Everything for Electronics
Posted in: Developing Perspectives (August 2013)

Dedicated Chip vs. Microcontroller

By Bryan Bergeron

What’s changed in my arsenal of devices is the nature of those dedicated chip assortments. I use the microcontroller for what it does best — for logic and control. The dedicated chips tend to be peripherals for the microcontroller — an assortment of sensors, actuators, and power-handling components.

I have a box of IR and ultrasonic range finders, digital compasses, accelerometers, servos, and electronic speed controllers for my quadcopter and ground robotics projects. Then, there are the high voltage optoisolators, diodes, and vacuum tubes for my guitar amp projects. There’s a box dedicated to laser diodes and optical detectors for an ongoing robotics project, as well as microphone modules and vibration sensors for an energy-harvesting project. You get the idea — dedicated chips are still a necessity, it’s just the nature of the chips has changed.

I mention my inventory of parts because there’s a small but continuous stream of readers who write in asking for more component-level articles and that they don’t want to make the leap to microcontrollers. I try to make the case that there can be just as much wiring and soldering and use of dedicated components with a microcontroller project as there is with a traditional circuit. It’s up to you.

There are exceptions, of course, and some technologies have simply run their course. I get a certain sense of nostalgia when I wind my own toroidal transformers and use a capacitance meter to identify matching capacitors for an LC filter. I do miss the low level hands-on activity, and there’s something to be said for simplicity.

Unfortunately today, time, money, and often space constraints dictate that I design the equivalent filters in software or consider pre-configured filter modules. Besides, now I can focus on the big picture — integrating a circuit with the Internet, for example.

So, if you’re one of those readers more comfortable in the discrete component space, I suggest you step out of your comfort zone and at least try your hand at a hybrid microcontroller circuit. If you’re into vacuum tube circuits, how about a microcontroller-based transconductance meter? If you’re a ham radio enthusiast, what about a microcontroller-enhanced antenna tuner? Into lab equipment? Then, how about adding a digital readout to your Geiger counter? In short, there’s no end to the ways you can break into the world of microcontrollers and still flex your soldering and discrete component muscles. NV