The Difference Between MCUs and FPGAs

April 18th, 2018 by

Microcontrollers (MCUs) are widely used in digital circuitry and electronics.Almost all devices that aid connections and interactions with computers contain embedded microcontrollers that facilitate communication. A microcontroller’s structure resembles that of a simple computer in a single chip that holds all its fundamental components, such as timers and memory embedded inside. MCUs are programmed to conduct simple tasks for different hardware.

Afield programmable gate array (FPGA) is an integrated circuit that contains numerous logic gates that are configured electrically to perform certain tasks. Its nature allows it to be more flexible than most MCUs. For instance, the term “field programmable” means that an FPGA device can be reprogrammed to conduct any logic task that fits in its number of gates. Additionally, the logic gates can be rewired in order to configure to the task at hand. MCUs, conversely, have a circuitry and instruction set that programmers must follow when writing codes for a microcontroller; this restricts MCUs to certain tasks.

However, the FPGA’s flexibility comes at a cost because they require more power than typical microcontrollers. This makes them unsuitable and uneconomical for applications with power drain issues. In addition, it takes longer to make FPGAs function in certain roles since all codes must be written from scratch and converted to a machine’s language. With microcontrollers, you simply purchase packages that are designed for certain tasks and program them to meet your specifications within the shortest time possible.

Due to high FPGA costs, they are mainly used in products that are in low demand but have a high degree of complexity. However, once the demand for the product increases and mass production is required, the circuit moves to ASICs like microcontrollers that have fewer production costs.

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ASICs (application specific integrated circuits) are the ideal choice for custom hardware designs because they offer hardware-based solutions and are designed to achieve specific application objectives. When it comes to capability and versatility, FPGA stands between ASICs and MCUs. FPGAs may be less flexible to program but offer customization precision through hardware that cannot be achieved with MCUs, like the customization of hardware acceleration for algorithms. Though some FPGAs are one-time programmable, some can be updated or reconfigured until they are dynamically configured in a specific computing application.

MCUs tend to be easier to use in development environmentswhere design iterations are being tested. FPGAs, on the other hand, must re-place and re-route with changes. Also, microcontrollers offer greater portability design compared to FPGAs. FPGAs offer sophisticated and time-critical signal processing with strict low latency and throughput requirements since their dedicated memory and hardware ensures time guarantees.

In summary, microcontrollers require less power than FPGAs and are custom-built mini-computers in integrated circuits. FPGAs comprise of logic blocks that are rewired electronically and are highly configurable.

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