Digi-Key/Mouser vs. Adafruit/SparkFun

While trying to build an incubator, I very quickly ran into the limits of my very basic electrical component understanding. As I tried to tackle new problems, I continually had to do new things. Specifically, one of the issues I had was DHT22 sensors locking up. The easiest/best thing I could think of was to use a transistor to toggle the power supplied to the sensors, so my micro controller could reboot them when necessary.

Getting that transistor set up was the most complicated electronics thing I had done to date. When you don’t understand the theory, everything is hard. It’s easy to forget once you know everything, but electronic components are bruuuuutally complicated when you don’t know anything. As soon as anyone mentions PNP vs NPN, you’re off the deep end.

I wanted a switch I could control with a GPIO, I didn’t want a crash course in electrical theory. When you know, you can quickly make a wide variety of components work (or at least rule them out). When you don’t know, you can’t even figure out what area of component you should be looking up to buy. Add in the lead time for getting those new components, only to find out when you go to use them that they’re not compatible with something else you ordered a month ago, and it’s a rough go. I think there’s something missing between the SparkFun/Adafruits of the world and the Mouser and Digi-Keys of the world. One end of the spectrum is basically premium kit builds with a curated component selection, the other end is a ridiculously overwhelming parts list of ultra specific items.

As an example, here’s an example of the search results for “transistor” on Mouser (it actually leads to the “All Products | Semiconductors | Discrete Semiconductors | Transistors” section):

are these even words?!

And here’s most of the first page of results for “transistor” on Adafruit:

yes, the first 8 results were for t-shirts

So, do I start poking through the 40 000 things that are “transistors” and try and figure out what I actually want? It’ll take me multiple evenings to have a basic knowledge of the dozen words used to categorize them. Or do I start trying to find an Adafruit project that happens to line up with what I’m doing and therefore suggests a specific part? Neither is particularly enticing.

To be clear: I love all these sites. If you want a specific thing, Mouser/Digi-Key are absolutely invaluable. If you want to get jacked up about technology as hobby and get project ideas, Adafruit and SparkFun are fantastic resources. Adafruit and SparkFun also produce a ton of amazing “tutorial” style content as well. If you’re somewhere in the middle though and you don’t already have the knowledge, you’re a bit boned. I had a theoretical idea what I wanted, but it wasn’t an existing project, so now what?!

Maybe there’s an opportunity for something in the middle – a “choose your own adventure” style catalog that asks some rudimentary questions and guides you to an appropriate selection of components. Or maybe the answer is to just learn enough to be able to make the decision myself…

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