In today’s world, embedded design is becoming an increasingly popular and important aspect of electronics. As it stands, you can find MCUs in a large majority of electronic and consumer devices on the market.
Supporting the wide variety and proliferation of embedded devices requires a versatile market with offerings to meet the needs of most applications. Hoping to add to this, Microchip recently released five brand new 8-bit PIC and AVR MCU families, totaling over 60 devices.
Renderings of Microchip’s AVR and PIC MCUs. Image used courtesy of Microchip
In this article, we’ll look at 8-bit MCUs, why they’re essential, and what Microchip’s five new families bring to the table.
MCU Bit Width
Since MCUs can be used in so many different applications, there are many flavors or characteristics that an engineer can choose. One key defining characteristic of an MCU is its bit width, with some of the standard options including 8-bit, 16-bit, and 32-bit.
Comparing 8-bit and 32-bit widths. Image used courtesy of Altium
At its most basic level, the bit width of an MCU defines how much data the device can process at once. For example, an 8-bit MCU will only be able to do arithmetic operations on 8-bit numbers, while a 32-bit MCU can work with up to 32-bit numbers. Thus, the higher the bit-width, the greater the accuracy, resolution, and processing capabilities of the MCU.
Another vital corollary of bit width is the total memory addresses that an MCU can theoretically support. In an 8-bit system, an MCU can theoretically address 256 (28) memory spaces, each consisting of 8-bit registers. A 32-bit MCU, on the other hand, can support up to 4,294,967,296 (232) memory addresses, each consisting of 32-bit registers.
It’s important to note that this number is theoretical and that the actual memory size of 32-bit MCUs is normally much smaller than the theoretical maximum.
Benefits of 8-Bit MCUs
Despite their relative lack of processing and memory capabilities, 8-bit MCUs still offer advantages over their 32-bit counterparts.
One drawback of a higher bit width, more powerful MCU is that the increased performance often comes at the cost of increased programming complexity. Just by the nature of the increased resources, firmware for a 32-bit MCU will tend to be much more complicated to develop and maintain than an 8-bit counterpart.
A Venn diagram comparing high-level characteristics/specs between 8-bit and 32-bit MCUs. Image used courtesy of Lynnette Reese
Beyond this, higher bit width MCUs tend to operate at higher clock frequencies than lower bit width MCUs. The key downside to this is greater energy consumption, which is particularly detrimental since many embedded designs tend to be battery-powered, making energy efficiency a vital system specification.
Finally, 8-bit MCUs tend to be cheaper and take up less space than larger bit-width solutions. Again, this is a crucial factor in embedded designs such as Internet of Things (IoT) devices, where space, weight, and overall cost are key design considerations.
Microchip’s 5 New Families
This week, Microchip made headlines when they released five new families of 8-bit MCUs, totaling over 60 new devices to market.
The five families consist of:
- The AVR DD Family: an 8-bit AVR MCU family explicitly designed for real-time control and multi-voltage operation in-home and IoT applications. The family brings Microchips standard AVR CPU to 24 MHz and supports 16 KB, 32 KB, and 64 KB flash offerings.
- The PIC16F18076 Family: an 8-bit PIC MCU family designed for low-cost sensors and control systems.
- The PIC16F171xx Family: an 8-bit PIC MCU family designed for raw sensor applications where signal gain and/or filtering are required. This family claims to be the first to offer an integrated op-amp and 12-bit differential ADC with computation in a low pin count package.
- The PIC18-Q71 Family: an 8-bit PIC MCU family designed for high bandwidth, mixed-signal, and sensor applications such as home automation and IoT. The family uniquely integrates 2 operational amplifiers, a 12-bit differential ADC with computation and context switching, 8/10-bit DACs, and a high-speed analog comparator in one package.
- The PIC16F181xx Family: an 8-bit PIC MCU family designed for analog sensing and sensor fusion applications.
With a suite of new 8-bit MCU offerings coming to the market, Microchip is validating the place of the 8-bit MCU in today’s industry and hoping to put themselves at the forefront of the field.
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