A microcontroller (sometimes abbreviated µC, uC or MCU) is a small computer on a single integrated circuit containing a processor core, memory, and programmable input/output peripherals. Program memory in the form of NOR flash or OTP ROM is also often included on chip, as well as a typically small amount of RAM. Microcontrollers are designed for embedded applications, in contrast to the microprocessors used in personal computers or other general purpose applications.
Microcontrollers are used in automatically controlled products and devices, such as automobile engine control systems, implantable medical devices, 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. Mixed signal microcontrollers are common, integrating analog components needed to control non-digital electronic systems.
Some microcontrollers may use four-bit words and operate at clock rate frequencies as low as 4 kHz, for 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. Other microcontrollers may serve performance-critical roles, where they may need to act more like a digital signal processor (DSP), with higher clock speeds and power consumption.
A microcontroller can be considered a self-contained system with a processor, memory and peripherals and can be used as an embedded system. The majority of microcontrollers 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.
Microcontrollers must provide real time (predictable, though not necessarily fast) 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, or “interrupt handler”). 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 assemblers are used to convert high-level language and assembler language codes 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
Microcontrollers usually contain from several to dozens of general purpose input/output pins (GPIO). GPIO pins are software configurable to either an input or an output state. When GPIO pins are configured to an input state, they are often used to read sensors or external signals. Configured to the output state, GPIO pins can drive external devices such as LEDs or motors.
Many embedded systems need to read sensors that produce analog signals. This is the purpose of the analog-to-digital converter (ADC). Since processors are built to interpret and process digital data, i.e. 1s and 0s, they are not able to do anything with the analog signals that may be 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. A less common feature on some microcontrollers is a digital-to-analog converter (DAC) that allows the processor to output analog signals or voltage levels.
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 (PIT). A PIT may either count down from some value to zero, or up to the capacity of the count register, overflowing 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 (TPU) is a sophisticated timer. In addition to counting down, the TPU can detect input events, generate output events, and perform other useful operations.
A 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. Dedicated on-chip hardware also often includes capabilities to communicate with other devices (chips) in digital formats such as I2C and Serial Peripheral Interface (SPI).
In contrast to general-purpose CPUs, micro-controllers 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 and 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 micro-controller is a single integrated circuit, commonly with the following features:
central processing unit – ranging from small and simple 4-bit processors to complex 32- or 64-bit processors
volatile memory (RAM) for data storage
ROM, EPROM, EEPROM or Flash memory for program and operating parameter storage
discrete input and output bits, allowing control or detection of the logic state of an individual package pin
serial input/output such as serial ports (UARTs)
other serial communications interfaces like I²C, Serial Peripheral Interface and Controller Area Network for system interconnect
peripherals such as timers, event counters, PWM generators, and watchdog
clock generator – often an oscillator for a quartz timing crystal, resonator or RC circuit
many include analog-to-digital converters, some include digital-to-analog converters
in-circuit programming and debugging support
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, 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. Micro-controllers 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 micro-controller instruction set usually has many instructions intended for bit-wise operations to make control programs more compact. 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 micro-controller could have a single instruction to provide that commonly-required function.
Microcontrollers typically do not have a math coprocessor, so floating point arithmetic is performed by software.
About 55% of all CPUs sold in the world are 8-bit microcontrollers and microprocessors. According to Semico, over four billion 8-bit microcontrollers were sold in 2006.
A typical home in a developed country is likely to have only four general-purpose microprocessors but around three dozen microcontrollers. A typical mid-range automobile has as many as 30 or more microcontrollers. They can also be found in many electrical devices such as washing machines, microwave ovens, and telephones.
A PIC 18F8720 microcontroller in an 80-pin TQFP package.
Manufacturers have often produced special versions of their microcontrollers in order to help the hardware and software development of the target system. Originally these included EPROM versions that have a “window” on the top of the device through which program memory can be erased by ultraviolet light, ready for reprogramming after a programming (“burn”) and test cycle. Since 1998, EPROM versions are rare and have been replaced by EEPROM and flash, which are easier to use (can be erased electronically) and cheaper to manufacture.
Other versions may be available where the ROM is accessed as an external device rather than as internal memory, however these are becoming increasingly rare due to the widespread availability of cheap microcontroller programmers.
The use of field-programmable devices on a microcontroller may allow field update of the firmware or permit late factory revisions to products that have been assembled but not yet shipped. Programmable memory also reduces the lead time required for deployment of a new product.
Where hundreds of thousands of identical devices are required, using parts programmed at the time of manufacture can be an economical option. These “mask programmed” parts have the program laid down in the same way as the logic of the chip, at the same time.
Microcontrollers were originally programmed only in assembly language, but various high-level programming languages are now also in common use to target microcontrollers. These languages are either designed specially for the purpose, or versions of general purpose languages such as the C programming language. Compilers for general purpose languages will typically have some restrictions as well as enhancements to better support the unique characteristics of microcontrollers. Some microcontrollers have environments to aid developing certain types of applications. Microcontroller vendors often make tools freely available to make it easier to adopt their hardware.
Many microcontrollers are so quirky that they effectively require their own non-standard dialects of C, such as SDCC for the 8051, which prevent using standard tools (such as code libraries or static analysis tools) even for code unrelated to hardware features. Interpreters are often used to hide such low level quirks.
Interpreter firmware is also available for some microcontrollers. For example, BASIC on the early microcontrollers Intel 8052; BASIC and FORTH on the Zilog Z8 as well as some modern devices. Typically these interpreters support interactive programming.
Simulators are available for some microcontrollers, such as in Microchip’s MPLAB environment and the Revolution Education PICAXE range. These allow a developer to analyze what the behavior of the microcontroller and their program should be if they were using the actual part. A simulator will show the internal processor state and also that of the outputs, as well as allowing input signals to be generated. While on the one hand most simulators will be limited from being unable to simulate much other hardware in a system, they can exercise conditions that may otherwise be hard to reproduce at will in the physical implementation, and can be the quickest way to debug and analyze problems.
Recent microcontrollers are often integrated with on-chip debug circuitry that when accessed by an in-circuit emulator via JTAG, allow debugging of the firmware with a debugger.