The RRRRRRRRRRBBA, a $3 Arduino




Hey, we all LOVE the Arduino, and for my projects I make extra sure that I used the Arduino platform, so that everyone in the artist and hacker community could springboard off it for their own projects, and so that I can springboard off them. Its so universal and easy to learn!   But,  there are a few things THEY don't want you to know about the Arduino:

Starting with the SHOCKING REVELATION THAT....

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Step 1: For a Microcontroller, the Arduino Is NOT CHEAP!

1. the Arduino is NOT a cheap microcontroller!

When Arduino-lovers like me say "Wow, the Arduino is such a cheap microcontroller!" this is not strictly true -- it is very cheap for what it is, but type "microcontroller" into Mouser's search box and you will find microcontrollers that cost 30 cents, not 30 dollars.

thats because....

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Step 2: The Arduino Is NOT a Microcontroller!

2. The Arduino is NOT a microcontroller!

Of course, the Arduino is not a microcontroller, but rather a development environment for microcontrollers -- including a programmer board, a software program for the computer, and a programming language, in addition to the microcontroller chip itself.  A programming/debugging solution the Arduino is extremely easy and friendly to use, and the level of support you get with it is well worth the money. But really, the term "microcontroller" refers specifically to the ATMEGA chip that is on the Arduino debug board.  All the other stuff on the board (the fancy power supply, the LEDs, the reset button, the programming circuitry, the USB-to-Serial converter) is totally optional.

Could that possibly mean that....

(read on)

Step 3: The ATMEGA Chip Works Fine Without the Arduino Board!

3. The ATMEGA chip works great WITHOUT the Arduino board!

Arduinos that have been pre-loaded with the "Lilypad" bootloader firmware, instead of the standard Diecimila or Uno firmware, have a very special property:  after you program such an Arduino with your own code, you can then take the $3 ATMEGA168 chip out of the programmer board, supply 5V power to it (such as the power from a USB bus or cell phone charger), and it will still work the same and do the same amazing things that your $30 Arduino does, all by its lonesome! You only need the Arduino board to program the chip -- after that, the chip can fly solo! 

Before you upload your code to the Arduino, you need to pre-load the Lilypad bootloader fimware. Buy an AVRISP mkII and follow the instructions here: .  Make sure you have "Lillypad" selected as the board you are using in the "Tools" dropdown menu of the Arduino IDE window on your computer. 

UPDATE: I am not sure if the Lilypad bootloader is compatible with newer boards like the UNO, which have an auto-reset feature the Lillypad doesnt have. If you have a newer board you may or may not have to disable your board's auto-reset feature by following these instructions -- .  Please comment if you have tried this method with an UNO -- my own board is a bit of an antique!

Step 4: The ATMEGA Chip IS a Cheap Microcontroller!

4. The ATMEGA chip IS a cheap microcontroller!

The ATMEGA168 chip, which does everything the Arduino can do, costs about $3.00.  (You can also use the equally cheap ATMEGA328 or ATMEGA328p -- but DONT use an ATMEGA168p -- the Arduino gods decided not to support it for some reason.)

Step 5: Some Caveats:

** Caveat #1 : The reason this trick works is that, unlike most Arduinos, the Lilypad Arduino is clocked by the ATMEGA's built-in oscillator instead of by an additional crystal oscillator circuit. This lack of additional oscillator circuitry makes wiring up the circuitry a lot simpler, but as a result the chip runs slower (8MHz instead of 16MHz) and its timing is not as accurate. The lilypad bootloader knows how to compensate for this speed difference to make sure all of your delays and baud-rates and other time-sensitive functions work correctly, but the fact remains that the chip will perform slower.  This is not a big deal unless your application needs very accurate timing or needs to perform tasks very quickly.

 If you do need your Arduino to run at the proper 16MHz speed, use two 22pf cermamic capacitors and an Abracon ABL-16.000MHZ-B2 crystal oscillator, and connect them as shown in the figure above. If you do decide to use this 16MHz crystal oscillator setup, don't use the Lilypad bootloader -- just use the correct bootloader for the board you have (eg diecimila, duemilanove, uno etc).

** Caveat #2: The ATMEGA chip has weird names for its pins -- ie ATMEGA pin 1 is not necessarily Arduino pin 1.  So you need the chart above to translate (courtesy of )

**Caveat #3:   Whatever power supply you use (cell phone charger, usb jack, or AAA batteries are quick and easy methods) it may not be a perfectly solid 5V.  So if you have problems with the chip hanging or resetting unexpectedly, add a .01 uF capacitor between 5V and Ground, as close to the chip as reasonably possible.  This filters out noise on the power supply.  You can also add an additional 10uF electrolytic cap in the same place (noting the polarity markings on the capacitor) --this protects against disruptions in the power supply.

**Caveat #4:  The most expensive and complicated part of an Arduino is the serial-to-usb circuitry.  By omitting it,  we save a lot of cost and effort, but If you still want to use your ultra-bare-bones arduino to communicate using the normal Serial.print() commands, you will need to purchase a 5V TTL USB-to-rs232 adapter cable, and connect it like so:
Cable TX wire   --->  ATMEGA Pin 2 (RXD)
Cable RX wire  ---> ATMEGA Pin 3 (TXD)
Cable Gnd wire  ---> ATMEGA Pin 8 (Gnd)

Step 6: There You Have It!

Thats it!   That's all there is to it.  5 Volts+ATMEGA168 = cheapest Arduino ever.   Be sure tell all your hacker friends about the cheapest Arduino of all time and space:  The Really Really Really Really Really REALLY Really Really Bare Bones Arduino!


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    129 Discussions


    1 year ago

    Is this the only arduino that has a removable chip?


    3 years ago

    What is the difference between ATMEGA and PIC32MX1?


    9 years ago on Step 5

    Whit a 16 k ressonator you don´t need the capacitors and you can run at normal speed.. so all your scripts will run with no problems. Don´t forget that all arduino ide uses 16 mhz and not 8 mhz....

    5 replies

    Reply 8 years ago on Step 5

    The ATMega chip will run on a 8MHz crystal though, it will just process information slower.


    Reply 8 years ago on Step 5

    Agree.. but the problem is the arduino IDE .. not the fact that it does run or does not.


    Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

    Sorry pal, that is bad information you are giving out.

    There are certain AVR chips that run at 8MHz that aren't supported, but there are 8MHz Arduino that are, as you can see:

    Screen Shot 2015-01-08 at 8.30.24 am.png

    Reply 3 years ago

    You can always outsource the power supply though?

    Even if It does run at > 8 MHz

    Although I understand where you are coming from, but there are a lot of people who can get their board and supply power or other alternative methods, although if you just want to chip then you would probably have to do some modifying of your own to get it down to < 8 MHz (there are ways to do it, I have seen it done before), but it does slow down the speed of processing information (fetch-execute cycle).


    Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

    Now it is.. 3 years as you can see my comment was not made yesterday...


    3 years ago

    LoL Great! =D


    4 years ago on Step 5

    Great guide!

    For Caveat #4, how about taking this instructable one further and building your own RS232 adapter using another cheap microcontroller with a USB interface ;)


    Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

    The 328P is 10 leu - about US$3.

    For less than US$3 you can get an entire Arduino Nano with free shipping...

    Hello Everyone, I live in Brazil and where I live is very dangerous ... I mean people steal you everytime is like Gran theft Auto sooo I want to make a Cheap gps tracker for me and my fellows, I can use this $3 arduino and put a gps to work in this ?
    do anybody have a link from a cheap gps too and a tutorial about how to make it?

    Ive seaching during a long time for a project to make
    .. Very Thanks and Help me please!

    6 replies

    Yeah! but you also need a GSM shield for communication. Check this out:

    Hello the shield is so expensive im trying to find a way to make one less expensive

    the shield is 160 reais = $ USD 70 and a car tracker in the web shop u can find for is 100 reais = 50 $ USD

    ive found this guy who make mini shieldso im trying to figure a way to make one with the function of the SIM900 GSM/GPRS Shield Module
    I also found this 16.20€gsm/gprs & gps shield

    but still expensive cuz libras are more valuable than dolar one libra costs 3,70 reais

    US$16 - complete GPS/GPRS tracker:

    Forget this 4 year old tutorial - you can buy an entire Arduino for US$2-$3.

    And there are SIM900A+GPS modules for about $8.

    The two of those, plus an antenna, power connector and a box to store it in, should only cost about $20 in total.

    Or... buy one that works out of the box for $16 delivered to Brazil:

    I know this is from ages ago but check this out: If you have a simcom module and a UNO you're most of the way there. Then pick up a cheap GPS serial receiver for a few $. Just remove/leave out the RFID stuff and have a simple switch or something.