Small microcontrollers can pack quite a punch. With the right code optimizations and proper use of the available limited memory, even small microcontrollers can do things they were never intended to. Even within the realm of intended use, however, there are still lots of impressive uses for these tiny cheap processors like [Lukasz]’s audio amplifier which uses one of the smallest ATtiny packages around in the video embedded below.
Since the ATtiny is small, the amplifier is only capable of 8-bit resolution but thanks to internal clock settings and the fast PWM mode he can get a sampling rate of 37.5 kHz. Most commercial amplifiers shoot for 42 kHz or higher, so this is actually quite close for the limited hardware. The fact that it is a class D amplifier also helps, since it relies on switching and filtering to achieve amplification. This allows the amplifier to have a greater efficiency than an analog amplifier, with less need for heat sinks or oversized components.
All of the code that [Lukasz] used is available on the project site if you’ve ever been curious about switching amplifiers. He built this more as a curiosity in order to see what kind of quality he could get out of such a small microcontroller. It sounds pretty good to us too! If you’re more into analog amplifiers, though, we have you covered there as well.
When writing code for the ATtiny family of microcontrollers such as a the ATtiny85 or ATtiny10, people usually use one of two methods: they either add support for the chip in the Arduino IDE, or they crack open their text editor of choice and do everything manually. Plus of course there are the stragglers out there using Eclipse. But [Wayne Holder] thinks there’s a better way.
His IDE runs under Java, including OpenJDK, and [Wayne] provides a stable pre-built executable for those who don’t want to clone the whole GitHub repository. He’s included the GNU/AVR toolchains, though notes that testing so far has been limited to Mac OS, and he’s interested in feedback from Windows and Linux users. Assembly is done either with GNU AVR-AS, or an assembler of his own design, though the latter is currently limited to the ATTiny10.
To actually get the code onto the chip, the IDE supports using the Arduino as a programmer as well as dedicated hardware like the BusPirate or the USBasp. If you go the Arduino route, [Wayne] has even come up with a little adapter board which he’s made available through OSH Park to help wrangle the diminutive chips.
Microcontrollers are small, no one is arguing that. On a silicon wafer the size of a grain of rice, you can connect a GPS tracker to the Internet. Put that in a package, and you can put the Internet of Things into something the size of a postage stamp. There’s one microcontroller that’s smaller than all the others. It’s the ATtiny10, and its brethren the ATtiny4, 5, and 9. It comes in an SOT-23-6 package, a size that’s more often seen in packages for single transistors. It’s not very capable, but it is very small. It’s also very weird, with a programming scheme that’s not found in other chips from the Atmel/Microchip motherbrain. Now, finally, we have a great tutorial on using the ATtiny10, and it comes from none other than [Ben Heck].
The key difference between the ATtiny10 and other AVRs is that the tiny10 doesn’t use the standard AVR ISP protocol for programming. Instead of six pins for power, ground, MISO, MOSI, SCK, and RST, this is a high-voltage programming scheme that needs 12 Volts. The normal AVR programmer can do it, but you need to build an adapter. That’s exactly what [Ben] did, using a single-sided perf board, a lot of solder, and some headers. It looks like a lot, but there’s really not much to this programmer board. There’s a transistor and an optocoupler. The only thing that could make this programmer better is an SOT-23 ZIF socket. This would allow bare tiny10s to be programmed without first soldering them to a breakout board, but ZIF sockets are expensive to begin with, and the prices on SOT-23 sockets are absurd.
Programming the device was a matter of loading Atmel Studio and going through the usual AVR rigamarole, but Ben was eventually able to connect a light sensor to the tiny10 and have it output a value over serial. This was all done on a device with only 32 Bytes of RAM. That’s impressive, and one of the cool things about the smallest microcontroller you can buy.
Interfacing with the outside world is a fairly common microcontroller task. Outside of certain use cases microcontrollers are arguably primarily useful because of how easily they can interface with other devices. If we just wanted to read and write some data we wouldn’t have gotten that Arduino! But some tasks are more common than others; for instance we’re used to being on the master side of the interface equation, not the slave side. (That’s the job for the TI engineer who designed the temperature sensor, right?) As [Pat] discovered when mocking out a missing SPI GPIO extender, sometimes playing the other role can contain unexpected difficulties.
The simple case for a SPI slave is exactly that: simple. SPI can be wonderful in its apparent simplicity. Unlike I2C there are no weird addressing schemes, read/write bits, stop and start clock conditions. You toggle a clock line and a bit of data comes out, as long as you have the right polarity schemes of course. As a slave device the basic algorithm is of commensurate complexity. Setup an interrupt on the clock pin, wait for your chip select to be asserted, and on each clock edge shift out the next bit of the current word. Check out [Pat]’s eminently readable code to see how simple it can be.
But that last little bit is where the complexity lies. When you’re the master it’s like being the apex predator, the king of the jungle, the head program manager. You dictate the tempo and everyone on the bus dances to the beat of your clock edge. Sure the datasheet for that SRAM says it can’t run faster than 8 MHz but do you really believe it? Not until you try driving that clock a little quicker to see if there’s not a speedier transfer to be had! When you’re the slave you have to have a bit ready every clock edge. Period. Missing even a single bit due to, say, an errant print statement will trash the rest of transaction in ways which are hard to detect and recover from. And your slave code needs to be able to detect those problems in order to reset for the next transaction. Getting stuck waiting to send the 8th bit of a transaction that has ended won’t do.
Check out [Pat]’s very friendly post for a nice refresher on SPI and their discoveries working through the problems of building a SPI slave. There are some helpful tips about how to keep things responsive in a device performing other tasks.
We live in a day when it is very inexpensive to buy an oscilloscope, especially one with modest performance that hooks to a laptop. However, there was a time when even a surplus scope was out of reach for many people who liked to build things. A common alternative was the logic probe. At the low end, this could be an inverter and an LED, although it was more common to have a little extra circuitry to actually do a comparison to a reference voltage and present some indication of fast pulses — you might not be able to tell the frequency of a clock, but you could tell it wasn’t stuck. Of course, today with a microcontroller you can make a very sophisticated probe with less circuitry than a classic probe. We’ve seen a few takes on this and the latest is the DigiLogicProbe from [TheRadMan].
The probe is just a ATtiny85 board with a handful of components. A resistor and diode help protect the probe and the circuit under test. There are also a few LEDs and a buzzer. The rest of the project is software.
Small I2C OLED displays are common nowadays, and thanks to the work of helpful developers, there are also a variety of graphics libraries for using them. Most of them work by using a RAM buffer, which means that anything one wants to draw gets written to a buffer representing the screen, and the contents of that buffer are copied out to the display whenever it is updated. The drawback is that for some microcontrollers, there simply isn’t enough RAM for this approach to work. For example, a 128×64 monochrome OLED requires a 1024 byte buffer, but that’s bad news if a microcontroller has only 512 bytes of RAM in total like the ATtiny85. [David Johnson-Davies] has two solutions: a Tiny Graphics Library that needs no RAM buffer and an even slimmer Tiny Function Plotter, which we’ll discuss in order.
[David]’s Tiny Graphics Library works by taking advantage of a feature of SH1106 driver-based displays: the ability to read the display over I2C as well as write to it. With the ability to perform read-modify-write on a section at a time, using a large RAM buffer can be avoided. The only catch is that the library only works with OLEDs using the SH1106, but the good news is that these are very common at the usual Chinese resellers. ([David] notes that SH1106 is sometimes misspelled as “SSH1106”, so keep that in mind when searching.)
What about all those other SSD1306-based OLED displays out there? Are they out of luck? Not quite. [David] has one more trick up his sleeve: his Tiny Function Plotter works on the SSD1306 and also requires no RAM buffer. It’s unable to write text, but it can easily handle drawing graphs plotting things like values over time while needing very little overhead.
Another approach we’ve seen for using OLEDs driven by microcontrollers with limited memory is the solution [Michael] used in Tiny Sideways Tetris, which was done in part by realizing the smallest screen element he needed was a 4×4 block, and using that premise as the basis of a simple compression scheme.
There are a few different ways of getting firmware onto one of AVR’s ATtiny85 microcontrollers, including bootloaders that allow for firmware to be updated without the need to plug the chip into a programmer. However, [casanovg] wasn’t satisfied with those so he sent us a tip letting us know he wrote an I2C bootloader for the ATtiny85 called Timonel. It takes into account a few particulars of the part, such as the fact that it lacks a protected memory area where a bootloader would normally reside, and it doesn’t have a native I2C interface, only the USI (Universal Serial Interface). He’s just released the first functional version for the ATtiny85, but there’s no reason it couldn’t be made to work with the ATtiny45 and ATtiny25 as well.
Timonel is designed for systems where there is a more powerful microcontroller or microprocessor running the show (such as an ESP8266, Arduino, or even a board like a Raspberry Pi.) In designs where the ATtinys are on an I2C bus performing peripheral functions such as running sensors, Timonel allows the firmware for these peripheral MCUs to be updated directly from the I2C bus master. Embedded below is a video demo of [casanovg] sending simple serial commands, showing a successful firmware update of an AVR ATtiny85 over I2C.