Hands On With Google's Android Things Starter Kit

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It's everything you need to dive into Google's world of smart devices, but be warned that the Android Things Starter Kit drops novices in the deep end.

These days we're spoiled for choice when it comes to starter kits for those looking for their first taste of electronics and programming. The Android Things Starter Kit is more impressive than most – with great hardware and easy access to Google's powerful cloud services – but be prepared for a steep learning curve if you're not already an Android developer.

Android Things 1.0: What You Need To Know

'.Google I/O is still a day away, but the tech giant has already revealed some of the goodies it will be announcing. Chief among these is the official release of the Google Things operating system. So what exactly is it? And do ordinary people need to care? Here are the details..'

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Android Things is basically a stripped-down version of Google's mobile-friendly OS, designed especially for "internet of things" devices like smart speakers and screens as well as controllers like smart thermostats.

The $US199 ($260) Starter Kit sets you up with a tiny barebones computer built around the palm-sized NXP i.MX7D motherboard, which includes USB, Ethernet, HDMI, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and audio connectors along with pins for connecting other components. To help bring your ideas to life you'll also find a 5-inch 800x480 multi-touch display, camera module and "Rainbow HAT" digital readout with built-in sensors.

Alternatively you can opt for the $US90 Starter Kit which includes the popular Raspberry Pi 3 barebones computer, but there's no camera or screen in the box. This kit is also available without the Raspberry Pi 3, if you already have one lying around.

If you go for the NXP i.MX7D kit with the screen then make sure you don't destroy the packaging, as it actually folds together to make a frame to house the kit. The motherboard draws power via USB, with a USB cable in the box but no AC power adaptor.

Allow about an hour to put together the NXP i.MX7D kit. It shouldn't present too much of a challenge for tech-savvy teens but younger children will likely need a guiding hand, especially when it comes to the fiddly u.FL Wi-Fi aerial connector which requires more force than you'd expect.

Image: Adam Turner

With the build phase complete it's time to bring the little unit to life. Firstly you'll need to connect it to a Windows, Mac or Linux machine to provide power while you download the Android Things software and copy it across.

From here, setting things up requires the Android Things app; but be warned, it's only available for Android smartphones and tablets, not Apple devices. Google fails to mention this anywhere, naturally assuming anyone keen enough to buy an Android Things Starter Kit is already a fan of Android devices.

So once it's alive, what kind of things can Android Things do? Not a lot unless you're prepared to get your hands dirty in code and developer tools, but that's kind of the point.

Firstly you can test the peripherals; capturing an image with the camera, flashing up "Hello World" on the screen or scrolling it across the Rainbow HAT while the lights flash.

Next you'll find three sample applications pre-installed, which you can run from your Android smartphone or tablet. The first merely lets you play with the lights on the Rainbow HAT but the second is more useful, using its built-in sensors to create a basic weather station measuring temperature and air pressure.

The final application is the most impressive, letting you tap into the image recognition features powered by Google's TensorFlow machine learning service. The results are a bit hit and miss, and the image quality isn't great, but it highlights the fact the Android Things can take advantage of Google's amazing suite of online tools rather than expecting you to code something as complex as image recognition from scratch.

The kit doesn't come with any other easy projects for beginners because it's not aimed at absolute beginners, it assumes that you already know what you want to do with it. To install other applications you'll need to download Google's free Android Studio developer software, which you probably already use on a computer if you write apps for other Android platforms like smartphones.

From here the going gets tough for novices. To put the Android Things kit to work you can download sample applications from developer.android.com, but you still need to know your way around the basics of Android Studio and app development. Even the simplest online Android Things tutorials assume that you know your way around basic app development.

Image: Adam Turner

The Android Things Starter Kit is brimming with potential but, if you're looking for a starter kit to whet someone's interest in computing, this is definitely not the place to start as you'll hit a brick wall once you get past the pre-installed demos.

Instead novices are much better off starting with a Raspberry Pi, which has a broader developer community and plenty of great projects for all skill levels. When you're ready to step up to advanced projects on the Raspberry Pi it's not as steep a learning curve as conquering Android Studio, although it helps if you've spent a little time with Linux and the command line.

Meanwhile the Android Things Starter Kit is a great option for those who have already dipped their toe into Android development and are keen to come to grips with the internet of things; building on Google's existing tools and services rather than reinventing the wheel.


This article originally appeared in Digital Life, The Sydney Morning Herald's home for everything technology. Follow Digital Life on Facebook and Twitter.


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