At the Embedded World 2016 show in Nuremberg, Germany, while 32-bit processors clearly enjoy the limelight, thanks to the momentum behind the Internet of Things (IoT) and wearable segments, the resurgence of 8-bitters like AVR microcontrollers has been a bit of a surprise.
The IoT and wearable markets are the epitomes of embedded technology chic, and that thrusts 32-bit processors on the fore for their ability to handle greater functionality. But why 8-bit devices like AVR and PIC? Aren't these tiny chips the embodiment of the past silicon merely holding onto some pockets of steady existence?
Not really, according to Oyvind Strom, senior director of MCUs at Atmel Corp., the company that has shipped more 8-bit AVR microcontrollers than the entire population of on planet Earth: 7.4 billion people.
Atmel's ATtiny 102 and 104 MCUs: 8-bitters aren't going away anytime soon
Atmel has unveiled two 8-bit AVR microcontrollers for applications like LED lighting, personal healthcare and small kitchen appliances that have previously been using discrete components; the tiny AVRs with 1kB flash offer a design edge with simple, intelligent features such as motor control and on/off functionality.
Atmel's low-power ATtiny102 and 104 microcontrollers—aimed at the consumer, industrial and home automation markets—boast features such as self-programming for firmware upgrades, accurate internal oscillator, and 10-bit ADC with internal voltage references. The fact that 8-bitters are still in the embedded design game is also apparent from the toolchain support they are enjoying.
The Uppsala, Sweden-based tool-maker IAR Systems has made available a new version of C/C++ development toolchain—IAR Embedded Workbench—for AVR microcontrollers to ensure that there is a right balance between code size and code speed in embedded designs.
Nevertheless, the 32-bit processors have been dominating the embedded scene, like the SPC57 automotive safety MCU from STMicro and Infineon's XMC1400 MCU for industrial automation showcased at Embedded World 2016. Not surprisingly, therefore, the 32-bit powerhouse ARM has been a notable presence on the show.
Cortex-A32 brings the much-needed design flexibility for IoT products
First, ARM threw another 32-bit flavor—Cortex-A32 processor core—on the embedded design table for IoT edge and wearable products. ARM managers claim that Cortex-A32 brings greater diversity and scalability to vastly different IoT applications; developers have the choice to pick one to four cores. Moreover, the Cortex-A32 processor takes less than 0.25 mm2 of die area when manufactured on a 28nm node.
ARM is also holding a Wall of Boards at the Embedded World 2016 show; it's a showcase of the latest ARM-based single-board computers (SBCs) and system-on-modules (SOMs) products. According to Will Tu, director of embedded segment marketing at ARM, open source is a key trend in this space, and Linux distributions are becoming the operating system of choice for embedded product designers.
ARM's Wall of Boards at the Embedded World 2016 show
ARM's Tu also noted that single-board computers are mostly catering to scalable volumes while system-on-modules—also known as computer-on-modules (CoMs)—are becoming denser and more specialized. Furthermore, he pointed to an increasing distinction between wireless and Ethernet-only in the market for SBCs and SOMs.