It used to be that the number of different microcontroller chips available to the hobbyist was pretty limited. You got to use whatever you could manage to buy from the mail-order chip dealer, and that narrowed down the choice to a small number of chips.

But times have changed. Digikey lists over 16000 different line items under a 'microcontroller' search. Which one should a hobbyist with no particular prior experience choose?

Here are some hints. These are particularly aimed at someone trying to pick a microcontroller to use for the first time at least partially as a learning experience, rather than someone who wants to accomplish a particular task.

Update 2009-01-28: This Instructable was recently mentioned in some popular blogs, and is getting a bunch of new readers. Be sure to read the 'comments' made by other readers and the responses to them; there's a lot of value in those comments...

Step 1: What IS a "Microcontroller" ?

If you ever took a very introductory computer course, you probably learned about the major components of ANY computer:

  • A Central Processing Unit or CPU. The part that actually performs logic and math
  • Memory. Where the computer stores data and instructions
  • Input and Output or I/O. How the computer moves data between its other components and the real world.

A microprocessor uses microelectronic fabrication techniques to shrink the CPU to a very small size; usually a single "chip."

A microcontroller uses the same techniques to shrink the entire computer to a single chip (or very small module.) CPU, Memory, and I/O all in a little package as small as a grain of rice. Just connect up power and it starts doing its thing; computing and talking to the world. Usually the I/O on a microcontroller is aimed at "low level" hardware like talking to individual switches and LEDs instead of keyboards, internets, and displays (like your desktop computer.) A microcontroller is just the thing you want, if you want to talk to individual switches and LEDs...

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Bio: Middle aged geek username also works at yahoo.com, mac.com, comcast.net, wharton-10.arpa
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