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1.1 Microcontroller, Microcomputer, or Microprocessor
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It is common to hear these terms being used interchangeably. However, each is quite distinct from the other and it is important to understand the differences at this point. A microprocessor is a central processing unit (CPU) on a single chip. In the olden times, the CPU was designed using many medium/large scale integrated (MSI, LSI) chips. Intel, with its 4004, put all the components of a CPU arithmetic logic unit (ALU), instruction decoder, registers, bus control circuit, etc. on a single chip, and so the microprocessor was born. The 4004 was a 4-bit (i.e., it processed data in chunks of 4 bits at a time) microprocessor designed to be the number cruncher in a calculator. When a microprocessor and associated support circuitry, peripheral I/O components and memory (program as well as data) were put together to form a small computer specifically for data acquisition and control applications, it was called a microcomputer. So if I were to design a circuit with a popular microprocessor 8088 or for that matter even the 8085, put in EPROM for storing the program, RAM for storing variables and results and a few I/O interface chips for interacting with the external world, I would have put together a microcomputer. In a logical extension, when the components that make a microcomputer were put together on a single chip of silicon, it was called the microcontroller. Texas Instruments is credited with creating the first microcontroller, the TMS1000 series. The TMS1000 series microcontrollers had enough RAM, ROM, and I/O and were used as microwave oven controllers, in industrial timers, and in calculators. Today there are many microcontroller families: Intel s 8048 and 8051, Motorola s 68HC11, Zilog s Z8, Microchip s PIC, Hitachi s H8, and now Atmel s AVR. A microcontroller family indicates the availability of many different microcontrollers with the same basic central core but different peripherals, packaging, operating speed options, etc. Even though the definitions for a microprocessor, a microcomputer, and a microcontroller are clear and unambiguous, it is quite common to see these terms being used loosely and interchangeably. This fuzziness in terms exists and we will have to live with it. For our
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DO YOU NEED A MICROCONTROLLER 3
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work we will use the term microcontroller for a chip with on-chip memory and peripheral I/O capability (ports, timers, serial port, etc.) besides the CPU. The Atmel s AVR controller, with its on-chip program and memory, I/O ports, timers, and serial port, is a microcontroller, as it certainly satisfies the above criteria.
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1.2 Do You Need a Microcontroller
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Looking at the needs, decide whether it can be done simply. It requires substantial investment of time, money, and effort to put together a reliable microcontroller-based system. The advantages are small overheads when upgrading the system with small changes. It also helps to keep the inventory to a relatively small number of components. Possible alternatives are:
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1. A dedicated digital circuit, 2. A digital circuit based on a PLD (programmable logic device), 3. An application specific integrated circuit (ASIC) based implementation.
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The above-mentioned alternatives to microprocessors are quite similar and differ in only the implementation. A dedicated digital circuit might use discrete ICs for the various logic functions (AND, OR, XOR, etc.) while a digital circuit based on a PLD would be more compact given the programmable nature of a PLD. A PLD contains an array of various logic function blocks, the user selects the required functionality, and the interconnection between these functional blocks at the design level, thereby achieving a more integrated and compact solution. A PLD has a substantial amount of hardware, of which only a fraction gets utilized in average applications. The ASIC solution is like a PLD except that it is an optimized implementation. Figure 1.1 is the circuit diagram for implementing an hypothetical logic equation using individual digital ICs. These logic gates, as seen in Figure 1.1, are available in various logic families (TTL, CMOS, etc.). The figure illustrates the IC numbers for the TTL family. To implement this equation, we need 3 ICs with about 57 percent utilization (the 7404 IC has 6 gates and we have used 3 of them, while the 7408 and 7432 has 4 gates each, of which we have used 5 gates 8 gates in all out of 14 available gates, i.e., a utilization factor of .57). The same equation is now implemented using a PLD (such as 16L8). Figure 1.2 illustrates the internals of a PLD implementation. Each intersection in the AND array represents an AND gate, while each intersection in the OR array represents an OR gate. For this solution, we only need 1 IC. The PLD in Figure 1.2 has about 150 gates, of which we have used only about 12, representing a mere 8 percent utilization! (The actual 16L8 if used for this circuit has more hardware than seen in Figure 1.2.) A PLD-based circuit is also more power-consuming than a comparable ASIC circuit, which is due to the redundant hardware on the PLD chip. In contrast, a microprocessor-based (in fact an Atmel AVR processor-based) circuit is illustrated in Figure 1.3. It is as small as the PLD-based circuit, and in terms of power consumption, is better than a PLD circuit. In terms of speed, the PLD will perform much faster than a processor. Of course, for the microprocessor circuit to work correctly, it must
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