Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Higher integration

In contrast to general-purpose CPUs, microcontrollers may not implement an external address or data bus as they integrate RAM and non-volatile memory on the same chip as the CPU. Using fewer pins, the chip can be placed in a much smaller, cheaper package.

Integrating the memory and other peripherals on a single chip and testing them as a unit increases the cost of that chip, but often results in decreased net cost of the embedded system as a whole. Even if the cost of a CPU that has integrated peripherals is slightly more than the cost of a CPU + external peripherals, having fewer chips typically allows a smaller and cheaper circuit board, and reduces the labor required to assemble and test the circuit board.

A microcontroller is a single integrated circuit, commonly with the following features:

This integration drastically reduces the number of chips and the amount of wiring and circuit board space that would be needed to produce equivalent systems using separate chips. Furthermore, and on low pin count devices in particular, each pin may interface to several internal peripherals, with the pin function selected by software. This allows a part to be used in a wider variety of applications than if pins had dedicated functions. Microcontrollers have proved to be highly popular in embedded systems since their introduction in the 1970s.

Some microcontrollers use a Harvard architecture: separate memory buses for instructions and data, allowing accesses to take place concurrently. Where a Harvard architecture is used, instruction words for the processor may be a different bit size than the length of internal memory and registers; for example: 12-bit instructions used with 8-bit data registers.

The decision of which peripheral to integrate is often difficult. The microcontroller vendors often trade operating frequencies and system design flexibility against time-to-market requirements from their customers and overall lower system cost. Manufacturers have to balance the need to minimize the chip size against additional functionality.

Microcontroller architectures vary widely. Some designs include general-purpose microprocessor cores, with one or more ROM, RAM, or I/O functions integrated onto the package. Other designs are purpose built for control applications. A microcontroller instruction set usually has many instructions intended for bit-wise operations to make control programs more compact.[2] For example, a general purpose processor might require several instructions to test a bit in a register and branch if the bit is set, where a microcontroller could have a single instruction to provide that commonly-required function.

Microcontrollers typically do not have a math coprocessor, so fixed point or floating point arithmetic are performed by program code.

Embedded design

The majority of computer systems in use today are embedded in other machinery, such as automobiles, telephones, appliances, and peripherals for computer systems. These are called embedded systems. While some embedded systems are very sophisticated, many have minimal requirements for memory and program length, with no operating system, and low software complexity. Typical input and output devices include switches, relays, solenoids, LEDs, small or custom LCD displays, radio frequency devices, and sensors for data such as temperature, humidity, light level etc. Embedded systems usually have no keyboard, screen, disks, printers, or other recognizable I/O devices of a personal computer, and may lack human interaction devices of any kind.


It is mandatory that microcontrollers provide real time response to events in the embedded system they are controlling. When certain events occur, an interrupt system can signal the processor to suspend processing the current instruction sequence and to begin an interrupt service routine (ISR). The ISR will perform any processing required based on the source of the interrupt before returning to the original instruction sequence. Possible interrupt sources are device dependent, and often include events such as an internal timer overflow, completing an analog to digital conversion, a logic level change on an input such as from a button being pressed, and data received on a communication link. Where power consumption is important as in battery operated devices, interrupts may also wake a microcontroller from a low power sleep state where the processor is halted until required to do something by a peripheral event.


Microcontroller programs must fit in the available on-chip program memory, since it would be costly to provide a system with external, expandable, memory. Compilers and assembly language are used to turn high-level language programs into a compact machine code for storage in the microcontroller's memory. Depending on the device, the program memory may be permanent, read-only memory that can only be programmed at the factory, or program memory may be field-alterable flash or erasable read-only memory.

Other microcontroller features

Since embedded processors are usually used to control devices, they sometimes need to accept input from the device they are controlling. This is the purpose of the analog to digital converter. Since processors are built to interpret and process digital data, i.e. 1s and 0s, they won't be able to do anything with the analog signals that may be being sent to it by a device. So the analog to digital converter is used to convert the incoming data into a form that the processor can recognize. There is also a digital to analog converter that allows the processor to send data to the device it is controlling.

In addition to the converters, many embedded microprocessors include a variety of timers as well. One of the most common types of timers is the Programmable Interval Timer, or PIT for short. A PIT just counts down from some value to zero. Once it reaches zero, it sends an interrupt to the processor indicating that it has finished counting. This is useful for devices such as thermostats, which periodically test the temperature around them to see if they need to turn the air conditioner on, the heater on, etc.

Time Processing Unit or TPU for short. Is essentially just another timer, but more sophisticated. In addition to counting down, the TPU can detect input events, generate output events, and other useful operations.

Dedicated Pulse Width Modulation (PWM) block makes it possible for the CPU to control power converters, resistive loads, motors, etc., without using lots of CPU resources in tight timer loops.

Universal Asynchronous Receiver/Transmitter (UART) block makes it possible to receive and transmit data over a serial line with very little load on the CPU.

For those wanting ethernet one can use an external chip like Crystal Semiconductor CS8900A, Realtek RTL8019, or Microchip ENC 28J60. All of them allow easy interfacing with low pin count.


A microcontroller (also MCU or ┬ÁC) is a small computer on a single integrated circuit consisting of a relatively simple CPU combined with support functions such as a crystal oscillator, timers, watchdog, serial and analog I/O etc. Program memory in the form of NOR flash or OTP ROM is also often included on chip, as well as a, typically small, read/write memory.[1]

Microcontrollers are designed for small applications. Thus, in contrast to the microprocessors used in personal computers and other high-performance applications, simplicity is emphasized. Some microcontrollers may operate at clock frequencies as low as 32KHz, as this is adequate for many typical applications, enabling low power consumption (milliwatts or microwatts). They will generally have the ability to retain functionality while waiting for an event such as a button press or other interrupt; power consumption while sleeping (CPU clock and most peripherals off) may be just nanowatts, making many of them well suited for long lasting battery applications.

Microcontrollers are used in automatically controlled products and devices, such as automobile engine control systems, remote controls, office machines, appliances, power tools, and toys. By reducing the size and cost compared to a design that uses a separate microprocessor, memory, and input/output devices, microcontrollers make it economical to digitally control even more devices and processes.