Electronic Design

Microcontrollers Aren't So Simple Anymore

Traditional automotive and industrial applications markets remain strong and consistent for microcontrollers (MCUs). The 8-bit MCU is still the workhorse, representing nearly 45% of all MCUs shipped. The lowest-price 8-bitters bottomed out around 50 cents. But over the last couple of years, price compressed among similarly featured 8-, 16-, and 32-bit MCUs, despite the size of the arithmetic/logic unit (ALU). Still, 32-bit MCUs have many attractions and may soon overtake 16-bit revenues.

Hybrid MCUs continue to find their space in motor control, audio applications, and test and measurement. Good digital-signal-processor (DSP) capability integrated with control code and traditional MCU peripheral sets make these good choices. This may be as close as MCUs get to the multiprocessor core phenomenon occurring in microprocessors, since MCUs don't have the die area to spare.

At the high end, larger DSPs with incorporated controller-like instructions are increasingly favored when more DSP-like features are preferred. Many of these may not contain the program memory (ROM/flash) of an MCU, yet they will take the available market from less-able MCUs. Lots of attention also is being paid to improved analog capabilities on MCUs, with companies like Silicon Laboratories finding solid footing in a crowded MCU market.

With connectivity being a larger draw every day, controller area network (CAN) continues to flourish, especially on MCUs targeting automobiles and industrial. But Ethernet also is appearing more frequently, not only on 32-bit MCUs but with support all the way down to 8-bitters. With Internet connectivity being considered for home and automotive as well as computing and commercial products, a self-contained network controller can open endless possibilities to an otherwise isolated piece of equipment.

ARM keeps muscling in to the 32-bit microcontroller area. In fact, a new architecture extension dubbed Cortex-M3 is aimed specifically at interrupt-heavy MCUs. The prospect of designing with the ubiquitous ARM architecture in an MCU has already shown to be good business for Sharp, Atmel, and Philips. Philips even offers a fully featured 32-bit ARM-based MCU for under $3.00. It gets harder to stay with on-chip memory in more advanced 32-bit MCUs, but compressed instructions like Thumb and Thumb2 (and SuperH offerings) help keep code size reasonable.

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