Win­dows 10.

There are sev­eral vari­ants of the Raspberry Pi avail­able. The lat­est is the un­be­liev­ably cheap Pi Zero

(un­der £10), but the most pow­er­ful – cur­rently – is the Pi 3, which is around £30.

Of course, the Raspberry Pi is just a cir­cuit board, so to do any­thing use­ful with it you’ll need a USB key­board, mouse, mon­i­tor, and SD card to run the OS. While you can use any spares you have around the house, there are also full kits avail­able.

As a start­ing point for DIY com­put­ing the Raspberry Pi, thanks to its wide­spread sup­port and ed­u­ca­tional links, is an ex­cel­lent place to be­gin.

Ar­duino Uno Price: £21 from

Long be­fore Raspberry Pi was around Ar­duino was the place to go for do-it-your­self com­put­ing. The com­pany be­gan in 2005 when it re­leased an open source

plat­form which peo­ple could use to build a whole num­ber of im­pres­sive de­vices.

From ro­bots to se­cu­rity cam­eras, Ar­duino has been used in pretty much any­thing you can turn your mind towards. Due to re­cent in­ter­nal dis­putes Ar­duino boards sold out­side the US are now known as Gen­uino, but re­tain the same com­po­nents and de­sign.

There is ac­tu­ally a wide range of boards avail­able, such as the UNO (Rev3) that costs around £15 and con­tains 14 dig­i­tal in­put/out­put pins (of which 6 can be used as PWM out­puts), 6 ana­logue in­puts, a 16MHz crys­tal os­cil­la­tor, a USB con­nec­tion, a power jack, an ICSP header, and a re­set but­ton.

You can buy more com­plex boards for ad­vanced projects, such as the Mega 2560 (Rev 3) for £25, and there is even a board for wear­able projects if you want to build the next smart­watch or in­tel­li­gent T-shirt.

A huge com­mu­nity of en­thu­si­asts sur­rounds Ar­duino/Gen­uino and mee­tups are found all around the world. It does have the feel of a more ad­vanced prod­uct, with spe­cialised uses catered for, so if you’re con­fi­dent in your abil­i­ties then Ar­duino is the place to go.

Kano Com­puter Kit Price: £139 from

The Kano is a DIY kit that uses a Raspberry Pi at its cen­tre, but sur­rounds the de­vice with beau­ti­fully de­signed pe­riph­er­als that fit to­gether to make a com­plete, small, PC. The idea came from a chal­lenge to build a sim­ple com­puter that was as fun as Lego. Kano came up with the de­sign, then re­leased a Kick­starter project that be­came an in­stant suc­cess.

The pack costs £139 and fea­tures a Raspberry Pi 3, Blue­tooth/USB RF key­board with built in touch­pad, ex­ter­nal speaker, 8GB SD card, plas­tic case for the Pi, Wi-Fi don­gle, ca­bles, books, and stick­ers.

The soft­ware is also ex­cel­lent – not only does it fea­ture an ex­ten­sive range of tools to teach real cod­ing skills, it also wraps a lot of them up into a video game in which you ex­plore the world in­side the com­puter, which should help in­cen­tivize kids to keep on learn­ing.

While you can put to­gether your own set for less money, the friendly, easy con­struc­tion, and child-sized key­board make this an ex­cel­lent kit for the younger peo­ple on your life. One of these un­der the Christ­mas tree will cer­tainly be a wel­come present for many chil­dren this year, and a few adults too.

The com­pany also of­fers kits to make your own screen and in­ter­ac­tive light board to ex­pand the set.

BBC mi­cro:bit go Price: £15 from

Those of a cer­tain age will re­mem­ber the BBC Mi­cro B, one of the first home com­put­ers in the UK, and one that many peo­ple started their PC ad­ven­tures upon. Now, 30 years on, the BBC is once again look­ing to bring com­put­ing into the class­room with its mi­cro:bit.

This tiny cir­cuit board packs some im­pres­sive spec­i­fi­ca­tions, with Blue­tooth ca­pa­bil­i­ties, an ac­celerom­e­ter, com­pass, two pro­gram­mable but­tons, and a grid of LEDs that are also con­trol­lable.

The mi­cro:bit can be pro­grammed by a range of de­vices, from PCs to mo­bile phones, mak­ing it open

to ev­ery­one that’s in­ter­ested in mak­ing an elec­tronic score­board, Blue­tooth re­mote shut­ter but­ton for a smart­phone cam­era, or even a ba­sic games ma­chine.

You can buy the mi­cro:bit board on its own, but we rec­om­mend the mi­cro:bit go kit, which only costs a tiny amount more but in­cludes bat­ter­ies, a bat­tery holder, and a USB ca­ble to help you get started.

FUZE pow­ered by Raspberry Pi Price: £129 from

Another Raspberry Pi-based sys­tem is FUZE. This ti­tanic unit is a fully metal con­struc­tion, with a full size

Raspberry Pi 3 Model B

Ar­duino Uno

Kano Com­puter Kit

BBC mi­cro:bit go

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