Thursday, March 19, 2009

Microcontrollers for Hobby Purposes

If you want to dive right into the art of electronics and microcontrollers, choosing the right chip might be a bit difficult. Microchip alone offers hundreds of different microcontrollers with many different cores and series. In today’s post I’ll list a few good microcontrollers that are inexpensive, readily available, have lots of RAM, flash and onboard peripherals.

I’ll start off with Microchip’s microcontrollers. Generally known as PIC microcontrollers, they’re  one of the most popular (if not the most popular) series of microcontrollers out there. However, there are many different series of microcontrollers that Microchip offers.

  • 10F – these are the lowest of the low end of PIC microcontrollers. They’re generally used for very specific purposes in large production quantities since they’re extremely cheap. Stay away from these as they have very little flash and RAM.
  • 12F – these are known as the low end PICs. Not many onboard peripherals but a reasonable amount of flash and RAM.
    • In this series, it’s good to buy a handful of the 12F683 chip.
  • 16F – these are known as the midrange PICs and are probably the most popular hobby microcontrollers. Inexpensive, a solid amount of flash and RAM, good pin count, lots of onboard peripherals.
    • A good chip to buy here is the 16F886.
  • 18F – these are known as the high end PICs and have lots of RAM and flash. They’re slightly more expensive but since we’re not dealing with production quantities of 100 000 chips, cost is negligible. Lots of onboard peripherals, lots of RAM and flash. The extra flash and RAM is well suited for C compilers as well.
    • Go for the 18F2620, which is pin compatible with the 16F886 but boasts a lot more features.
  • 16 bit series – these are also really cool and are 16 bit but I don’t really see a reason to buy these over the 8 bit chips outlined above. However, Microchip does offer the C30 compiler for these chips which is based on gcc so there are a few advantages.
  • 32MX – these are Microchip’s top of the line 32 bit microcontrollers. They cost around $10 each for the highest end models but the PIC32MX(360|460)F512L has 512 K flash, 32 K RAM and comes in a 100 pin TQFP package. They’re really fast, powerful, energy efficient and you can do pretty much anything with them.
    • Since they come in a 100 pin TQFP package, they may be a bit hard to solder and do not fit on breadboards, so I recommend getting a 100 pin TQFP adapter from Futurlec, or even purchasing a UBW32 development board.
    • Go for the highest end chips, the PIC32MX360F512L for the regular and the PIC32MXF460F512L for the model with an onboard USB module.

All in all, the 16F886 and 18F2620 are two cool chips that any hobbyist should have.

Oh, and don’t forget the PICKIT2.

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