Design News has recently been promoting a $4 development kit, the MSP430 LaunchPad. This kit is based on the MSP430 line of cheap 16 bit microcontrollers. These parts cost around $.25 in quantity, and are aimed directly at existing 8 bit microcontroller applications.
These boards set a new low price point for microcontroller boards, with prices typically in the $50 to $200 price range. You’d be hard pressed to buy lunch for less than one of these boards. While they don’t have nearly the features that larger parts do, for example the mbed platform featuring ARM based NXP processors, the price is certainly right if your application only needs a a couple kilobytes of flash, a handful of digital I/O, ADC, and serial.
The single physical board itself is logically divided into two parts. One is the MSP microcontroller itself, in a DIP package and socketed so it can be replaced by other parts in the MSP line. There are the usual switches and LEDs connected to the microcontroller also. The other part is a USB connected emulator that allows emulation and debugging of the MSP part, in addition to powering the whole board via the USB port. The two portions are connected by jumpers, so presumably you could use the USB portion to debug the MSP parts on a custom PCB as well.
Development environments are free, one from Code Composer Studio (eclipse based) and one from IAR systems. Both environments are code limited, but the good thing about having so little flash available on the MSP is that the biggest program that fits is well within the code limitations of these demo development environments!
For the price I don’t see how you could go wrong having a couple of these in your desk drawer. If you are going to order one, check all of the distributors listed on the TI wiki page. Demand has apparently been strong, and all but a couple of the distributors listed are currently on backorder.
Design News Gadget Freak