It used to be that the number of different microcontroller chips available to the hobbyist was pretty limited. You got to use whatever you could manage to buy from the mail-order chip dealer, and that narrowed down the choice to a small number of chips.
But times have changed. Digikey lists over 16000 different line items under a 'microcontroller' search. Which one should a hobbyist with no particular prior experience choose?
Here are some hints. These are particularly aimed at someone trying to pick a microcontroller to use for the first time at least partially as a learning experience, rather than someone who wants to accomplish a particular task.
Update 2009-01-28: This Instructable was recently mentioned in some popular blogs, and is getting a bunch of new readers. Be sure to read the 'comments' made by other readers and the responses to them; there's a lot of value in those comments...
If you ever took a very introductory computer course, you probably learned about the major components of ANY computer:
A Central Processing Unit or CPU. The part that actually performs logic and math
Memory. Where the computer stores data and instructions
Input and Output or I/O. How the computer moves data between its other components and the real world.
A microprocessor uses microelectronic fabrication techniques to shrink the CPU to a very small size; usually a single "chip."
A microcontroller uses the same techniques to shrink the entire computer to a single chip (or very small module.) CPU, Memory, and I/O all in a little package as small as a grain of rice. Just connect up power and it starts doing its thing; computing and talking to the world. Usually the I/O on a microcontroller is aimed at "low level" hardware like talking to individual switches and LEDs instead of keyboards, internets, and displays (like your desktop computer.) A microcontroller is just the thing you want, if you want to talk to individual switches and LEDs...
There are a number design considerations that might immediately reduce your number of choices a great deal.
Programability and Reprogramability:
At this point in time, I would say that a hobbyist should only consider microcontrollers that have internal flash or eeprom program memory and can be erased and reprogrammed a substantial number of times. There are also micros that can be used with external memory (adds complexity and expense), UV erasable micros (usually quite expensive due to the special packaging), one-time programmable chips (potentially usable after you have a working design, but losing their price advantage anyway), and mask-programmed chips (essentially useless.)
If you want your microcontroller to have built in Ethernet, CAN, USB, or even multiple serial ports, many common choices are going to be eliminated. Some peripherals can be handy to have: UARTs, SPI or I2C controllers, PWM controllers, and EEPROM data memory are good examples, even though similar functionality can frequently be implemnented in software or external parts.
It's convenient if output pins can supply reasonable amounts of current for driving LEDs or transistors directly; some chips have 5mA or less drive capability.
Hobbyists are somewhat limited is the packages they are able to deal with, from a prototyping, PCB fabrication, and/or soldering. That 256