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2.2: Guts 101

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  • A basic system consists of a control device called a CPU (central processing unit), microprocessor, or microcontroller. There are subtle distinctions between these but we have little need to go very deep at this point. Microcontrollers tend not to be as powerful as standard microprocessors in terms of processing speed but they usually have an array of input/output ports and hardware functions (such as analog-to- digital or digital-to-analog converters) on chip that typical microprocessors do not. To keep things simple we shall use the term “processor” as a generic.

    Microprocessors normally are connected to external memory (RAM chips). Microcontrollers generally contain sufficient on-board memory to alleviate this requirement but it is worthwhile to note that we are not talking about large (megabyte) quantities. A microcontroller may only contain a few hundred bytes of memory but in simple applications that may be sufficient. Remember, a byte of memory consists of 8 bits, each bit being thought of as a 1/0, high/low, yes/no, or true/false pair.

    In order for a processor to operate on data held in memory, the data must first be copied into a processor’s register (it may have dozens of registers). Only in a register can mathematical or logical operations be carried out. For example, if you desire to add one to a variable, the value of the variable must first be copied into a register. The addition is performed on the register contents yielding the answer. This answer is then copied back to the original memory location of the variable. It seems a little roundabout at first, but don’t worry, the C language compiler will take care of most of those details for you.