May 20, 2022

Microcontrollers In Smartphones: 4 Things To Know

People had to rely on messengers to receive and send messages in the past. In the late 19th century, there was a major milestone in the communication industry with the release of the first phone. This introduction changed how people interact and communicate with each other.

However, the advancement didn’t stop there. After more than a century, the mobile phone was introduced with more advanced features such as touchscreen capability, sending and receiving emails, and many others. These advanced features are supported by two of the primary components of a smartphone: microprocessors and microcontrollers.

This article discusses what you need to know about one of the primary components of smartphones, the microcontroller. Here, you’ll learn what a microcontroller is, its classification, and more.

1. What Is A Microcontroller?

When talking about computers and electronic devices, much fanfare goes to microprocessors. However, another critical component in your smartphone deserves some glory—the microcontroller.

A microcontroller refers to an integrated circuit (IC) device that manages the functions of an electronic system. It is optimized for software and placed permanently inside your smartphone to perform specific functions, such as touchscreen response.

Microcontroller unit (MCU) is a well-chosen term that defines its characteristics. The prefix ‘micro’ describes the smallness of the system. Meanwhile, ‘controller’ describes the ability of the system to control other portions of an electronic system, usually via a microprocessor unit and other peripherals.

The performance of MCU depends on the functionality and agility of the digital processor and memory, and other peripheral devices designed to help the system interact with other systems.

2. Microprocessors vs Microcontrollers

Sometimes, people may use the term ‘microprocessor’ when referring to a microcontroller, but you should understand a distinct difference between the two devices.

Let’s begin by understanding what a microprocessor is. A microprocessor refers to a controlling unit of a computer system that performs arithmetic logic unit (ALU) operations and communicates with other devices connected to it. The device is on a single integrated circuit chip containing many tiny components such as semiconductors, transistors, diodes, transistors, and more that work together, helping your phone do its work.

  • A microprocessor acts as the heart of a computer system; that is, everything a computer does is described by the instructions of computer programs. The microprocessor carries out these instructions many millions a second. Meanwhile, microcontrollers act as the heart of an embedded application.
  • A microprocessor is only a processor; thus, memory and peripheral devices, such as input and output (I/O) devices, have to be connected externally, so it becomes bulky and more complex. On the other hand, a microcontroller has a processor and built-in memory and I/O systems, so the circuit is small and less complex.
  • The microcontroller has more high-speed memory storing units than the microprocessor in terms of registers. Thus, most operations in microprocessors are memory-based.

3. Classification Of Microcontrollers

Microcontrollers can be classified as follows:

  • Bus Width

The bus describes the parallel lines used to connect different microcontroller components. It transmits data and instructions between the components of the controlling device.

Microcontrollers are classified into 8-bit, 16-bit, and 32-bit microcontrollers based on bus width.

An 8-bit microcontroller has 1-byte bus width. Thus, it can transfer and execute the data of eight bits in a single cycle. The major disadvantage of this microcontroller is when it processes ALU operations. Hence, if it’s processing 16-bit data, it will use multiple cycles to complete its operation, leading to poor performance and inaccuracies.

Meanwhile, a 16-bit microcontroller has 2-byte bus width. It’s more efficient and accurate than an 8-bit microcontroller. It processes data of 16 bits in a single cycle.

Lastly, a 32-bit microcontroller has a bus width of 32 bits or 4-bytes long. This microcontroller has a higher performance and occurrence than the 16-bit type. However, it’s more expensive and consumes more power. It is best suited to performing complex audio and video signal processing tasks. It also makes the integration of multiple peripherals easier, such as a universal serial bus (USB). You can choose from several 32-bit microcontrollers, including STM32F031G6U6 and other reputable brands that have gained popularity over the last few years due to their high performance and accuracy.

  • Memory

An embedded memory microcontroller has all the essential memory blocks integrated inside a single chip. These functional blocks include a timer, interrupts, program, and data memory. These are fixed, so they are not expandable; however, you can utilize an external read-only memory (ROM) to extend the storage of your microcontroller.

On the other hand, an external memory microcontroller doesn’t have one of the functional blocks embedded inside its chip; thus, it has to connect to an external block. Connecting external modules increases the size of the microcontroller.

4. Basic Components of Microcontrollers

A microcontroller has other components integrated into one circuit to perform specific functions. These include:

  • Central Processing Unit CPU

A CPU acts as the brain of the microcontroller in your smartphone. The unit fetches an instruction, understands what it means, and finally executes it. Likewise, the unit connects every microcontroller component into a single circuit, so performing specific functions becomes easier. However, it’s essential to monitor the temperature of your CPU, to avoid long-term issues that could affect the performance of your smartphone.

  • Ports And Registers

Ports and registers refer to special memory locations devoted to special functions such as hardware location. However, some ports may be dedicated to the I/O functionality of the microcontroller chip. You can also change the pin assignment of the microcontroller (input pin to output pin) by inserting either 1 or 0 into a specific port address.

  • Analog To Digital Converter (ADC)

As the name suggests, this component is responsible for converting analog signals to digital ones. For example, when you’re using your smartphone, the touch on the screen is the analog input in this converter. ADC will convert the sensor input into a digital form, and the screen will respond accordingly.

  • Timer

Depending on the type of smartphone, a microcontroller may have more than one timer or counter. This component is responsible for all the timing and counting functions of a microcontroller. Some of its functions include modulations, frequency measurement, pulse generation, and counting of external pulses.

  • Memory

The memory in a microcontroller is used to store data and programs. The system has a given amount of random-access memory, ROM, and other flash memories for storing and managing program source codes.

Bottom Line

As discussed, the introduction of mobile phones changed how people interact and communicate with each other. The primary components of smartphones, microprocessors, and microcontrollers, supported advanced features such as touchscreen and other capabilities.

About the author 

Kyrie Mattos

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