To the layperson, microcontrollers and microprocessors may seem like very different devices; however, it is important to note that all microcontrollers contain microprocessors. The key difference between a microcontroller and a multifunctional PC microprocessor is the overall level of complexity. Microcontroller processors are designed to fill a smaller, more focused variety of roles while making use of less expensive and less complex circuitry. The main advantage of a microcontroller is that it allows electronic automation in situations where a full-sized computer is not needed.
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How Fully Functional Microprocessors Differ From Microcontrollers
A fully functional personal computer microprocessor is a complex device containing densely packed micro circuitry. Most microprocessors also require gold plating on every single processor pin used to connect to the computer's motherboard, adding yet another expense to an already difficult to produce item. When compared to the simple circuit architecture found in the microprocessors of microcontrollers, it is easy to see that microcontrollers save money. The processors in microcontrollers are either purpose built or general processors with a level of complexity that would otherwise be considered obsolete. When the most modern technical engineering is applied to a microcontroller it allows the device to be extremely compact, making microcontrollers popular within mobile devices such as cell phones and PDAs.
Ideal Situations From Microcontroller Use
Microcontrollers shine in situations where limited computing functions are required within an easily definable set of parameters. Microcontrollers excel at the low grade computational functions required to run devices such as electronic parking meters, vending machines, simple sensors and even home security equipment. Microcontrollers surround most Americans in their homes and offices, being present in devices such as televisions, remote controlled stereos and even the digital computer components of a timer on a newer stove.
When to Use a PC Instead of a Microcontroller
There are a few applications where it is not immediately apparent whether or not a full-blown PC is preferable to a microcontroller. In order to decide, the engineer will have to determine whether the flexibility of a full-sized computer is more important than the cost saving potential of a microcontroller system. Generic microcontrollers offer a limited degree of flexibility; however, due to their inherent hardware limitations, applications which require frequent software and firmware updates are better served with a full-blown PC. Microcontrollers, on the other hand, are the perfect choice when creating simple electronic devices that will not change much over time.