Microprocessor vs Microcontroller – is a microprocessor the same as a microcontroller? Both terms have been used interchangeably with each other over the years, and in some cases, might confuse users.
Both microprocessors and microcontrollers are designed for real-time computing applications, and indeed they share many similar features. However, there are also very significant differences between the two in both conceptual and application levels.
In this guide, we will make explicitly clear the key differentiation between microprocessors and microcontrollers, their applications, and also some popular microcontroller and microprocessor products like the Raspberry Pi, Beagleboard Black, and Arduino.
In a nutshell, a microprocessor is an integrated circuit (IC) that is responsible for performing the necessary tasks and instructions of computer processing.
All computers must have at least one microprocessor, that acts as the central unit that manages and executes all the logical tasks and instructions.
Physically, a microprocessor is a multi-purpose silicon chip that takes binary data as the input, processing this data, and then produces data output according to the instructions/programs stored in the memory.
A microprocessor is composed of integrated circuits that can contain thousands or more transistors. The more transistors it contains within the system, the more powerful the computing capability is.
We can most certainly say that a microprocessor is the most important element of any computer. Without it, the computer simply can’t do its function.
A microprocessor’s task is to execute computational and logical operations such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, inter-processes, device communications, input/output management, and so on.
Key Takeaway: a microprocessor is something small (micro) that processes data, instructions, and tasks (processor)
A microcontroller is a compact circuit that is designed to control or govern specific operations in an embedded system — a combination of hardware and software that is designed for specific functions, mainly as a part of a larger system.
A microcontroller typically consists of a microprocessor, i/o (input/output) devices, and memory on a single chip. We can say that a microcontroller is a computer on its own that is only able to do specific tasks (most often, only one specific task).
Compare this with our laptop, for example, that is a “general-purpose computer” that can run thousands of different programs. Most commonly the microcontroller can only do one specific program that is stored in the ROM (Read Only Memory) that is also integrated within the microcontroller system.
Generally, we can’t change this program. Microcontrollers are typically embedded inside another device, so it can control specific actions of the device. This is why a microcontroller is often called “embedded controller”.
After we’ve discussed the basic definitions of microprocessors and microcontrollers, we can see that they are very different from each other and the terms shouldn’t be used interchangeably. To discuss further, here are some notable differences between a microcontroller and microprocessor:
We can virtually find at least one microprocessor in any device we used daily nowadays: desktop PCs, laptops, tablets, and even your smartphone. However, here is a breakdown of important microprocessor applications in various industries:
Various devices and appliances rely on microcontrollers to perform specific operations, such as:
It’s a common misconception to call the popular Raspberry Pi a microcontroller (and in some cases, some people might mistake it as a microprocessor). However, technically the Raspberry Pi is NOT a microcontroller, but rather it’s more accurate to call it a single-board computer or small board computer (SBC).
In a layman’s term, a single board computer is a complete computer that is built on just one circuit board. It is a completely self-contained or embedded computer that is designed differently from standard general-purpose computers and can integrate more than one microprocessor, memory units, and input/output (I/O) peripherals.
An SBC is significantly different from a microcontroller mainly due to how an SBC is able to execute more than one or two specific operations and act more like a general-purpose computer. An SBC, however, can also perform as a microcontroller to control or govern specific functions when needed.
Below, we will discuss some of the popular SBCs available in the market today, their unique advantages and disadvantages, and key facts you might want to know.
The Raspberry Pi 4 is arguably one of the most popular single-board computers available today, mainly due to its versatility, fairly complete set of features, and surprisingly powerful capabilities.
Also, Raspberry Pi 4 is among the easiest to use compared to other SBCs and has a fairly shallow learning curve. This is also due to Raspberry Pi’s huge community with hundreds of projects available, from simple ones like smart mirrors, to very complex ones like tablets and even functional robots.
If you want to learn more about how to use Raspberry Pi 4 in your project, we’d recommend Exploring Raspberry Pi: Interfacing to the Real World by Derek Molloy as your starting point.
I am a big fan of Derek’s books because he takes an engineering first approach rather than a recipe or hobby type one.
The BeagleBone Black is admittedly a relatively new SBC among its competitors and is originally developed as a low-cost, high I/O count SBC. Because of the sheer number of I/O points and raw power of this board, I simply love it!
I’d recommend Exploring BeagleBone: Tools and Techniques, again written by Derek Molloy, if you want to learn more about BeagleBone SBCs — and especially BeagleBone Black.
Arduino and Raspberry Pi are often confused with each other for several reasons. Both of them are two of the most popular SBCs available today, they both began in as affordable budget hardware and STEM education, and they performed very similarly to each other.
However, they are actually very different from each other in architecture level.
Arduino is based on microcontrollers, while a Raspberry Pi is actually a microprocessor integrated with on-board RAM and other peripherals.
Arduino is arguably easier to use than Raspberry Pi in building electronic prototypes, but the Pi is more versatile and can be used as a full desktop computer.
If you want to learn further about using Arduino in building your electronic projects, I’d recommend Exploring Arduino: Tools and Techniques for Engineering Wizardry, because of Jeremy Blum’s engineering first approach.
As we can see, there are some core differences between microcontrollers and microprocessors from their main concepts to applications. Also, we have also learned that single-board computers (SBCs) can be based on microcontrollers (the Arduino) and can be mainly a microprocessor (the Raspberry Pi).
A microcontroller is typically far cheaper than a microprocessor, but at the same time is usually only designed for one specific purpose. On the other hand, a microprocessor is more general-purpose and can power a full-range desktop computer on its own.
However, the microprocessor needs external peripherals like I/O devices, RAM, ROM, and so on, while these devices are usually built-in and integrated with a microprocessor chip.
I hope you enjoyed this article that pits microprocessor vs microcontroller. I thought it was also relevant to discuss SBCs here as well, as they are often confused.
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