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What is a Microcontroller?

A microcontroller is a compact integrated circuit designed to govern a specific operation in an embedded system. Think of it as a tiny, dedicated computer that runs your digital watch, microwave, or car's engine control system. It's the brains behind countless devices we use daily. Curious about how these mini marvels are shaping our world? Let's dive deeper.
Dan Blacharski
Dan Blacharski

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.

A typical microcontroller.
A typical microcontroller.

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.

Two microcontrollers embedded into a printed circuit board (PCB).
Two microcontrollers embedded into a printed circuit board (PCB).

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.

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Discussion Comments

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.


@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.


what is the difference between simple microcontrol and 8051 microcontrol.


what is the difference between a microcontroller and PID ?


what is the difference between a microcontroller and PID ?

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    • A typical microcontroller.
      By: Sergey Yarochkin
      A typical microcontroller.
    • Two microcontrollers embedded into a printed circuit board (PCB).
      By: Rhombur
      Two microcontrollers embedded into a printed circuit board (PCB).
    • Microcontrollers have become a key component of industrial robotics.
      By: wellphoto
      Microcontrollers have become a key component of industrial robotics.