Friday Hack Chat: 8-Bit Micros With Microchip

A few years ago, Microchip acquired Atmel for $3.56 Billion. There are plenty of manufacturers of 8-bit microcontrollers, but everyone makes 8051s, and the MSP430 isn’t as popular as it should be. Microchip’s acquisition of Atmel created what is probably the largest manufacturer of 8-bit micros, with a portfolio ranging from ATtinys smaller than a grain of rice to gigantic PICs.

This Friday, we’re hosting a Hack Chat with the Technical Marketing Engineer of 8-bitters at Microchip. If you love AVR, this is the guy to talk to. If you’re still rocking the vintage 1993 PICkit, this is the guy to talk to.

On the docket for this Hack Chat are some new PICs and some very interesting peripherals coming down the line. ADCC — A2D with computation — is on the table, along with configurable logic cells. This Hack Chat is also going to go over Microchip design tools like MP Lab Xpress.

Of course, these Hack Chats are a question and answer session for the community. We’re encouraging everyone to ask a few questions about what Microchip is doing. We’ve opened up a discussion guide for this Hack Chat. If you have a question, just add it to the list.

If you can’t make the Hack Chat, don’t worry. We’re going to have a transcript of the entire chat. That should be available here shortly after the chat concludes.

Here’s How To Take Part:

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events on the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This hack chat will take place at noon Pacific time on Friday, June 9th. Here’s a fancy time and date converter if you need timezone help.

Log into Hackaday.io, visit that page, and look for the ‘Join this Project’ Button. Once you’re part of the project, the button will change to ‘Team Messaging’, which takes you directly to the Hack Chat.

You don’t have to wait until Friday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about

Microchip’s PIC32MZ DA — The Microcontroller With A GPU

When it comes to displays, there is a gap between a traditional microcontroller and a Linux system-on-a-chip (SoC). The SoC that lives in a smartphone will always have enough RAM for a framebuffer and usually has a few pins dedicated to an LCD interface. Today, Microchip has announced a microcontroller that blurs the lines between what can be done with an SoC and what can be done with a microcontroller. The PIC32MZ ‘DA’ family of microcontrollers is designed for graphics applications and comes with a boatload of RAM and a dedicated GPU.

The key feature for this chip is a boatload of RAM for a framebuffer and a 2D GPU. The PIC32MZ DA family includes packages with 32 MB of integrated DRAM designed to be used as framebuffers. Support for 24-bit color on SXGA (1280 x 1024) panels is included. There’s also a 2D GPU in there with support for sprites, blitting, alpha blending, line drawing, and filling rectangles. No, it can’t play Crysis — just to get that meme out of the way — but it is an excellent platform for GUIs.

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Microchip Launches New Family Of PICs

Over the last few years, we’ve seen projects and products slowly move from 8-bit microcontrollers to more powerful ARM microcontrollers. The reason for this is simple — if you want to do more stuff, like an Internet-connected toaster, you need more bits, more Flash, and more processing power. This doesn’t mean 8-bit microcontrollers are dead, though. Eight bit micros are still going strong, and this week Microchip announced their latest family of 8-bit microcontrollers.

The PIC16F15386 family of microcontrollers is Microchip’s latest addition to their portfolio of 8-bit chips. This family of microcontrollers is Microchip’s ‘everything and the kitchen sink’ 8-bit offering. Other families of PICs have included features such as a complementary waveform generator, numerically controlled oscillator, a configurable logic controller, power saving functionality and the extreme low power features, but never before in one piece of silicon.

This feature-packed 8-bit includes a few new tricks not seen before in previous Microchip offerings. Of note are power management features (IDLE and DOZE modes), and a Device Information Area on the chip that contains factory-calibrated data (ADC voltage calibration and a fixed voltage reference) and an ID unique to each individual chip.

As you would expect from a new family of PICs, the 16F15386 is compatible with the MPLAB Xpress IDE and the MPLAB Code Configurator, a graphical programming environment. The products in the family range from 8-pin packages (including DIP!) with 3.5kB of program Flash to 48-pin QFPs with 28kB of program Flash. The goal for Microchip is to provide a wide offering, allowing designers to expand their builds without having to change microcontroller families.

All of these chips can be sampled now, although the lower pin count devices won’t be available through normal means until next month.

Arduino with a… PIC?

Before the Arduino took over the hobby market (well, at least the 8-bit segment of it), most hackers used PIC processors. They were cheap, easy to program, had a good toolchain, and were at the heart of the Basic Stamp, which was the gateway drug for many microcontroller developers.

[AXR AMR] has been working with the Pinguino, an Arduino processor based on a PIC (granted, an 18F PIC, although you can also use a 32-bit device, too). He shows you how to build a compatible circuit on a breadboard with about a dozen parts. The PIC has built-in USB. Once you flash the right bootloader, you don’t need anything other than a USB cable to program. You can see a video of this below.

You will need a programmer to get the initial bootloader, but there’s plenty of cheap options for that. The IDE is available for Windows, Linux, and the Mac. Of course, you might wonder why you would use a PIC device instead of the more traditional Arduino devices. The answer is: it depends. Every chip has its own set of plusses and minuses from power consumption to I/O devices, to availability and price. These chips might suit you, and they might not. That’s your call.  Of course, the difference between Microchip and Atmel has gotten less lately, too.

We’ve covered Pinguino before with a dedicated board. If you never played with a Basic Stamp, you might enjoy learning more about it. If you’re looking for more power than a PIC 18F can handle, you might consider the Fubarino, a PIC32 board you can use with the Arduino IDE.

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What’s The Deal With Atmel And Microchip?

It’s been nearly a year since Microchip acquired Atmel for $3.56 Billion. As with any merger, acquisition, or buyout, there has been concern and speculation over what will become of the Atmel catalog, the Microchip catalog, and Microchip’s strategy for the coming years.

For the Hackaday audience, this is a far more important issue than Intel’s acquisition of Altera, On Semi and Fairchild, and even Avago’s purchase of Broadcom in the largest semiconductor deal in history. The reason Microchip’s acquisition of Atmel is such an important issue is simply due to the fact the Hackaday community uses a lot of their parts. This was a holy war, and even changing the name of a line of chips to ‘MCMega’ would result in a consumer rebellion, or at least a lot of very annoying tweets.

For the record, I’ve tried my best to figure out what’s going on with Microchip’s acquisition of Atmel for the last few months. I’ve talked to a few Microchip reps, a few Atmel reps, and talked to a few ‘out of band’ connections – people who should know what’s going on but aren’t directly tied to either Atmel or Microchip. The best I’ve come up with is a strange silence. From my perspective, it seems like something is going on, but no one is saying anything.

Take the following with several grains of salt, but Microchip recently got in touch with me regarding their strategy following their Atmel acquisition. In a few thousand words, they outlined what’s going on in casa Microchip, and what will happen to the Atmel portfolio in the future.

Broad Strokes

In broad strokes, the Microchip PR team wanted to emphasize a few of the plans regarding their cores, software, and how Microchip parts are made obsolete. In simple, bullet point terms, this is what Microchip passed on to me, to pass on to you:

  • Microchip will continue their philosophy of customer-driven obsolescence. This has historically been true – Microchip does not EOL parts lightly, and the state of the art from 1995 is still, somewhere, in their catalog.
  • We plan to support both Atmel Studio 7 and MPLAB® X for the foreseeable future.
  • Microchip has never focused on “one core”, but rather on the whole solution providing “one platform.” This is also true. A year ago, Microchip had the MIPS-based PIC-32 cores, a few older PIC cores, and recently Microchip has released a few ARM cores. Atmel, likewise, has the family tree of 8 and 32-bit AVR cores and the ARM-based SAM cores.
  • We will continue to support and invest in growing our 8-bit PIC® and AVR MCU product families.

Specifics

In addition to the broad strokes outlined above, Microchip also sent along a few questions and answers from Ganesh Moorthy, Microchip’s President and COO. These statements dig a little bit deeper into what’s in store for the Microchip and Atmel portfolios:

How will the 32-bit products complement each other? Atmel has a few 32-bit microcontrollers, like the SAM and AT32 series. Microchip has the PIC-32. The answer to this question is, “Many of the 32-bit MCU products are largely complementary because of their different strengths and focus.  For example, the SAM series has specific families targeting lower power consumption and 5 volts where PIC32 has families more optimally suited for audio and graphics solutions. We plan to continue investing in both SAM and PIC32 families of products.

Will Atmel’s START support 8-bit AVRs? “Yes, although it is too early to commit to any specific dates at this stage, we consider modern rapid prototyping tools, such as START and the MPLAB Code Configurator, strategic for the our customers to deliver innovative and competitive solutions in this fast-paced industry.”

Now that Microchip has a complete portfolio of low-power, inexpensive 32-bit microcontrollers, will the focus on 8-bit product be inevitably reduced? No, we see that in actual embedded control applications there is still a large demand for the type of qualities that are uniquely provided by an 8-bit product such as: ease-of-use, 5V operation, robustness, noise immunity, real-time performance, long endurance, integration of analog and digital peripherals, extremely low-static power consumption and more. We don’t think that the number of bits is an appropriate / sufficient way to classify a complex product such as the modern microcontroller. We believe that having the right peripherals is actually what matters most.”

Security, Memories, WiFi, and Analog products. For both Atmel and Microchip, the most visible products in each of their portfolios is the lineup of microcontrollers. This isn’t the limit of their portfolios, though: Atmel has space-grade memories, Microchip has some very useful networking chips, and both companies have a number of security and crypto chips. In the statements given by Moorthy, very little will change. The reason for this is the relative lack of overlap in these devices. Even in segments where there is significant overlap, no EOLs are planned, circling back to the, “philosophy of customer-driven obsolescence.” In other words, if people keep buying it, it’s not going away.

The Takeaway

What is the future of Microchip post-Atmel acquisition? From what I’m seeing, not much. Microchip is falling back on their philosophy of ‘customer-driven obsolescence’. What does that mean? Any non-biased assessment of Microchip’s EOL policy is extremely generous. The chip found in the Basic Stamp 1, from 1993, is still available. It’s not recommended for new designs, but you can still buy it. That’s impressive any way you look at it.

The one thing we’re not getting out of this pseudo press release is information about what Atmel will be called in a few years. Will the Atmel mark be subsumed by a gigantic letter ‘M’? Will the company retain two different trademarks? There is no public information about this.

Yes, I know this post is a nearly verbatim copy of a pseudo press release. I’m not particularly happy this information was presented to me this way, but then again, the Atmel/Microchip ecosystem has been impressively secretive. This is the only information that exists, though, and I’m glad to have it in any event.

That said, there are a lot of people in the Hackaday community that want to know what the deal is with Microchip and Atmel. Short of pulling Jerry Seinfeld out of retirement, this is the best we’re going to get for now. Of course, if you have any info or speculation, the comments below are wide open.

AVR vs PIC, Round 223: Fight!

Get ready to rumble! [Thierry] made the exact same Hello-World-esque project with two microcontrollers (that are now technically produced by the same firm!) to see how the experience went.

It’s not just an LED-blinker, though. He added in a light-detection function so that it only switches on at night. It uses the Forest Mims trick of reverse-biasing the LED and waiting for it to discharge its internal capacitance. The point is, however, that it gives the chip something to do instead of simply sleeping.

Although he’s an AVR user by habit, [Thierry] finds in favor of the PIC because it’s got a lower power draw both when idling and when awake and doing some computation. This is largely because the PIC has an onboard low-power oscillator that lets it limp along at 32 kHz, but also because the chip has a lower power consumption in general. In the end, it’s probably a 10% advantage to the PIC on power.

If you’re competent with one of the two chips, but not the other, his two versions of the same code would be a great way to start familiarizing yourself with the other. We really like his isDarkerThan() function which makes extensive use of sleep modes on both chips during the LED’s discharge period. And honestly, at this level the code for the two is more similar than different.

(Oh, and did you notice [Thierry]’s use of a paper clip as a coin-cell holder? It’s a hack!)

Surprisingly, we’ve managed to avoid taking a stray bullet from the crossfire that occasionally breaks out between the PIC and AVR fans. We have covered a “shootout” before, and PIC won that round too, although it was similarly close. Will the Microchip purchase of Atmel calm the flames? Let’s find out in the comment section. We have our popcorn ready!

Ping Pong Spectrum Analyzer

A spectrum analyzer is a pretty useful tool for working with signals where the size of the frequency components matter. Usually, the display is a screen. Sometimes, you see it done with LEDs. [Mag Laboratories] did it with ping pong balls.

The device uses a processor to calculate a Fourier transform, cutting an audio signal into 16 frequency bands. The processor converts each of these values to a PWM output that drives small fans. The fans blow the ping pong ball up the tube proportional to the fan speed. You can see the result in the video below.

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