A microcontroller (also microcontroller unit, MCU or µC) is a small computer on a single integrated circuit consisting of a relatively simple CPU combined with support functions such as a crystal oscillator, timers, watchdog, serial and analog I/O etc. Program memory in the form of NOR flash or OTP ROM is also often included on chip, as well as a, typically small, read/write memory.

Microcontrollers are designed for small applications. Thus, in contrast to the microprocessors used in personal computers and other high-performance applications, simplicity is emphasized. Some microcontrollers may operate at clock frequencies as low as 32kHz, as this is adequate for many typical applications, enabling 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.

Microcontrollers are used in automatically controlled products and devices, such as automobile engine control systems, 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.

Embedded design

The majority of computer systems 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.


It is mandatory that micro-controllers provide real time 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). 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 micro-controller from a low power sleep state where the processor is halted until required to do something by a peripheral event.


Micro-controller 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 assembly language are used to turn high-level language programs into a compact machine code for storage in the micro-controller'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

Since embedded processors are usually used to control devices, they sometimes need to accept input from the device they are controlling. This is the purpose of the analog to digital converter. Since processors are built to interpret and process digital data, i.e. 1s and 0s, they won't be able to do anything with the analog signals that may be being 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. There is also a digital to analog converter that allows the processor to send data to the device it is controlling.

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, or PIT for short. A PIT just counts down from some value 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 or TPU for short is a sophisticated timer. In addition to counting down, the TPU can detect input events, generate output events, and perform other useful operations.

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.

For those wanting Ethernet one can use an external chip like Crystal Semiconductor CS8900A, Realtek RTL8019, or Microchip ENC 28J60. All of them allow easy interfacing with low pin count.

Higher integration

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 + 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 microcontroller 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
  • 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 & Controller Area Network for system interconnect
  • peripherals such as timers, event counters, PWM generators, and watchdog
  • volatile memory (RAM) for data storage
  • ROM, EPROM, EEPROM or Flash memory for program and operating parameter storage
  • clock generator - often an oscillator for a quartz timing crystal, resonator or RC circuit
  • many include analog-to-digital 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, and 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. Microcontrollers have proved to be highly popular in embedded systems since their introduction in the 1970s.

Some micro-controllers 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.

Micro-controller 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 microcontroller 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 microcontroller could have a single instruction to provide that commonly-required function.

Micro-controller typically do not have a math coprocessor, so fixed point or floating point arithmetic are performed by program code.


About 55% of all CPUs sold in the world are 8-bit microcontrollers and microprocessors. According to Semico, Over 4 billion 8-bit microcontrollers were sold in 2006.[3]

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 any electrical device: washing machines, microwave ovens, telephones etc. 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 ultra violet 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.

Programming environments

Micro-controllers were originally programmed only in assembly language, but various high-level programming languages are now also in common use to target micro-controllers. 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 micro-controllers. Some micro-controllers have environments to aid developing certain types of applications. Micro-controller vendors often make tools freely available to make it easier to adopt their hardware.

Many micro-controllers 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 micro-controllers. For example, BASIC on the early micro-controllers 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 micro-controllers, such as in Microchip's MPLAB environment. 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 micro-controllers 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.

Types of microcontrollers

See also: List of common microcontrollers

As of 2008 there are several architectures:

  • 68HC11
  • 8051
  • ARM
  • Atmel AVR 8-bit architecture
  • Atmel AVR32 32-bit architecture
  • Freescale CF (32-bit)
  • Freescale S08
  • Hitachi H8, Hitachi SuperH
  • MIPS (32-bit PIC32)
  • NEC V850
  • PIC (8-bit PIC16, PIC18, 16-bit dsPIC33 / PIC24)
  • PowerPC ISE
  • PSoC (Programmable System-on-Chip)
  • Rabbit 2000
  • TI MSP430 (16-bit)
  • Toshiba TLCS-870
  • Zilog eZ8, eZ80

and many others, some of which are used in very narrow range of applications or are more like processors than micro-controllers.

Interrupt latency

In contrast to general-purpose computers, micro-controllers used in embedded systems often seek to minimize interrupt latency over instruction throughput.

When an electronic device causes an interrupt, the intermediate results, the registers, have to be saved before the software responsible for handling the interrupt can run, and then must be put back after it is finished. If there are more registers, this saving and restoring process takes more time, increasing the latency.

Low-latency MCUs generally have relatively few registers in their central processing units, or they have "shadow registers", a duplicate register set that is only used by the interrupt software.



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