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Engineering LibreTexts

1.2: Frequently Asked Questions

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  • Why learn C language programming?

    C is perhaps the most widely used development language today. That alone is a good reason to consider it but there’s more:

    • It is a modern structured language that has been standardized (ANSI).
    • It is modular, allowing reuse of code.
    • It is widely supported, allowing source code to be used for several different platforms by just recompiling for the new target.
    • Its popularity means that several third-party add-ons (libraries and modules) are available to “stretch” the language.
    • It has type checking which helps catch errors.
    • It is very powerful, allowing you to get “close to the metal”.
    • Generally, it creates very efficient code (small space and fast execution).


    What’s the difference between C and C++?

    C++ is a superset of C. First came C, then came C++. In fact, the name C++ is a programmer’s joke because ++ is the increment operator in C. Thus, C++ literally means “increment C”, or perhaps “give me the next C”. C++ does everything C does plus a whole lot more. These extra features don’t come free and embedded applications usually cannot afford the overhead. Consequently, although much desktop work is done in C++ as well as C, most embedded work is done in C. Desktop development systems are usually referred to as C/C++ systems meaning that they’ll do both. Embedded development systems may be strictly C or even a variant of it (as is ours).


    Where can I buy an Arduino development board?

    The Arduino Uno board is available from a variety of sources including Digi-Key, Mouser, Parts Express and others. Shop around!


    What’s the difference between desktop PC development and embedded programming?

    Desktop development focuses on applications for desktop computers. These include things like word processors, graphing utilities, games, CAD programs, etc. These are the things most people think of when they hear the word “computer”. Embedded programming focuses on the myriad nearly invisible applications that surround us every day. Examples include the code that runs your microwave oven, automobile engine management system, cell phone, and many others. In terms of total units, embedded applications far outnumber desktop applications. You may have one or even a few PCs in your house but you probably use dozens of embedded applications every day. Embedded microcontrollers tend to be much less powerful but also much less expensive than their PC counterparts. The differing programming techniques are an integral part of this course and we shall spend considerable time examining them.


    How does C compare with Python?

    If, like many students taking this course, your background is with the Python language, you may find certain aspects of C a little odd at first. Some of it may seem overly complicated. Do not be alarmed though. The core of the language is actually simple. Python tends to hide things from the programmer while C doesn’t. Initially, this seems to make things more complicated, and it does for the most simple of programs, but for more complicated tasks C tends to cut to the heart of the matter. Many kinds of data and hardware manipulation are much more direct and efficient in C than in other languages. One practical consideration is that C is a compiled language while most versions of Python are essentially interpreted. This means that there is an extra step in the development cycle, but the resulting compiled program is much more efficient. We will examine why this is so a little later.


    How does C compare with assembly language?

    Assembly has traditionally been used when code space and speed are of utmost importance. Years ago, virtually all embedded work was done in assembly. As microcontrollers have increased in power and the C compilers have improved, the tables have turned. The downside of assembly now weighs against it. Assembly is processor-specific, unstructured, not standardized, nor particularly easy to read or write. C now offers similar performance characteristics to assembly but with all the advantages of a modern structured language.