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Sunday, November 25, 2007


While people quickly recognised and exploited the computing power of the microprocessor, they also saw another use for them, and that was in control. Designers started putting microprocessors into all sorts of products that had nothing to do with computing, like the fridge or the car door that we have just seen. Here the need was not necessarily for high computational power, or huge quantities of memory, or very high speed. A special category of microprocessor emerged that was intended for control activities, not for crunching big numbers. After a while this type of microprocessor gained an identity of its own, and became called a microcontroller. The microcontroller took over the role of the embedded computer in embedded systems.

So what distinguishes a microcontroller from a microprocessor? Like a microprocessor, a microcontroller needs to be able to compute, although not necessarily with big numbers. But it has other needs as well. Primarily, it must have excellent input/output capability, for example so that it can interface directly with the ins and outs of the fridge or the car door. Because many embedded systems are both size and cost conscious, it must be small, self-contained and low cost. Nor will it sit in the nice controlled environment that a conventional computer might expect. No, the microcontroller may need to put up with the harsh conditions of the industrial or motor car environment, and be able to operate in extremes of temperature.

A generic view of a microcontroller is shown in Figure. Essentially, it contains a simple microprocessor core, along with all necessary data and program memory. To this it adds all the peripherals that allow it to do the interfacing it needs to do. These may include digital and analog input and output, or counting and timing elements. Other more sophisticated functions are also available, which you will encounter later
in the book. Like any electronic circuit the microcontroller needs to be powered, and needs a clock signal (which in some controllers is generated internally) to drive the internal logic circuits.

Microcontroller families

There are thousands of different microcontroller types in the world today, made by numerous different manufacturers. All reflect in one way or another the block diagram of Figure. A manufacturer builds a microcontroller family around a fixed microprocessor core. Different family members are created by using the same core, combining with it different combinations of peripherals and different memory sizes.

This is shown symbolically in Figure 1.9. This manufacturer has three microcontroller families, each with its own core. One core might be 8-bit with limited power, another 16-bit and another a sophisticated 32-bit machine. To each core is added different combinations of peripheral and memory size, to make a number of family members. Because the core is fixed for all members of one family, the instruction set is fixed and users have little difficulty in moving from one family member to another.

While Figure below suggests only a few members of each family, in practice this is not the case; there can be more than 100 microcontrollers in any one family, each one with slightly different capabilities and some targeted at very specific applications.

Microcontroller packaging and appearance

Integrated circuits are made in a number of different forms, usually using plastic or ceramic as the packaging material. Interconnection with the outside world is provided by the pins on the package. Where possible microcontrollers should be made as physically small as possible, so it is worth asking: what determines the size? Interestingly, it is not usually the size of the integrated circuit chip itself, in a conventional microcontroller, which determines the overall size. Instead, this is set by the number of interconnection pins provided on the IC and their spacing. It is worth, therefore, pausing to consider what these pins carry in a microcontroller.

The point has been made that a microcontroller is usually input/output intensive. It is reasonable then to assume that a good number of pins will be used for input/output. Power must also be supplied and an earth connection made. It is reasonable to assume for the sort of systems we will be looking at that the microcontroller has all the
memory it needs on-chip. Therefore, it will not require the huge number of pins that earlier microprocessors needed, simply for connecting external data and address buses. It will, however, be necessary to provide pin interconnection to transfer program information into the memory and possibly provide extra power for the programming process. There is then usually a need to connect a clock signal, a reset and possibly some interrupt inputs.

Figure above, which shows a selection of microprocessors and microcontrollers, demonstrates the stunning diversity of package and size that is available. On the far right, the massive (and far from recent) 64-pin Motorola 68000 dwarfs almost everything else. The package is a dual-in-line package (DIP), with its pins arranged in two rows along the longer sides of the IC, the pin spacing being 0.1 inches.

Because the 68000 depends on external memory, many of its pins are committed to data and address bus functions, which forces the large size. Second from right is the comparatively recent 40-pin PIC 16F877. While this looks similar to the 68000, it actually makes very different use of its pins. With its on-chip program and data memory it has no need for external data or address buses. Its high pin count is now put to good use, allowing a high number of digital input/output and other lines. In the middle is the 52-pin Motorola 68HC705. This is in a square ceramic package, windowed to allow the on-chip EPROM (Erasable Programmable Read-Only Memory) to be erased. The pin spacing here is 0.05 inches, so the overall IC size is considerably more compact than the 68000, even though the pin count is still high. To the left of this is a 28-pin PIC 16C72.

Again, this has EPROM program memory and thus is also in a ceramic DIP package. On the far left is the tiny 8-pin surface-mounted PIC 12F508 and to the right of this is an 18-pin PIC 16F84A.

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