Getting Started with CircuitPython

MicroPython

CircuitPython is a spin-off of the well-known MicroPython. An efficient implementation of Python 3, with a small subset of the Python Stdlib, optimised for microcontrollers (Cortex-based MCU, for example).

Even thought Python 3 is a powerful language, this implementation fits in 256KB of Flash and uses around 16KB of RAM. So it is suitable for the majority of the mid-range ARM-based microcontrollers.

The main difference between MicroPython and CircuitPython, is that the latest is sponsored and maintained by Adafruit. One of the global leaders developing boards and add-ons for microcontrollers’ enthusiasts. Apart from that:

  • It’s based on MicroPython (stable) releases, and not the master branch.
  • It’s implementation is focus on Adafruit products (basically Atmel’s M0, M4 devices and ESP8266).
  • Floats and Doubles are enabled by default.
  • USB is natively supported on all boards (with capable hardware).
  • Does not support concurrency.

CircuitPython comes pre-installed on many Adafruit boards, but if it’s not present, or you have moved away from it (going to Arduino), you can always installed a CircuitPython (or MicroPython) bootloader that can be downloaded from:

Take into consideration that there are specific builds for each kind of board / CPU. Moreover, some Adafruit libraries, are not supported on MicroPython, for example the Bus Device library.

The Integrated Development Environment

CircuitPython (and MicroPython too) comes with an integrated REPL (Read-Eval-Print-Loop) that can be accessed using the built-in USB-Serial port present in all devices. But, some of this microcontrollers present a USB Drive where we can download Python (and other kind of) files, so the board can used them.

Adafruit recommends using the Mu Editor, but I find it very limited and mainly oriented to beginners when it comes to programming languages. Most of use (developers) use Visual Studio code, and more sophisticated IDEs, with features like:

  • Integrated version control (Git)
  • Autocomplete
  • Linters
  • Automatic code formatter
  • Included Markdown editor / preview for documentation

That’s why using an IDE like Visual Studio Code makes more sense when writing an advanced application. An extension for VS Code can be found on its MarketPlace. It’s compatible with CircuitPython latests stable release (5.3.x), it’s Open Source, but it has a few issues.

Visual Studio Code with CircuitPython extension demonstrating demo autocomplete feature.
Board selection in Visual Studio Code with CircuitPython extension.

Feel free to start coding with Mu if you want to start with a more stable IDE, which also was design specifically for CircuitPython.

Mu Editor (with Dark mode).
Mu Editor has different modes based on the target platform.

Libraries and Examples

Take into consideration downloading and installing Adafruit’s CircuitPython libraries, which can be fount at https://circuitpython.org/libraries. Also, it’s always a good idea to start looking at some examples in order to get familiar with it. A bundle with a lot of examples can be download from https://github.com/adafruit/Adafruit_CircuitPython_Bundle.

Keeping Circuit Python library up-to-date

CircUp is a dependency management tool for CircuitPython developed by Adafruit. It has a very simple CLI that let’s you list, install, remove and even update, any dependency needed inside your device.

Moreover, the version of each installed library is saved in a requirements.txt file in the working directory, so it’s really simple to keep dependencies organised and versiones on Git.

Installation is done using pip, either directly or using virtualenv. Python 3.5 or higher is requiered.

pip3 install --user circup
Usage: circup [OPTIONS] COMMAND [ARGS]...
  A tool to manage and update libraries on a CircuitPython device.
Options:
  --verbose  Comprehensive logging is sent to stdout.
  --version  Show the version and exit.
  --help     Show this message and exit.
Commands:
  freeze     Output details of all the modules found on the connected...
  install    Install a named module onto the device.
  list       Lists all out of date modules found on the connected...
  show       Show a list of available modules in the bundle.
  uninstall  Uninstall a named module(s) from the connected device.
  update     Update modules on the device. Use --all to automatically update
             all modules.

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