What is Microcontroller ?

microcontroller (or MCU for microcontroller unit) is a small computer on a single integrated circuit. A single chip that contains the processor (the CPU), non-volatile memory for the program (ROM or flash), volatile memory for input and output (RAM), a clock and an I/O control unit. Available in numerous sizes and architectures, and also called a computer on a chip.


Architecture of microcontroller

Processor Core: The CPU of the controller. It contains the arithmetic logic unit, the control unit, and the registers (stack pointer, program counter, accumulator register, register file, . . . ).

Memory: The memory is sometimes split into program memory and data memory. In larger con- trollers, a DMA controller handles data transfers between peripheral components and the mem- ory.

Interrupt Controller: Interrupts are useful for interrupting the normal program flow in case of (im- portant) external or internal events. In conjunction with sleep modes, they help to conserve power.

Timer/Counter: Most controllers have at least one and more likely 2-3 Timer/Counters, which can be used to timestamp events, measure intervals, or count events. Many controllers also contain PWM (pulse width modulation) outputs, which can be used to drive motors or for safe breaking (antilock brake system, ABS). Furthermore the PWM output can, in conjunction with an external filter, be used to realize a cheap digital/analog converter.

Digital I/O: Parallel digital I/O ports are one of the main features of microcontrollers. The number of I/O pins varies from 3-4 to over 90, depending on the controller family and the controller type.

Analog I/O: Apart from a few small controllers, most microcontrollers have integrated analog/digital converters, which differ in the number of channels (2-16) and their resolution (8-12 bits). The analog module also generally features an analog comparator. In some cases, the microcontroller includes digital/analog converters.

Interfaces: Controllers generally have at least one serial interface which can be used to download the program and for communication with the development PC in general. Since serial interfaces can also be used to communicate with external peripheral devices, most controllers offer several and varied interfaces like SPI and SCI. Many microcontrollers also contain integrated bus controllers for the most common (field)busses. IIC and CAN controllers lead the field here. Larger microcontrollers may also contain PCI, USB, or Ethernet interfaces.

Watchdog Timer: Since safety-critical systems form a major application area of microcontrollers, it is important to guard against errors in the program and/or the hardware. The watchdog timer is used to reset the controller in case of software “crashes”.

Debugging Unit: Some controllers are equipped with additional hardware to allow remote debug- ging of the chip from the PC. So there is no need to download special debugging software, which has the distinct advantage that erroneous application code cannot overwrite the debugger.

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