Nordic Semiconductor nRF52840 Tools Comparison

Warning: this needs a massive TL;DR warning. It got really out of hand. Unless you're a true glutton for punishment, you probably want to skip straight to the SUMMARY.

I've been doing some work using the Nordic Semiconductor nRF52840 chip recently. It's a nice ARM Cortex-M4F SoC with a 2.4 GHz radio suitable for Bluetooth and IEEE 802.15.4 networking (things like Thread and Zigbee). The code I've been writing has been using MQTT, OpenThread and FreeRTOS, and the experience of using the Nordic SDK has been a little disappointing.

There are a few different problems with the Nordic SDKs: mixtures of legacy and new drivers with varying support for the different driver versions across different higher-level libraries in the SDK; a very painful configuration system (one configuration header with 1152 #defines in one version of the SDK I've been using); opaque binary components for Bluetooth functionality; and so on.

So I want to find a better approach, or at least to satisfy myself that the Nordic SDK really is the best option. As you'd expect, their SDK does have very full coverage of device functionality, which might be a determining factor. And once it's set up, it does work. But modifying existing code to make use of a new device or library is pretty nasty. There has to be a better way.

This project is an attempt to do a fair comparison of the options out there. I've been inspired by Jay Carlson's magnum opus The Amazing $1 Microcontroller, which did a superb job of comparing a huge range of microcontrollers in what I think was a fair and objective way. I'm planning to do about 1% of the amount of work that Jay did for this, but I hope that will be enough to work out what tradeoffs there might be in choosing different development platforms.

The approach

So, the idea here is to take a bunch of development platforms (toolchains, SDKs, IDEs, languages, however you define a "development platform"), and to compare them for usability on the nRF52840 by developing a small set of example programs. I came up with some more or less objective criteria to judge these things on.

  • Example programs: I chose a small series of example programs to implement on each platform, increasing in complexity from "Blinky" to something involving Bluetooth, some GPIO stuff, some timers and an RTOS. These aim to be realistic without being too large. I also want to exercise the important task of adding functionality to existing code (e.g. add Bluetooth to the code in your widget, add access to a PWM timer/library, that sort of thing), because this is something where a bad configuration system really hurts you, and it's one of the biggest pain points I had with the SDK that Nordic recommends.

  • Platforms: I picked a few different development environments and SDKs to test, based on what I'd already been using, a few things I'd seen that looked interesting, a couple of suggestions from Chris Gammell, and one total ringer to be dealt with at some future date (Rust: probably not practical for "normal" development yet, but I'm interested to see what you can do with it).

  • Assessment criteria: This is more or less just a checklist of things to think about. Is the platform easy to install? Are there examples? Is there documentation? Is it any good? Is it easy to build and flash the example code? How easy is the IDE (if any) to use? How easy is it to get things done with the SDK? Some fancier stuff, and (maybe most importantly) just how frustrated did I get trying to write the example programs using the platform? (I figure that if, starting from zero with a platform, I only experience 2 or 3/10 on a frustration scale doing things, it's really rather good. The experience of blowing the top off the frustration meter is unfortunately more common...)

I wasn't too hard on myself about sticking to the programme. If a platform was giving me a really hard time, I just bailed early from the series of example programs. If it takes superhuman efforts to make an LED blink, it's probably not going to be a bundle of fun getting something with Bluetooth and an RTOS going, and it's going to be even less fun using the thing for real work. I also didn't take too much care over code quality. Most of the example programs are cut-and-paste cargo cult programming, done in a slapdash kind of way just to see how easy it is to get things working. If you can get stuff going in this casual way, then things are likely to be pretty good when you spend a bit more time and care.

The evaluations

Some of these are really long. None of this is particularly simple, and there are lots of things to look at, so that's unavoidable, but does make these things kind of boring. Seriously, the summary is pretty great. Short and sweet. Smooth and succinct. I won't be offended if you skip right there!

The summary

Conclusions and summary on a separate page so I can point people at it without making them read all this stuff...