What is a Microcontroller?

A microcontroller is a computer. All computers -- whether we are talking about a personal desktop computer or a large mainframe computer or a microcontroller -- have several things in common:

  • All computers have a CPU (central processing unit) that executes programs. If you are sitting at a desktop computer right now reading this article, the CPU in that machine is executing a program that implements the Web browser that is displaying this page.
  • The CPU loads the program from somewhere. On your desktop machine, the browser program is loaded from the hard disk.
  • The computer has some RAM (random-access memory) where it can store "variables."
  • And the computer has some input and output devices so it can talk to people. On your desktop machine, the keyboard and mouse are input devices and the monitor and printer are output devices. A hard disk is an I/O device -- it handles both input and output.

The desktop computer you are using is a "general purpose computer" that can run any of thousands of programs. Microcontrollers are "special purpose computers." Microcontrollers do one thing well. There are a number of other common characteristics that define microcontrollers. If a computer matches a majority of these characteristics, then you can call it a "microcontroller":

  • Microcontrollers are "embedded" inside some other device (often a consumer product) so that they can control the features or actions of the product. Another name for a microcontroller, therefore, is "embedded controller."
  • Microcontrollers are dedicated to one task and run one specific program. The program is stored in ROM (read-only memory) and generally does not change.
  • Microcontrollers are often low-power devices. A desktop computer is almost always plugged into a wall socket and might consume 50 watts of electricity. A battery-operated microcontroller might consume 50 milliwatts.
  • A microcontroller has a dedicated input device and often (but not always) has a small LED or LCD display for output. A microcontroller also takes input from the device it is controlling and controls the device by sending signals to different components in the device. For example, the microcontroller inside a TV takes input from the remote control and displays output on the TV screen. The controller controls the channel selector, the speaker system and certain adjustments on the picture tube electronics such as tint and brightness. The engine controller in a car takes input from sensors such as the oxygen and knock sensors and controls things like fuel mix and spark plug timing. A microwave oven controller takes input from a keypad, displays output on an LCD display and controls a relay that turns the microwave generator on and off.
  • A microcontroller is often small and low cost. The components are chosen to minimize size and to be as inexpensive as possible.
  • A microcontroller is often, but not always, ruggedized in some way. The microcontroller controlling a car's engine, for example, has to work in temperature extremes that a normal computer generally cannot handle. A car's microcontroller in Alaska has to work fine in -30 degree F (-34 C) weather, while the same microcontroller in Nevada might be operating at 120 degrees F (49 C). When you add the heat naturally generated by the engine, the temperature can go as high as 150 or 180 degrees F (65-80 C) in the engine compartment. On the other hand, a microcontroller embedded inside a VCR hasn't been ruggedized at all.

The actual processor used to implement a microcontroller can vary widely. For example, the cell phone shown on Inside a Digital Cell Phone contains a Z-80 processor. The Z-80 is an 8-bit microprocessor developed in the 1970s and originally used in home computers of the time. The Garmin GPS shown in How GPS Receivers Work contains a low-power version of the Intel 80386, I am told. The 80386 was originally used in desktop computers.

In many products, such as microwave ovens, the demand on the CPU is fairly low and price is an important consideration. In these cases, manufacturers turn to dedicated microcontroller chips -- chips that were originally designed to be low-cost, small, low-power, embedded CPUs. The Motorola 6811 and Intel 8051 are both good examples of such chips. There is also a line of popular controllers called "PIC microcontrollers" created by a company called Microchip. By today's standards, these CPUs are incredibly minimalistic; but they are extremely inexpensive when purchased in large quantities and can often meet the needs of a device's designer with just one chip.

A typical low-end microcontroller chip might have 1,000 bytes of ROM and 20 bytes of RAM on the chip, along with eight I/0 pins. In large quantities, the cost of these chips can sometimes be just pennies. You certainly are never going to run Microsoft Word on such a chip -- Microsoft Word requires perhaps 30 megabytes of RAM and a processor that can run millions of instructions per second. But then, you don't need Microsoft Word to control a microwave oven, either. With a microcontroller, you have one specific task you are trying to accomplish, and low-cost, low-power performance is what is important.