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What is the Difference between Microcontroller and Microprocessor?

Microcontrollers and microprocessors may look similar on the surface, but they have different functions. A microcontroller and a microprocessor form crucial components for any electronic device. It becomes impossible to achieve any semblance of electronic operation without it. However, while vital for electronics, the difference can become challenging for most electronic enthusiasts. So is there a difference?

Microprocessors are designed to process data for a computer or other electronic system, whereas microcontrollers are more like computers themselves. A microprocessor will allow you to run programs without a display, input, or output. These microprocessors are often found in a computer.

On the other hand, microcontrollers can do many different things and are designed to be devices that perform tasks. The only way to control a microcontroller is through a set of commands you give it. They can also be used with additional components like switches or sensors.

The article will help you comprehend what each component entails. Additionally, it will help you distinguish between microprocessors and microcontrollers. So let’s dive right into it.

What is a Microcontroller?

Microcontrollers

It is an optimized chip responsible for controlling electronic devices. A microcontroller gets stored in an individual integrated circuit geared towards performing a specific task. Additionally, such an integrated circuit aims at executing an exact application.

Consequently, it gets inferred as a specially designed circuit for embedded applications. A microcontroller typically gets deployed in automated electronic devices. It possesses a memory, a programmable I/O, and a processor.

What is a Microprocessor?

It is a unit responsible for controlling a microcomputer. It comes wrapped in a small chip and performs ALU (arithmetic logical unit) operations besides communicating with connected devices. Consequently, it gets inferred to as a single integrated circuit that diverse functions get combined.  

Types of Microcontrollers

Are you an electronics designer? If you are, then understanding the different types of microcontrollers becomes fundamental in your endeavors to design and have your electronic devices fabricated. Microcontrollers are of diverse types, and these include the following.

  • PIC microcontroller. Alternatively referred to as pick microcontroller, this programmable interface controller infers to electronic circuits capable of getting programmed to perform a wide range of tasks. Armed with a microcontroller programming software such as the Circuit Wizard, you can program this microcontroller to function as a timer, control a particular production line, etc.

Programmable interface controllers come relatively affordable, and you can either buy and assemble them or buy them as pre-built circuits. Remember, if you have to possess a software program such as the circuit wizard to program a PIC into performing the task you desire.   

Since PICs comes in diverse types, they also possess a wide range of application areas. Some of the programmable interface controllers’ application areas include computer control systems, alarm systems, phones, and similar electronic devices.    

  • Intel 8051 microcontroller. It is a popular microcontroller primarily used in embedded systems, automobiles, and consumer electronics. The Intel 8051 was developed using the N-MOS technology, but this transitioned into CMOS technology because of the reliance on battery-powered devices. Though the production of this microcontroller got stopped in 2007, over twenty semiconductor manufacturers still produce these microcontrollers. However, the current 8051 microcontrollers come with silicon IP cores as much as 8051 microcontrollers still get produced discretely.

The signature features of an Intel 8051 microcontroller include low power consumption, simple architecture, and smaller size. However, the 8051 microcontroller gets deployed in the FPGAs and SoCs as a substitute for the MCU’s that rely on advanced ARM architecture.  

Some of the ideal application areas of the Intel 8051 microcontrollers include the following.

  • Consumer appliances that span remote controls, TV tuners, sewing machines, computers, etc.,
  • Communication systems that encompass intercoms, mobile phones, paging devices, answering machines, etc.,
  • Home application areas including VCR, TVs, camcorders, video games, garage door openers, home security systems, music instruments, etc.
  • Automobiles spanning ABS, airbag, transmission control, keyless entry, temperature control, engine control, etc.,
  • Office. Here, the application areas include printers, fax machines, laser printers, copiers, etc.
  • Robotics
  • Medical equipment
  • Networking and radio equipment
  • Space and aeronautics
  • Defense systems
  • Remote sensing
  • Flow control and industrial process  
  • Bluetooth microcontroller. It is an important microcontroller that uses a Bluetooth low-energy chipset. The microcontroller allows for communication with other Bluetooth components within its range. An excellent example includes the Bluetooth 5 microcontroller that features heavily integrated products, including GPIO connections, among other integrated peripherals. It can include integrated PMW output, audio codec, configurable interfaces, and high-accuracy ADC. Another good example includes ESP32 Bluetooth wireless microcontroller.

Some of the vital features of a Bluetooth microcontroller include data streaming, onboard memory, supply voltage, receiver capacity, transmitters, etc. It becomes ideal for embedded system application areas that need a supported processing platform.  

  • PICAXE microcontroller. It is a standard microcontroller that comes preprogrammed with the bootstrap firmware code- PICAXE. Consequently, the bootstrap allows for a simple reprogramming through a download cable connection that eliminates the need for the traditional PIC program.

The microcontroller is simple to use and thus preferred by most hobbyists or beginners. Additionally, the chip comes in different sizes and thus enhances the flexibility of your system application. What’s more, pins prove configurable by the user and thus can become output, an off-on digital input, a touch sensor, or analog input.

PICAXE microcontroller comes at an affordable cost because of the absence of the PIC program and allows for diverse applications.

  • Arduino microcontroller. It is a preprogrammed microcontroller complete with a boot loader. The boot loader simplifies processes such as program upload to the flash memory (on-chip). While not exactly a standalone microcontroller like other types, the Arduino microcontroller comprises an Atmel microcontroller on an Arduino board. The board comes complete with pre-tested hardware and software libraries besides possessing its integrated development environment.

The Arduino microcontroller can get deployed in diverse applications, especially those that center on Internet of Things applications. It includes reading sensors, controlling motors, and controlling lights. Consequently, it becomes common in home automation systems, games, gardening lights, robotics, thermostats, garage doors, etc.    

  • AVR microcontroller. It is an electronic chip developed by Atmel and based on the advanced RISC (reduced instruction set computer) architecture. It comes with diverse benefits compared to its equivalents. The AVR microcontroller can come with different configurations, with some designed for hole mounting or surface mounting. Additionally, you can get an eight-pin microcontroller to a hundred pins. However, anything above sixty-four pins proves solely surface mount.

Some common AVR microcontrollers include the ATmega16 microcontroller, ATmega8 microcontroller, ATmega32 microcontroller, and ATmega328 microcontroller.

Important features of an AVR microcontroller include internal and external interrupt sources and an internal calibrated RC oscillator. Additionally, it also possesses programmable brown-out detection besides power-on reset. It also has six sleep modes encompassing power-down, extended standby, standby, power save, and ADC noise reduction.  

  • ATMEL microcontroller. It implies a microcontroller manufactured by ATMEL using their signature ATMEL microcontroller programs. It includes diverse groups, including AVR microcontrollers. Such microcontrollers have diverse features, including read-only memory, different processor types, colors, application areas.

The ATMEL microcontroller can apply in electronics and automobiles. In electronics, it can encompass mobile phones, CD/DVD players, washing machines, security alarms, cameras, microwave ovens, keyboard and modems controllers, and electronic measurement instruments.

  • Python microcontroller. It is a type of microcontroller that uses python as its executable language for its libraries. The python microcontroller is also optimized to function under diverse applications. Since python (python) as a primary programming language cannot function in microcontrollers, its version referred to as a Micro-python gets utilized in this case. Widely inferred as a Micro-python pyboard, this microcontroller can apply in diverse office and home electronic products.   
  • Photon microcontroller. It is a type of microcontroller mostly found on photon boards. It primarily comes as a powerful STM32 ARM Cortex M3 microcontroller. It controls everything, including the Broadcom BCM43362 Wi-Fi chip and the eighteen mixed GPIO pins besides the web-based IDE. Therefore, it controls connectivity to the internet and communication with other components in the device.

The photon microcontroller is ideal for controlling Wi-Fi-enabled Internet of Things devices, especially when connecting products and projects for IoT.    

Types of Microprocessors

Microprocessors come in diverse types and include the following.

  • Complex Instruction Set Microprocessors. It is a microprocessor that features a single instruction executing numerous low-level operations. Such operations include loading from memory, memory storage, and arithmetic operations. Additionally, the CISM is also capable of executing multi-step operations.

It finds its application in low-end application areas such as home automation, security systems, etc.

  • The ASIC or Application Specific Integrated Circuit. It is a non-standard integrated circuit designed for a specific use, unlike others that prove multifunctional. The ASIC design gets deployed for products with large production runs. Mixed designs (ASIC) can incorporate logic and analog (encompassing RF as well) functions. ASIC types or levels include standard cell, gate array, and full custom ASIC designs.

The application of mixed ASIC designs proves pivotal in creating complete systems on one chip, enabling it to have multiple application areas.  

  • The Reduced Instruction Set Microprocessors. It is a vital type of microprocessor that performs reduced or small sets of instructions. Each instruction in such a processor aims at executing and attaining small operations. It features short and simple instructions that compound to solve complex commands quickly and in singular operations.

Crucial attributes of this microprocessor include a less demand for decoding, limited data types in the hardware, a set of uniform instruction, modest addressing nodes, and an identical general-purpose register.

  • Digital Signal Multiprocessors (DSPs). It is a crucial microprocessor type designed to measure, compress, and filter the real-world signals of the analog type. The DSP finds its application in telecommunication, audio signal processing, radar, speech, sonar recognition systems, and digital image processing, besides consumer electronics like disk drives, mobile phones, and HDTVs.

History of the Microcontroller

The first micro-controller came about in 1971 through the efforts of the US-based Intel Corporation. It came as i4004 and got deployed in calculators. However, in 1993, the EEPROM got introduced. ATMEL also developed the initial microcontroller by using the Flash memory in a similar year.   

History of the Microprocessor

microprocessors

The initial integrated circuit got developed in 1959 by Fairchild Semiconductor. However, in 1968, Andrew Grove, Gordan Moore, and Robert Noyce established their company –Intel. The company then grew into a global industrial giant by around 1981. It created the microprocessor 4004 with a 108 kHz speed between 1971, and this acted as the first generation microprocessor.

The second generation microprocessor got established from around 1973 to 1978. Such microprocessors came as 8-bit and included Motorola 6801 and 6800, Ziglog’s-Z80, and INTEL-8085.

The third-generation microprocessor came to the fore in 1978 through the Intel 8008, with Intel releasing the fourth generation featuring the 32-bit processors in the early 1980s. The fifth generation featured a 64-bit processor and got released by Intel in 1995.

Attributes of a Microcontroller

As much as different types of microcontrollers exist, all have similar features. It includes.

  • Processor reset
  • Variable and program memory I/O pins, alternative inferred to as Random Access Memory I/O pins.
  • Instruction cycle timers
  • DCCP or device clocking central processor

Attributes of a Microprocessor

Similar to microcontrollers, microprocessors come in diverse types. However, the different types of microprocessors also possess similar attributable features that include the following.

  • External memory interface
  • Provides built-in debugger or monitor program with interrupt capacity
  • Provides parallel I/O
  • Enormous amounts of instructions, with  each executing a different variant of a similar operation
  • Instruction cycle timer

Microcontroller vs. Microprocessor

The subject of microcontrollers and microprocessors can often confuse electronic enthusiasts. However, if you want to design your electronic product, it helps to consider the following differences between these two electronic aspects.

MicrocontrollerMicroprocessor
A microcontroller comes as the nerve center of any embedded system.A microprocessor also proves crucial and serves as the epicenter of any computer system.
A microcontroller possesses a processor besides I/O components and internal memory.It mainly comes as a processor, and this implies no I/O components or memory. Therefore you have to connect these two elements externally to ensure a seamless operation.
It features a small internal circuit with a pre-set I/O and memory components.The I/O and memory elements have to get connected externally. Therefore, the circuit often tends to prove large compared to a microcontroller.
It becomes possible to deploy the microcontroller in compact systems.It is impossible to use microprocessors in compact systems.
The cost of a whole microcontroller system proves lowThe cost of the whole microprocessor proves high
A microcontroller system possesses low amounts of external components, and thus, the overall power consumption proves less. All this implies that a microcontroller can run perfectly on devices that rely on battery-run and stored power.As mentioned, it features external components based on the entire architectural outlay. Consequently, it has an overall power consumption that proves high. As a result, a microprocessor system proves unsuitable for devices that run on batteries or other forms of stored power.
Plenty of microcontroller systems happen to provide power-saving modes.Plenty of microprocessors or microprocessor systems fail to provide power-saving features.
It is mainly deployed in applications such as MP3 players, washing machines, and other embedded systems.The microprocessor system mainly gets deployed in PC or personal computers.
A microcontroller possesses more registers, and thus the programs become simpler to write.Microprocessors possess a smaller amount of registers. Consequently, more operations become memory-based compared to microcontroller systems.
Microcontrollers come based on the Harvard architectureMicroprocessors, on the other hand, come based on the Von Neumann model
The microcontroller comes as a microprocessor’s development byproduct with a central processing unit besides other peripherals.The microprocessor proves the central processing unit based on one silicon-based IC or integrated chip.
It possesses a central processing unit and comes complete with read-only memory (ROM), random access memory (RAM), and other embedded peripherals on one particular chip.The microprocessor lacks a random access memory, a read-only memory, timers, input-output units, besides other peripherals contained by the chip.
It deploys an internal control bus.The microprocessor deploys an external bus. Such a bus becomes instrumental in interfacing with the read-only memory, random access memory, and other chip peripherals.
A microcontroller-based system tends to run up to about 200MHz plus based on the relevant architecture.A microprocessor-based system can run at high speeds as a result of the tech involved.
The microcontroller gets deployed for systems that prove application-specific.The microprocessor gets deployed primarily for general purpose areas, which permit loads of information or data.
A microcontroller proves simple and relatively inexpensive. It also possesses limited instructions for processing.A microprocessor proves expensive and complex. It also has an enormous amount of instructions for processing.

General Applications of Microcontrollers

Microcontrollers have diverse applications areas. While each type of microcontroller has a specific application, as illustrated earlier, the microcontrollers have common application areas. It includes the following.

  • Microcontrollers are vital components in the functioning of mobile phones
  • Automobiles also deploy microcontrollers as vital components in ensuring lighting and signaling besides other important aspects of automobiles.
  • It also applies to CD/DVD players.
  • Cameras
  • Washing machines
  • Keyboard controllers
  • Security alarms
  • Microwave oven
  • Mp3 players
  • Watches also deploy microcontrollers, especially in aspects such as alarms, clockwork, etc.

General Applications of Microprocessors

  • Accounting system
  • Calculators
  • Games machine
  • Traffic light
  • Complex industrial controllers
  • Control data
  • Defense systems
  • Military applications
  • Computation systems

Frequently Asked Questions on the Microcontroller vs. Microprocessor

Most people get confused about the difference between a microcontroller and a microprocessor. It arises from the close relationship and importance of the two components in electronics. However, you will better comprehend the difference between a microcontroller and a microprocessor through these frequently asked questions.   

  • Between a microcontroller and a microprocessor, which proves better?

No straight answer exists to this question as it mostly depends on the application area in question. For instance, a microcontroller gets optimized for low-power applications and thus proves perfect for embedded systems. On the other hand, microprocessors are perfect in applications that involve general computing needing versatile and complex computing operations. So based on whether you want to deploy it for an embedded system or aim it for complex computing, then either of the two can become ideal.

  • What distinguishes a microcontroller from a microprocessor?

A microcontroller’s main distinguishing factor from a microprocessor is that it contains a central processing unit, a read-only memory (ROM), a random access memory (RAM), and other peripherals, while a microprocessor only has a CPU.  

  • Between a microcontroller and a microprocessor, which one is cheaper?

A microcontroller is cheaper compared to a microprocessor because of the following. Firstly, the complementary technology deploying the metal-oxide-semiconductor tech requires cheaper materials compared to those needed for microprocessors. Secondly, the microcontrollers require fewer external components than microprocessors, and this reduces the cost significantly.

  • What are the drawbacks and benefits of a microcontroller?

Benefits

  • Little time is needed to perform its operation.
  • The microcontroller processor chips prove tiny and thus offer flexibility during deployment in its application areas.
  • Due to its enhanced integration, it has a reduced system size and cost.
  • A microcontroller proves simple when interfacing extra I/O ports, read-only memory, and random access memory.
  • Microcontrollers, once programmed, cannot get reprogrammed for other applications, which preserves their operational integrity.
  • A microcontroller performs plenty of tasks simultaneously and thus saves you the computational problems that would otherwise take a lot of time if conducted manually.
  • A microcontroller can act as a standalone microcomputer in the absence of any digital components or parts.
  • A microcontroller is also simple to use besides system maintenance and troubleshooting operations.

Drawbacks

  • A microcontroller is incapable of having a direct interface with high-power devices.
  • It also possesses an extra complex structure than a microprocessor.
  • A microcontroller can only perform a limited number of operations simultaneously.
  • It also gets deployed primarily in micro equipment
  • What does a microcontroller do?

As a compressed equivalent to a micro-compressed computer, a microcontroller aims to control the operations of embedded systems. It can include embedded systems in robots, office machines, motor vehicles, office machines, and other electronic gadgets. All these become a possibility through its capacity to store information (memory), process information (processor), and other computational aspects (peripherals).  

  • Does a microprocessor prove expensive?

Microprocessors are more expensive than microcontrollers because they carry out complex calculations in high-end systems like mobile phones and computers. Additionally, they possess more I/O pins because they need to connect to other peripherals like ROM and RAM, which drives up the price.

Final Remarks

A microcontroller is different from a microprocessor in every sense though deployed generally as the nerve center for electronics. The two differ in their architecture, functions, and other related aspects. Therefore, the next time you contemplate approaching us – RayMing PCB and Assembly for your electronic microprocessor or microcontroller needs, you should consider the information in your electronic design as explained in this article.