Some time ago, I noted a company called Elecrow in connection with a kit to turn a Raspberry Pi into a laptop (it’s all on their website in the link above and check out their Indiegogo link). But the RPi is NOT what this blog entry is about.
I’m not sure how, but my initial vague interest in turning a spare Raspberry Pi into a laptop developed into a series of emails back and forth with the company. To cut a long story short, Elecrow do a series of educational kits for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) at various levels – amongst them are terms like Crowbits (electronic blocks), CrowVi (portable USB-C touch display), CrowPi2 (Raspberry Pi laptop) and Crowtail (educational kit for Arduino).
And so we come to my latest postbag contents: a large package containing four “kits”, namely “Master Kit” (6 modules), “Creator Kit” (11 modules), “Inventor Kit” (10 modules) and “Explorer Kit” (13 modules) – the first three being aimed at age 10+ and the last at age 8+
To put this into scale, box sizes vary but the largest one is about the width of my full-size PC keyboard.
Opening the package immediately filled my head with images of my first Philips EE electronics kit (circa 1960s) – possibly one of the best Christmas presents my parents ever bought me and the trigger that propelled adolescent Pete into a lifetime of electronics and computing and ultimately to running my own electronics companies and spending 14 years as IT director of a large business organisation. All of that started with an “elecronics kit”.
Fair comparison? Well, of course I’m an adult and not as easily impressed as pre-teen Pete and the Philips kit had more in the way of coils of wire than sophisticated components – but expectations have changed beyond all belief since mid-last-century and so (early) this morning I opened the first box “Master Kit” and was pleasantly surprised. Inside, a pair of plastic “Thumb Joystick” modules, an “ESP32+TFT” module, a “keyboard” module, a “2G” module and a “laser ranging sensor” module, all intended to connect magnetically. That at least was in the top part of the box.
Underneath, a pair of flexible enclosures, a USB-to-uSD adaptor with included 8GB uSD, a servo, a shed-load of plastic lego-compatible parts and a 120 page manual entirely in clear English (why did I expect anything else).
With not a bare wire in sight I’d imagine any intelligent youngster could get to grips with most of this in no time. The master kit (remember this is just one of four kits) can make a “radar project”, a “mobile phone project” and a “game console project”.
Of course. all of this seemed to assume availability of a laptop and Internet connection to download software, but there is definitely no requirement for a soldering iron or indeed any external tools to get results. The “mobile phone project” aims to teach the principle operations of mobile phones including sending SMS messages.
The “2G Module” includes a SIM adaptor but unless I’m going blind, a SIM is required to make calls (given that these are available on a throw-away PAYG SIM for only a few pounds/Euros (for example, in the UK or Spain, a fiver can get you a SIM loaded with several hundred minutes of calls and vast numbers of SMS text messages).
I opened the box, plugged in the “2G” module to the included USB lead, plugged that into my PC USB adaptor for a few minutes, disconnected then long-pressed the little white button you might see on the lower-right of the photo to the right of this paragraph – lo and behold, the power light came on – clearly there is a battery submerged in that module – this gets easier by the minute – if only I had a spare SIM lying around, it seems I could plug in any old cheap earphones (not provided). It looks like connecting the ESP32 module, the 2G module, the keyboard module and a handy SIM, together with downloaded code for the ESP32 module,
WELL, it gets easier by the minute – I didn’t even have to download anything or connect to a PC. I pushed the 3 magnetically-attached modules together (at which point the ESP32 display lit up to tell me there was no SD card plugged in), plugged the supplied uSD card into theinternal-battery-powered ESP32 module (see top-right of ESP32 module), pressed the ON button (top middle of the ESP32 module) and the ON/OFF toggle (bottom of the 2G module) and the next thing I knew (with no external supply – NOTHING) – I had a colour (none-touch) menu up as you might expect on a bottom-end PHONE. It seems the only thing I can’t do without a SIM is actually make a call. See photo on the left. Time spent to get this far – less than an hour including writing this blog entry (so far).
So, up to now, to turn this box of tricks into a phone, it seems all you need is a cheap SIM and throwaway wired earbuds – amazing – and that’s just ONE project from just ONE of these kits. The only thing stopping me is a pathetically slow local SIM provider – As soon as I can get a spare SIM I’ll have a go with the “phone”. I can’t wait to send myself an SMS.
Having made a good start on this first kit, I note that the Elecrow warehouse is in Shenzhen and the website is operated by a company in Cyprus yet the look and feel of the packaging and the manual seems decidedly “British educational” to me, at least at first glance, I’m looking forward to more tinkering with the kits very soon. As one example of price, the “Master Kit” who’s capabilities I’m only skimmed across, comes out at sub-£100 in UK money? It seems that all four of these new kits are Red Dot Awards winners for 2021 – chech availability as they may or may not yet be widely distributed.
I got early versions, two of the kits came eithout manuals – I checked with the company – immediately they sent a link to all their docs for download. Problem solved. More later….