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What is a Microcontroller?

By Dan Blacharski
Updated May 16, 2024
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A microcontroller is an integrated chip that is often part of an embedded system. It includes a CPU, RAM, ROM, I/O ports, and timers like a standard computer, but because they are designed to execute only a single specific task to control a single system, they are much smaller and simplified so that they can include all the functions required on a single chip. Unlike a microprocessor, which is a general-purpose chip used to create a multi-function computer or device and requires multiple chips to handle various tasks, this device is meant to be more self-contained and independent, and functions as a tiny, dedicated computer.

The great advantage of microcontrollers, as opposed to using larger microprocessors, is that the parts-count and design costs of the item being controlled can be kept to a minimum. They are typically designed using complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS) technology, an efficient fabrication technique that uses less power and is more immune to power spikes than other techniques. There are also multiple architectures used, but the predominant architecture is Complex Instruction Set Computer (CISC), which allows the chip to contain multiple control instructions that can be executed with a single macro instruction. Some use a Reduced Instruction Set Computer (RISC) architecture, which implements fewer instructions, but delivers greater simplicity and lower power consumption.

Early controllers were typically built from logic components and were usually quite large. Later, microprocessors were used, and controllers were able to fit onto a circuit board. Microcontrollers now place all of the needed components onto a single chip. Because they control a single function, some complex devices contain several.

These chips have become common in many areas, and they can be found in home appliances, computer equipment, and instrumentation. They have many industrial uses as well, and they have become a central part of industrial robotics. Because they are usually used to control a single process and execute simple instructions, they do not require significant processing power.

The automotive market has been a major driver of microcontrollers, many of which have been developed for automotive applications. Because they have to withstand harsh environmental conditions, they must be highly reliable and durable. Nonetheless, like their counterparts, the chips used in cars are very inexpensive and are able to deliver powerful features that would otherwise be impossible or too costly to implement.

EasyTechJunkie is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By MrsPramm — On Oct 08, 2012
It's really interesting how small everything is getting in the field of electronics these days. Remember that just a few decades ago a computer was something that was the size of an entire room. And those early computers probably had the same functionality of the microprocessors of today, which are so tiny.

They will probably get smaller and smaller as well, as we try to make all our gear as light as possible. Cell phones are often judged on how much they weight, for example, and so are other electronic devices. I've always enjoyed science fiction and I think that if microcontrollers keep getting smaller and smaller we will see more of what was once only science fiction in my lifetime.

By clintflint — On Oct 07, 2012

@devipriya - I believe a PID is a type of controller that uses a particular algorithm in order to perform its job. I'm not an expert and I might be missing something here, but I believe that just means there is no difference, a PID can be a microcontroller and a microcontroller might be a PID controller (although, since PIDs are usually used in vehicles, I'm not sure if they are often microcontrollers).

PID controllers, as far as I understand it, are controllers that calculate how far away a value is from an ideal and attempt to correct so that the value is as close to the idea as possible. If the idea is to be traveling in a straight line, for example, the PID would get information on what angle the vehicle is traveling at, and then try to use that information to make the vehicle travel in a straight line.

By anon50617 — On Oct 30, 2009

what is the difference between simple microcontrol and 8051 microcontrol.

By devipriya — On Jul 13, 2009

what is the difference between a microcontroller and PID ?

By anon8454 — On Feb 13, 2008

what is the difference between a microcontroller and PID ?

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