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Microcontroller vs microprocessor: what’s the difference?

Microcontroller vs Microprocessor: What’s the difference?

Linsey Knerl
Reading time: 5 minutes
Do you know what a microcontroller does? Are you familiar with how it differs from a microprocessor? If you don't know the answers to these questions, you are not alone. Many people aren't sure of the difference between these standard PC components. In this article, we’ll explore what makes each component special and why their differences matter.

What is a microprocessor?

Also known as a central processing unit, or CPU, the microprocessor (MPU) is the brain of the computer. It doesn’t contain any other components, such as memory. Microprocessors are vital to computers of all types, and the technology is commonly found in the desktops and laptops we use today.
While you won’t usually be asked to choose a type of microprocessor, there are five types. They include:
  1. Complex instruction set microprocessors
  2. Reduced instruction set microprocessors
  3. Superscalar processors
  4. Application specific integrated circuit
  5. Digital signal multiprocessors
Each of these performs a variety of tasks, including math and logic processes that tell the computer how to behave, store data, and interact with other devices. It takes the data coming in, processes it, and sends it back to the components or peripherals that you use to interact with the computer. A microprocessor is formed as a microchip, making it a very small solution to our very big computing tasks.

Microprocessors in HP computers

If you own one of the many popular HP laptops and desktops, you are likely already enjoying the features of today’s microprocessors. Intel® i3, i5, and i7 MPUs offer a variety of perks for users who want lightning-fast speeds for gaming, creating art, rendering video, and browsing the web.
It’s hard to believe that the newest generation of Intel microprocessors, the 8th Generation, can do so much since the first commercially available unit was invented in by Intel in the early 1970s. Powering everything from calculators to super-advanced PCs, our lives wouldn’t be the same without these technological gems.
When it comes time to shop for your next computer, the microprocessor may be the most important choice you’ll make. For the Intel line, remember that the larger number indicates more processing power. For typical office use, an i3 may work just fine. But for high-speed gaming, it’s recommended that you invest in the i7 MPU.

What is a microcontroller?

Microcontrollers (MCUs) control a specific function instead of handling the data for hundreds or thousands of functions. One other big difference is that they aren’t just a CPU on a chip. They are an entire computer on a chip, including the microprocessor, memory, and components needed to send and receive data.
Microcontrollers are made to do a specific job on their own. They are a complete system. The types of microcontrollers include:
  • 8-bit microcontroller
  • 16-bit microcontroller
  • 32-bit microcontroller
  • Embedded microcontroller
As you can see from the types listed, they are grouped by data size. Could there be larger microcontrollers in our future? Quite possibly.
MCUs are used in everything from toys and tools, to remote controls and appliances. You can't see them working, and there's no user interface to tell them what to do. You'll also find them in vehicle anti-lock braking systems and in advanced medical devices. They are programmed to do their job independently even when no one is around to provide inputs.

Microcontroller vs microprocessor

There’s no way to really say that one type of technology is better than the other. They both have separate functions and work for completely different applications.
An easy way to remember what each does, however, is to think of microprocessors as the brain for the computers we use as consumers. It runs the operating system, such as Windows 10, that allows us to interact with programs, adjust settings, and perform tasks like sending emails or creating documents.
A microcontroller, on the other hand, is a tiny computer on a chip that runs without a sophisticated operating system and can run one thread or loop at a time. It can’t handle the multiple tasks that a microprocessor does. Most consumers won’t be asked to pick out or shop for a microcontroller. These are generally used in programming and engineering fields at a very detailed level of technology.
Fun fact: While microprocessors were originally nicknamed a “computer on a chip,” it’s the microcontroller that better fits this description because it has a processor, memory, and other components built into one tiny microchip.

Additional differences between microprocessors and microcontrollers

Since the microprocessor is a more robust component, it uses more energy, needs external cooling, and can be used with larger machines. It is also more expensive and can be very fast.
A microcontroller uses very little energy because it does one or two basic tasks. There is no need for a dedicated fan for this device, and it’s only as expensive as the components featured on the chip. It’s very affordable but operates much slower than a microprocessor.

The future of “micro” tech

As tech advances, we see the microcontroller start to pick up additional functionality. More tasks can be done, and the data it can process within an embedded system will expand. Microprocessors are starting to incorporate more possibilities as well.
Could the two somewhat overlap in definition? It’s possible, but there is no way they can be used interchangeably. Each has a very specific role in computers and electronic gear. One can’t replace the other any time soon, but they’re both vital when it comes to using the products we enjoy every day.

About the Author

Linsey Knerl is a contributing writer for HP® Tech Takes. Linsey is a Midwest-based author, public speaker, and member of the ASJA. She has a passion for helping consumers and small business owners do more with their resources via the latest tech solutions.

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