Electronic Design

MCU Mania

I always enjoyed reading A Mote in God's Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. This is a sci-fi story set around 3017 AD. With the help of a faster-than-light drive and the discovery of an alien probe, humans visit an isolated star, the Mote, in a thick dust cloud.

The story is intriguing. I won't go into all of the twists and turns, but one thing about the aliens, dubbed the Moties, stands out. They customize everything. The idea of identical, mass-produced items is foreign to them because they can quickly create just what's needed at the time. This isn't too far from what embedded designers do these days, although it's definitely more profitable if a production line can crank out a few million of these customized works.

Today, we have a plethora of embedded microcontroller (MCU) solutions—almost to the point of absurdity. There are dozens of vendors with product lines that have many variations. This is a far cry from the higher-end processor market where a half-dozen chips dominate, varying only in small details like processor speed and cache size.

I'm not saying that this wide range of choice is bad, just confusing. Several factors contribute to the variety. One is the number of different processor architectures. The 8051 architecture spans many vendors, but this is the exception rather than the rule. Most vendors have their own architecture, touted for specific features, even though similarities between architectures are common. The second and more useful factor is built-in peripherals, which is the reason for having a microcontroller, other than its built-in memory.

You must know what you want when it comes to peripherals. More often than not, an MCU exists with at least the combination you will need. There are MCUs with built-in temperature and voltage sensors, and even RF transmitters and receivers. The trick is finding them because no single vendor can provide all the answers. Developing with MCUs may not be glamorous, but it's neat to create something that fits perfectly. Just ask a Motie.

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