back to article BBC picks SiFive RISC-V chip for Doctor Who programming-for-kids kit – with Jodie Whittaker narrating

The BBC has created a Doctor Who-themed miniature computer, powered by a SiFive RISC-V system-on-chip, to help teach children how to program. The Doctor Who HiFive Inventor will ship with a bunch of bits and pieces to get kids hands-on with electronics and programming: cables and connectors to interface with the outside world …

  1. Aristotles slow and dimwitted horse Silver badge

    Isme a time lord...

    This is me saying "Hello World" from 400 years in the future.

    You are all fucked by the way. Things got a bit better for you between 2034 and 2056, but then it all really went to shit.

    1. Natalie Gritpants Jr Silver badge

      Re: Isme a time lord...

      2056? So is that when they defrost The Donald?

      1. wolfetone Silver badge

        Re: Isme a time lord...

        "2056? So is that when they defrost The Donald?"

        Worse, they defrosted John Wayne. And he was mega pissed at what he saw.

        According to Dennis Leary anyway.

      2. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: Isme a time lord...

        >2056? So is that when they defrost The Donald?

        No it's when the "Fast and Furious" film numbering wraps around a 32bit int

        1. Gordon 10 Silver badge

          Re: Isme a time lord...

          Ahh - yes I've seen that one coming. Starting to train my kids to help deal with 2F2F bug.

    2. Victor Ludorum

      Re: Isme a time lord...

      I've just checked the TV guide, you're right - Brooklyn Nine-nine is on at 2030, but I'm a 'Celebrity' is on at 2100...

  2. gerryg

    Showing my age.

    While my current thingy runs at 4.2GHz with 32GB of 3GHz RAM back in the day of 8MHz and 32kB I would have bitten your hand off for a spec like this

    1. Gene Cash Silver badge

      Re: Showing my age.

      8Mhz and 32K?? LUXURY, guv! I had 4.77Mhz and 16K on my TRS-80 Model I !!

      (and it's sad I still remember those specs by heart nearly 41 years later)

      1. G.Y.

        60IPS Re: Showing my age.

        I cut my teeth on a Wegematic (similar to ALWAC); 1KIPS if you "optimized" (i.e. put instructions on the drum where they would be picked up with no delay); 60IPS otherwise.

      2. Brian Miller

        Re: Showing my age.

        Oh, and the sun just shines outta yer bum, Pilate's pet! 1MHz, 4K, Commodore PET 2001N, the first 6502 I got my hands on at school. And when the VIC-20 came out, that's what I bought on Christmas sale. Cassette player for three years with that, until I bought a C128 and a floppy drive. Oh, the speed, the speed!

        1. Arthur the cat Silver badge

          Re: Showing my age.

          In full on Yorkshireman mode:

          Full adders built out of Post Office relays! Click, click, …

          1. badger31

            Re: Showing my age.

            FULL adders? We only had HALF adders! And only on Tuesdays. We used to dream of having full adders.

            1. Aussie Doc

              Re: Showing my age.

              You 'ad adders?

  3. StrangerHereMyself Bronze badge

    Timely rip-off

    A $100 for a SBC? That's a bit rich isn't it? For the same amount you can get a full-blown Raspberry Pi 400 All-in-one computer.

    And built on a 180nm process?! I'm surprised they could still find equipment to make that kind of stuff when the current state-of-the-art is approaching 3nm.

    And for $13 you can get a board that uses a similar RISC-V processor with similar or greater power:

    Delivery in Q1 2021.

    1. Howard Sway Silver badge

      Re: Timely rip-off

      64KB of data RAM for $100.

      Hs the doctor travelled back in time to 1984 for this price / specificaton? Maybe they should have asked Peter Davison as he would be the doctor associated with this level of limited tech.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Timely rip-off

      "And built on a 180nm process?! I'm surprised they could still find equipment to make that kind of stuff when the current state-of-the-art is approaching 3nm."

      Most ridiculous statement of the day. Well done. 180nm is widely used and extremely low cost so perfect for such a toy. You'd need your head examined if you were considering to put such a tiny thing on any of the non-planar processes. Also there is no embedded flash available below 28nm so how would that work?

    3. Jason Bloomberg

      Re: Timely rip-off

      A $100 for a SBC? That's a bit rich isn't it? For the same amount you can get a full-blown Raspberry Pi 400 All-in-one computer.

      It's not $100 for just an SBC. It seems to come with three crocodile-clip leads as well :)

      But to be serious, while one could buy a Pi cheaper it's a different target market. And try running your Pi 400 on three or four AA batteries and seeing how long it runs for.

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: Timely rip-off

        Not sure Pi4 is really the comparison.

        But you could buy an Arduino for $5 and blink some LEDs without much more effort

  4. katrinab Silver badge

    Specs are fine for the use case, but

    You can get a pi zero for about £5. “Less than” $100 (ie $99.99) seems very expensive.

  5. Martin an gof Silver badge

    It's already up at Pimoroni

    The "Inventor" kit is £64.50 while the board on its own is £36. Somewhat less than $100.

    The picture of the back of the board is more interesting than the one of the front (there are significantly more "things" on the back than on a micro:bit, and it almost looks as if there is an LED array on the back as well as the front), and it's also worth noting that the edge connector along the bottom is suspiciously similar to the one on the micro:bit (£13.50 for the board-only). I wouldn't be surprised to see that it's compatible with micro:bit add-ons...


    1. short

      Re: It's already up at Pimoroni

      I bought a couple of these ages ago, but in black. The collateral was really not good - a tie-in to AWS to build a couple of toy projects, then seemingly orphaned.

      It's the stuff round the edges which is important, and hard, and a massive time sink to create and curate. Micro:bit and Pi have that all up and running, we shall see if this gets traction, even with Dr Who branding.

      That's not a second array of LEDs on the back, they're decoupling capacitors for the WSwhatever neopixel RGB LEDs, which are truely lovely in a small array like that - I suspect that's where at least some of the budget has gone, compared to the red array on micro:bit.

      Wait, what? Develop on Tynker, where it's $30 per month? WTF? "Start for Free". This is not my idea of a good time.

    2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: It's already up at Pimoroni

      Either the target age group is way more "childish" than the same target age group of the 80's, the people aiming it have the wrong idea of the target age group, or it really is targetted at 7-8 year old kids.

      Back in the days of The Computer Programme, Making the Most of the Micro and Micro Live with Ian McNaught-Davis, kids were treated with respect as young adults and the target age group was aimed mainly at 10-14 years olds. Likewise, kids who were interested went out and did stuff. The bedroom coders of the 80s "just happened". Trying to deliberatly re-create that is like a record publisher trying to re-create the punk revolution today. It never works.

      1. Martin an gof Silver badge

        Re: It's already up at Pimoroni

        Having recently re-watched a few old episodes of The Computer Programme, Making the Most of the Micro and Micro Live which are available on the BBC website, I'm not at all sure that they were aimed at children. In fact my impression back in the day - when I was a young teenager myself - was that the things "Mac" was demonstrating were often only of academic interest to me. The articles seemed to fall into a few categories, most of which boiled down to trying to explain to a few different audiences what a "personal" computer actually was and what sorts of things it could do that might be of interest.

        Thus, historical articles about some aspect of computer science, explanations of "business software" and "this business owner wrote his own program to do x", or line-ups of "home computers" for parents wondering which one they should buy which would both satisfy their children's need to play games, and their own need to encourage learning something useful at a reasonable price, or - covering both bases - here's how to write a simple program in BASIC, it's not that hard but if you want to do anything more complex you'll have to look elsewhere.

        The marketing of the SiFive device is quite "twee", but that's not the main difference I think.

        The difference between then and now - in my mind - is that the computers we bought in the 1980s were comparatively vastly more expensive and more difficult to do anything "interesting" with. At launch, the ZX Spectrum was £179 (for the 48k model) and unless all you wanted to do was to write your own software, tediously on that awful rubber keyboard (though I admit it was a step up from the membrane keyboards of the ZX80 and ZX81), you had to spend more money to get it to do anything.

        The Bank of England Inflation Calculator reckons that £179 in 1982 was worth about £636 in 2019.

        If you wanted to be able to take temperature or light level or sound level or orientation readings with a Spectrum, or send data wirelessly to another device you had to be a fair whizz at electronics (in fact doing the wireless thing was probably illegal for a non radio amateur in 1982) and stump up even more cash.

        £636 would buy enough of these devices, plus the laptops necessary to programme them to keep two or three of groups of children happy in a coding club at school, and there is far, far more they can do "out of the box" than we could even dream of with our Spectrums.

        If you consider that the BBC Micro was £399 at launch (32k version for all those nice interface ports), that's over £1,400 at 2019 prices and if you swap this kit for the original micro:bit which does many of the same things you'd have enough cash to get a whole primary school class experimenting with self-healing message-passing networks and least-cost routing :-)


  6. mark l 2 Silver badge

    I wonder how much of the cost has gone on licensing the Dr Who branding? As surely the board itself and the accessories can't cost more than about $10 to produce

    1. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge

      It would have been cheaper to licence "EastEnders" - and more opportunities for product placement - Dirty Den's grand/great grand children playing with these on the kitchen table...

    2. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge


      shaped variant?

  7. Swordfish1

    BBC as usual out of touch with reality...

    1. TheProf


      Perhaps you could give a few pointers for the BBC to follow.

      1. Tom 7 Silver badge

        Re: Because?

        You could stick a Pi Zero in a plastic case with a lot of LEDs and other stuff for far less.

        1. short

          Re: Because?

          It doesn't look (to me) as if the BBC has done more than a bit of licensing, and contractual stuff to allow (or force?) Jodie Whittaker to read some stuff into a microphone. The hardware existed before this and Tynker seem to have a pretty slick, if spendy, operation doing similar stuff with other target hardware (and none), including the micro:bit.

          "BBC Doctor Who HiFive Inventor is produced by Tynker under license from BBC Studios.

          Doctor Who and BBC Learning are a trademark of the British Broadcasting Corporation and is used under license. © 2020 All rights reserved."

          Doesn't look like the BBC is pissing your license fee away here, might even be bringing some cash in?

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Because?

            This has the BBC Learning branding, which belongs to BBC Studios, the BBC's commercial production company. So it's unclear who's behind this, is it the BBC's public service arm, or the commercial arm, or is it a third party licensing the Doctor Who branding in the way that PRIME Computer did in the 1980s. Hopefully this time round we'll be spared the TV ads: "Computer, tell me how to deal with a woman?" "Marry her!" "Romana, wiill you marry me?" "Yes!"

  8. TomPhan

    In keeping with the recent Doctor Who -

    will it mean that the bugs were really the fault of the humans all along?

  9. dajames Silver badge


    The pictures show an Espressif ESP32 on the board -- presumably to provide the WiFi and Bluetooth.

    I wonder why they bother with the Risc-V at all, as an ESP32 is a pretty beefy little chip all on its own, rather beefier than the Risc-V chip in fact. I wonder whether the SiFive lets you access the ESP32 directly?

    Stil, it's nice to see Risc-V out in public, it needs the exercise and the publicity.

  10. ap011013


    Very Tardis like - Bigger(TM) Inside

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Good for SiFive

    I don't know why this thing exists, but hey - someone is buying RiscV.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    13th Doctor telling kids how to program?

    "Because, SONIC!"

    There, all the BBC want you to know about programming in a nutshell. Can't have the plebs thinking for themselves, they might get uppity ideas like voting other than how Auntie Beeb tells them to...

    1. ovation1357

      Re: 13th Doctor telling kids how to program?

      I hear ya! It's a bit sad really - although there have been some good moments in modern Dr Who (I'm talking Christopher Eccleston onwards) and there were, of course, some terrible episodes in the historic series' too; it's really just got a bit stupid in recent years.

      Ironically it's actually my wife who takes issue with the latest doctor being a woman - I do find her accent a bit annoying but like you say, "Because, SONIC!" is the real problem.

      Now that the BBC is flogging Who to audiences across the pond and elsewhere they seem to think it's necessary to include whacky, slapstick 'humour' and lots of dumbed down whizz-bang nonsense. I miss the epics they used to do where a story would be carried across 6 episodes (and I mean the whole story, not just a theme).

      The Doctor has never been particularly technical beyond a bit of TARDIS fixing and some waving of a sonic screwdriver so what suddenly makes this character a good choice to market an educational product like this?

      And $100? Wow! How about no way unless it's less than half that?

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