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Posted by on Jun 7, 2011 in Getting Started, Microcontrollers | 39 comments

What do we need to get started?

What do we need to get started?

Hello and welcome! In my previous post Basics of Microcontrollers, we came across some of the elementary concepts and how a microcontroller based development process goes. In this post, we will see what are the things you need to get started with a MCU.

All the things you need can be categorized into two:

  • Hardware
  • Software

Selecting Hardware

To get started, we must have something upon which we can work, in other words, hardware. We will be requiring the following hardware for our purpose:

  • PC / Mac (preferably PC)
  • In-System Programmer (ISP)
  • Target Board (MCU Development Board)
  • Lastly, a MCU! ;)

PC / Mac

We need a PC / Mac as we will be writing, editing, compiling and debugging the code here! The PC requirements are not too much. Any decent PC / laptop will do.

MCU Development Board Example

MCU Development Board Example

Target Board (MCU Development Board)

A MCU cannot function on its own. It’s not like you go to the market, buy a MCU and it starts working! You need a PCB along with an appropriate circuit to make it work. There will be slot where the MCU will fit in. It also has slots for other accessory drivers, ICs, pins’ outlet of GPIO pins, etc. These PCBs are called Target Boards (or MCU Development Boards). Don’t worry too much about it, there are many readymade boards available. But don’t go and buy any random board. You need to consider the type of ISP and MCU (discussed next) and then choose one according to your requirement and budget.

Here, I am providing few links from where you can get a MCU development board:

In-System Programmer (ISP)

You have your PC at one end (with your hex file ready to be transferred to the MCU) and you have your MCU Development Board at another end. How will you transfer the hex file? For this we need another hardware called the In-System Programmer (ISP). This device programs the MCU by burning the hex file into the flash memory of the MCU. ISP is of three types:

  • Parallel Programmer– Here, data is transferred through the parallel port (printer port) of the PC. Technically, the parallel port is called DB25 port. A DB25 connector is shown below.

    DB25 Parallel Port

    DB25 Parallel Port

  • Serial Programmer– Here, data is transferred through the serial port of the PC. Technically, the serial port is called DB9 port. A DB9 connector is shown below.

    DB9 Serial Port

    DB9 Serial Port

  • USB Programmer– Here, data is transferred through the USB 2.0 port of the PC. A USB connector is shown below.

    USB Port

    USB Port

In some MCU Development boards, there is an inbuilt ISP. In this case, you won’t need any extra hardware for that. You can also get ISP from the links mentioned in the previous topic.


What to choose?

What to choose?

Selecting a MCU to work upon may be the biggest hurdle that you might face while getting started. There are more than 150 IC manufacturers which manufacture MCUs, and each one of them have more than 100 different models in their account. So, which one to choose?

On the basis of popularity, there are three series of MCUs. They are 8051 (by Intel), PIC (by Microchip) and AVR (by Atmel). 8051 is the oldest of the three, and hence quite popular, but lacks several new features and registers. And AVR is the newest of the three with the most recent architecture.

Why choose AVR?

The following factors may help you choose the MCU you want to work upon.

  • Cost – A cheap MCU is always preferred. AVRs are available pretty cheap these days.
  • Speed – Speed of execution also matters. The AVR architecture is designed in such a way that operations take lesser clock cycles to execute.
  • Ease of use – AVR is very easy to use. The architecture of AVR is relatively simpler to use, understand and program.
  • RISC / CISC – There are two different categories of architecture. Let’s talk in layman’s terms. In Reduced Intruction Chip Set (RISC) architecture, less amount of instructions will result in more output, whereas in Complex Instruction Chip Set (CISC) architecture, more amount of instructions will result in less output. In other words, to do a particular job, RISC requires lesser number of instructions than CISC. AVR, PIC, etc are based on RISC architecture whereas Intel 8051, Motorola 68000, etc are based on CISC architecture.
  • Free ‘C’ Compiler – The best part of an AVR is that the C compiler is available for free, and that too by Atmel! Many other manufacturers do not provide with a compliler or a proprietary premium software, which we need to buy.
  • Durability – Durability and robustness are a matter of concern for specific applications only. Let’s not worry about it now.

So, choose any MCU you want. I work with AVR and MSP430 (by Texas Instruments) microcontrollers, whereas you may prefer something else. It all depends upon your choice. But still, most of the posts in this blog will be covered using AVR ATMEGA32 (datasheet) MCU. However, they can easily be transformed for any other microcontroller.

Some of the popular AVR MCUs are:

  • ATTiny 85/2313
  • ATMega 8/16/32/168

Selecting Software

AVR Studio 4 Logo

AVR Studio 4 Logo

  • Talking about AVR MCUs, any platform (Windows/Linux/Mac) will do. There are different compilers available for different OS.
  • Next, choose the language in which you want to program your MCU. C is preferred over BASIC as it is more organized and gives you the power to do substantially more! Apart from this, C is a language which (ideally speaking) every engineer knows! And its ubiquitous. However, you can also use BASIC, I won’t force you to use C :P .
  • Next, choose a compiler. For BASIC programmers, the best compiler is BASCOM. For C programmers, best compiler is AVR Studio. CodeVisionAVR is another popular software, but it’s not free.
  • And at last, you need a programmer software. Well, to speak of it, most of the compilers (including AVR Studio, CodeVisionAVR and BASCOM) have an inbuilt programmer. But I prefer to use a separate one


    for greater flexibility. Some popular programmers are PonyProg (serial), avrdude and FreeISP (GUI for avrdude).

So with this, you are ready to work with a microcontroller. Since I use AVR, my upcoming posts will be related to AVR and its programming. For those who use other MCUs, I am sorry that I won’t be of much help, but still I will help you get the solution to your problem (as the basic concept is the same, irrespective of the MCU used).

Thank you for reading this post. I’ll be awaiting your comments!

Published on June 7, 2011
Last updated on December 25, 2014
Last reviewed on December 25, 2014


Max is the founder and admin of maxEmbedded. He describes himself as an 'embedded electronics freak' and an Apple/Linux fan. He likes to experiment, learn and share new things in this field. Furthermore, he likes to write stuffs on his website for techie newbies and loves to teach others. In his spare time, you will find him with volunteering somewhere!

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  1. Awesome tutorial mate, keep it up! :)

  2. Hi mayank,
    You are doing a great work…!

    I have a doubt.
    For MSP430 also there are too many MCU available. so how can i decide which one should i use? can you give some ways to filter different types of MSP430?

    Thank you Very much.

    • Hello Student

      If you want to start off with MSP430, try the TI Launchpad for $4.30!. Apart from that, if you could tell me your requirements, I could shortlist a few for you. Do you want to use it for your personal purpose, or any mini-projects, or any design contests, etc etc.

    • Try the MSP430F2013 or F2003. They are good for beginners.

  3. There is mistake in the sentence : PIC MCU is more durable than PIC MCU

    • Thanks for intimation! I have updated it :)

  4. hwllo here you have mentoned that pic is cisc architecture but I think it is risc arch. please make it clear

    • Oh yeah, I missed it.. PIC has a RISC architecture too.. Updated the post!

  5. Thank a lot. Very very good introduce.

  6. Hey man great posts,
    Im gonna be making an ATmega 16 based project (mobile controlled land robot).I wanted to know:
    1. Specific MCU that i need to buy to program my microcontroller.
    2. what is the ISP (make, brand ,model ,etc…)(usb based [any other will do too]cos i will be using my laptop).
    3. how to go about programming it .(i have downloaded atmel studio 6 and the other tools and .exe files that were required for the programming of the IC.

    Pls drop me an Email dude thanks a lot. ;)

    • Hi Siddhant,
      Here are your answers:
      1. You need to buy an ISP to program your ATmega16.
      2. ISP can be of various types, most commonly used ones are AVRISP, USBasp, USBtinyISP. USBasp is the cheapest, but is comparatively slower and doesn’t support in-system debugging. You can buy them from extremeElectronics store for Rs.350/-
      3. Just keep on reading my blog!

    • Hi Amruth,
      Arduino is a kind of AVR Development Board with an on board bootloader. But the main reason why people go for Arduino is its programming environment. You program the Arduino board with an Arduino software! In Arduino, you basically perform “top-level” programming, whereas in other microcontrollers, you perform “bottom-level” programming. The creators of Arduino have written several libraries for you, which are based upon Processing (Processing is yet another software). While programming Arduino, you are least bothered with the internal hardware and registers of the microcontroller. All you do is call the functions written in the libraries (which are already provided) and bingo! But in case of other microcontrollers, you need to know about its hardware and registers to program it, whether using C or Assembly. The advantage of not using Arduino is that you can switch between microcontrollers (like AVR, PIC, MSP, etc) very quickly and hassle free. You can use Arduino if you want to prototype your project very fast, and are not much concerned about the programming part.

      Well, the AVR board that you wish to buy doesn’t come with the microcontroller and the programmer. There is an option to choose between Atmega16 and 32. But apart from that, you also need a programmer. You can get it from the same site. Make sure you also get a pair of FRC cable and USB cable with the programmer. That should do.

      • thank u for the reply, hope this semester holidays i’ll be able to master ur tutorials

        • I would be very glad in that case! Keep posting your updates as comments in respective posts as well! :)

  7. What purpose does Lab View Serve..??

    • Hi Tushar,
      LabVIEW is a software by National Instruments, which is used for test, measurement and automation of systems. Literally speaking, you can automate any damn thing using that. Its a very wonderful software. The best part is that, we program it graphically by placing blocks and connecting them together. If you have used MATLAB before, I would suggest that it is a replacement for that, and a pretty good one too!

      • Any Guide You Would like to reffer…if one has to start learning labview.

  8. Dear Mayank
    It’s very basic guide line and hard to find without help of friend ( who passed the way of mcu)

  9. Mayank……u r fantastic…….Iam a beginner………I could understand very easily…but….don know how to start….please help me out. …:(

    • Hi Aditya

      Thanks for your comments.. ;-).If you have never worked on a microcontroller, I would suggest you to please get one soon
      specifically AVR Atmega 8 or 16 from After getting one, start following the post listed here.
      And if you find any difficulty, post it, we will help you out.

  10. hello, why is avr not called a mixed signal processor though it has adc ?

    • Hi Altairpearl,
      Yes, you can call AVR a kind-of mixed processor because of its ADC. Usually mixed signal processors do other analog operations as well like modulation, demodulation, DAC, error detection and control, etc. and are used for various other applications such as in radio of your cellphone, embedded systems, etc. Since AVR has inbuilt ADC, you can call it as a mixed signal processor as well.

  11. why its not possible 24bit adc in atmel avr ics?

    • Because the hardware doesn’t support it.

  12. hey buddy just started to c you tutorials..after reading this tutorials will be based on atmega u mentioned..i hve an atmega 328…which obv has lesser pins…my questin is would your tutorials benifit me if iam using atmega 328…because obv the registers timers etc would be different right??

    • Are you trying to find a reason not to? Pull out the datasheet and compare the registers mentioned here with the one mentioned in it and use those. My aim here is to make sure you understand the concept rather than using any particular hardware. The concept remains the same and can be implemented on any platform (AVR, PIC, ARM, x86, etc) with little modifications. The thing is that you should know what modifications you need to make.

      • yeah thanks buddy..i just need to ask one more important doubt..if u could answer it would be really heplful…i actually hve an arduino uno with atmega 328p…my question is should i seperetely study atmel 8bit tutorials..seperately to get to know about registers etc…or should i just start learning arduino tutorials directly

        and would i able to run avr programming(8 bit) on arduino supposing burning a simple LED..blinking instead of doing it on atmel studio…if i do it on arduino IDE..would that work..

        • Programming Arduino is a lot different that programming AVR, even though they use the same controller. While programming Arduino, you don;t have to worry about the hardware registers and/or memory. The IDE takes care of those for you. Personally, I feel that people who simply want to get their work done use Arduino since it is simple to use and learn. If you want to learn how a processor works, program the hardware directly.

  13. what Durability mean ??

  14. Hello Sir,
    I am completely new to the world of micro controllers. I am working strictly as per your blogs and needless to say, it is quite helpful.

    I am working with Atmega 32 MCU and currently working for the blinking of LED part(it is very simple , i know but i am new so..).
    I very well understood the coding part and how to create the .hex file. What is bothering me the most is as to how the hardware is used??
    For Atmega 32, i am confused as what to buy for the target board and the ISPs. Is buying the Arduino Duemilanove work.. What else do i need ??
    Please help…

    • You can buy Arduino Uno if you want. The best part about Arduino is that it uses libraries to hide the low level hardware information from the programmer. The worst part about Arduino is that it uses libraries to hide the low level hardware information from the programmer. :) Arduino comes with on-board bootloader. According to me, anybody who simply wants the final product and does NOT want to learn how an embedded system works should go for an Arduino.

      On the other hand, if you choose to buy a development board, then you’ll be able to manipulate the on-board processor by programming the registers and learn about low-level interfacing as well. The choice is yours.

  15. thankx for the post.

    • hey max. as i found cheap serial programmer hardware circuit diagram (i prepared serial programmer’s hardware), but not sure will it work or not. so can u give me correct information link regarding this with hardware’s circuit diagram and proper software for windows 7, means tested.

      • Which circuit did you build?


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