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Basics about microcontrollers

Published on: November 26, 2012

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I have seen many times people getting confused by the terms microcontroller and microprocessor. This blog post covers some basics which I know. I will try to explain the concepts in an simple manner. Please update corrections, feedbacks, suggestions etc in the comments field.

Microcontrollers are small computers which can do data processing. With this data processing capability, we can design embedded systems(computers) such as hand-held video games, mobile phones, etc. Usually these embedded devices uses a special range of microcontroller with a microprocessor called as ARM. There are other range of microcontrollers(known as AVR, PIC, MSP430 etc) with different microprocessors which will be discussed later.

Microcontrollers and microprocessors are different. Microprocessor is a device which can only do data manipulation. We need to pass data(or program) to the microprocessor, then it will process the data as we say and give it back. Microprocessors cannot store large programs because it doesn’t have large memories. They contains small memories called as registers which can only store small amount of data for data manipulation. This is a problem with microprocessors. We need extra hardware to store our programs. These extra hardwares are called as RAM(Random Access Memory), ROM(Read Only Memory), etc. After the microprocessors does the data manipulation, we need to view it on a screen(monitor). A microprocessors cannot write directly to a monitor. It needs again another special hardware called as display controller. Building an embedded system with these different hardwares is not easy since it involves some complexity because embedded system needs additional hardwares sensors, displays etc. Joining all these hardware is not an easy task. For this microcontrollers can help us.

But microcontrollers are different. In easy terms to say, microcontroller is a chip with microprocessor and its associated hardware (such as RAM, ROM, display drivers etc). So building embedded system with microcontrollers is easy.

If you want to understand more clearly about microcontrollers and microprocessors, go ahead reading this paragraph or else jump to next paragraph. Think  about your computer. It has a monitor, keyboard, mouse, CPU, speakers etc. A computers CPU is the main part to which we connect the monitor, keyboard, mouse, etc. The computers CPU contains a processor (which might be an Intel Pentium4 or Intel Core i3 or an AMD Athlon), RAM (which is of 2GB or 8GB or of some other capacity), a hard disk to store data etc. If you know well about computers, you should know that a processor cannot do any work alone. It needs a RAM, hard disk etc. When you join them together, computers CPU will start to work. This is the same case with microcontrollers and microprocessors.  You can imagine the processor(Intel Core i7 or AMD Athlon) as microprocessor and computers CPU completely(including hard disk, RAM, processor) as an microcontroller. With a processor alone we cannot do anything but with an CPU, we can connect a keyboard, mouse and a monitor to do our daily works. Hope you understood the difference between microprocessor and microcontroller.

There is no meaning in explaining more details about each peripherals. There are lot of tutorials existing in the Internet. I would recommend you to read those. My idea was to guide you to the world of computers. The main problem with engineers is that they know about computers but they don’t know about the internal working. If you want to know more about computers, go ahead reading the next paragraph. I would recommend this for all computer and electronics graduates.

From NAND to Tetris

Read the book The Elements of Computing Systems (From NAND to Tetris). This is an wonderful book which explains you how computers work from top to bottom i.e how microprocessors are made, how they interact with keyboard, monitor, etc, how an compiler works, how an operating system works etc. The most amazing part of this book is that it not only tells you how things work but also teaches you to write your own compiler, assembly programs, operating systems etc. Don’t worry. Its not a huge book. Try to get this book and read while you are traveling in bus or whenever you want.

I would recommend you not to miss this book. Reading this book alone will give you good knowledge. If you do the assignments in the book, its more wonderful and you can easily understand the computer systems. Please let me know your feedback after reading this awesome book!


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