What is a Microcontroller?

MicrocontrollerA microcontroller (or MCU for microcontroller unit) is a small computer on a single integrated circuit. In modern terminology, it is similar to, but less sophisticated than, a system on a chip or SoC; an SoC may include a microcontroller as one of its components. A microcontroller contains one or more CPUs (processor cores) along with memory and programmable input/output peripherals. Program memory in the form of Ferroelectric RAM, NOR flash or OTP ROM is also often included on chip, as well as a small amount of RAM. Microcontrollers are designed for embedded applications, in contrast to the microprocessors used in personal computers or other general purpose applications consisting of various discrete chips.

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, toys and other embedded systems. 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 frequencies as low as 4 kHz, for low power consumption (single-digit 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.

Features of a microcontroller:

  • Far more economical to control electronic devices and processes as the size and cost involved is comparatively less than other methods.
  • Operating at a low clock rate frequency, usually use four bit words and are designed for low power consumption.
  • Architecture varies greatly with respect to purpose from general to specific, and with respect to microprocessor, ROM, RAM or I/O functions.
  • Has a dedicated input device and often has a display for output.
  • Usually embedded in other equipment and are used to control features or actions of the equipment.
  • Program used by microcontroller is stored in ROM.
  • Used in situations where limited computing functions are needed

For more information, please visit wikipedia.

The most popular microcontroller programming platform is arduino. To learn more about arduino, please visit our arduino blog.

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