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ultra-newbie: picking a first microcontroller?

Discussion in 'Electronic Basics' started by [email protected], Jun 5, 2006.

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  1. Guest

    I'd like to build an embedded device that takes in a thermocouple
    input, and then, if the temperature is below the user-specified set
    point, activates a relay (which would power an electric heater), and
    then, when the thermocouple senses the temperature has reached / is
    greater than the set point, de-energizes the relay.

    I've got some experience with assembler (80386) and C.

    I was thinking of going with the Atmel ATTINY12-8PC (only 8 pins, and
    a whopping 1kb of flash RAM, just $1.55 at Jameco), but then I read on
    the newsgroups that finding a programmer for this is impossible... is
    this true?

    I've also heard that PIC's C tools are not free... is this still true,
    or has this changed?

    The local junior college teaches a microcontrollers class, but alas, it
    is M/W 8am-noon, right when I have work. (This is a non-work-related
    hobby project, by the way.) I e-mailed the professor, and he gave me
    the book they use, but it seems they will be starting with the 8088...

    Any suggestions, pointers? Would I be better off just buying a
    programmer, or could someone at my skill level assemble (no pun
    intended) my own?


  2. The HI-Tech PIC-C compiler is free for limited devices.
    I believe the Microchip PIC-18 C compiler is now essentially free, with
    only some minor limitations.
    By far the easiest way to get into micros is with the PIC-AXE devices.
    No need for a programmer, programmed in BASIC, and you don't have to
    worry about all the little annoying traits of a particular micro and
    programmer . Using a programmer and C or assembler for a first timer
    can be really annoying. If it doesn't work first go becuase you got
    some configuration bit incorrect then it just sits there looking stupid
    at you until you magically figure it all out.

    Once you have overcome the configuration bit/programmer hurdle though,
    that is the way to go.
    Only go with either PIC or Atmel AVR, there is just so much support out
    there for both of them. Each have their pros and cons.

    Have fun.

    Dave :)
  3. Jasen Betts

    Jasen Betts Guest

    No. I have one within arm's reach, a schematic somewhere on my hard drive,
    and know 2 places where I can purchase another tomorrow.

    ATTINY12-8PI might be a better choice for your application, better heat
    seems a strange choice for the class, I guess it made sense when the
    hardware was purchased.
    this schematic is AFAICT a clone of the Atmel STK200 in-circuit programmer,
    so it should be reliable, it can be made with inexpensive off-the-shelf parts
    and connects to the parallel port, it's powered by the circuit being
    programmed, download the stk200 manual from for more info.

    NOTE: the original ISP used a 10-way IDC cable with one of the plugs
    on backwards!

    Tell the programming software you're using a "STK200" programmer
    and it should work (I use uisp (linux software) but this hardware
    will also work with the windows stuff from Atmel too.)

    I had a look at using C but the AVR assembler language is easy to use.

  4. Guest

    BASIC stamp, eh? Probably a good idea, come to think of it...

    Thanks for the input.

  5. Stef Mientki

    Stef Mientki Guest

    I can recommend JAL (open source),
    and then specially v2,
    which will be launched within a week.
  6. No, not the BASIC Stamp, the PIC-AXE.
    They are similar, but the PIC-AXE is cheaper and easier. BASIC Stamps
    are old hat.

    Dave :)
  7. Guest

    Thanks again.

    Overclocking a PICAXE? Never would have crossed my mind... :)
  8. Guest

    The Picaxe has analogue capability.

    You can try my completely free picaxe simulator from:

    to get an idea of what the picaxe types are and what functionality they

    Mike Collier
  9. Guest

    Thanks for that!

    You know, I'm wondering where I can find a PICAXE. Jameco, Mouser and
    Digikey don't have them... is this something I have to order directly
    from the UK? (I'm in the States.)

  10. purple_stars

    purple_stars Guest

    if you don't mind some assembly i'd get the pickit2 from microchip, or
    from one of the distribution places that sells them. i think mine came
    from mouser but i can't be sure. anyway, get that and you have a chip
    to use, a programmer, and it's already hooked up to some led's, a
    switch, and it plugs into your computer via usb. couldn't be easier,
    just load up an example program, assembly it using the tools provided,
    load it into the chip using the tools provided, and hit the button that
    supplies power via usb to the chip. you'll have led lights blink'n
    before you know it, trivial.

    and you can get some 8 pin (or bigger) pics and program them too. all
    they need to run is a program in them, 5 volts, and ground. you've got
    a working controller in 10 minutes.

    the reason these are good for beginners is you get success out of the
    box and a place to expand using ultra simple tools and processes. you
    can immediately start adding functionality and focus on what you want
    to accomplish.
  11. Guest

    United States suppliers of picaxe:

  12. Guest

  13. Eriswerks

    Eriswerks Guest

    I'd reccomend Microchip's PICKit2 also. It's a $50 fully assembled USB
    device with a little protoyping area that includes some LEDs and a
    trimpot, so you can get some instantly gratifying blinkenlights. They
    also give you a PIC16F690 with it, which is a rather nice
    microcontroller. You can program other PICs with it also, smaller and
    larger, just by wiring up a socket of the right size.

    The other thing that's completely indispensable is PICBasic. It's not
    free, but it's worth every penny. You can do things like PWM and LCD
    control with only a couple lines of code. Multiply the amount of time
    that would take in assembly by your hourly wage and see if that's a
    bigger number than what they charge for PICBasic. :) There's also very
    good documentation and lots of sample code for it. This will run faster
    and leave more memory free than something like a basic stamp or PICAxe
    that's encumbered with an interpreter.

    There's also a free program for compiling Python for PICs called
    Pyastra, which I'd like to try except that there's zero documentation
    for it.
  14. Jan Wagner

    Jan Wagner Guest

    Sounds more like a simple LM393 comparator and potentiometer plus some
    small-parts project to me! :) With an uC you'd have to use an ADC to
    read out the thermocouple circuit voltage. A uC project could be more
    interesting, though.
    There are very simple serial port programmers for attiny and atmega.
    There are also parallel port versions. Google for "Low Cost Programmer
    for AVR microcontroller", or see the stk200 manual link Jasen posted.

    Then there's winavr / avr-gcc for the free unlimited C part.

    If you've a more DIY approach and don't want a kit that includes all
    software and code that you could get elsewhere for free also, then has some relatively inexpensive nice starter boards or
    proto development boards for AVR, and MSP430 (has free msp-gcc C
    compiler, and one from TI). Just check that the respective uC has an
    ADC, for the thermocouple. Btw the msp430's would need some JTAG cable
    e.g. Olimex' MSP430-JTAG for programming, debugging, etc.

    (Personally I'd go for JTAG programmable and debuggable devices, if free
    JTAG debugger tools are available as are e.g. for MSP430. In my
    experience all the programming and debugging via serial port stuff
    (ISP,...) usually just sucks, especially with respect to in-circuit
    "debuggability", whereas JTAG flash and in circuit debug with e.g. TI
    MSP430 and TI DSP's is very comfortable.)
    Free but limited, though could be useable for your purposes.

    Still, PIC architecture and opcode set sucks, severely, I'd never
    recommend these as a beginner project - especially not if you want to do
    assembler from a 80386 background. 386 assy is very nice and clean
    compared to PIC...

    - Jan
  15. Guest

    There's a whole lot of information here, I'll have to digest it slowly,

    The PIC has a Harvard architecture, as does Atmel, right? (As opposed
    to the '386...) Is Atmel's assembler a little easier to learn/use?

    I guess, in the long run, I'd be better off learning them both (PIC and


  16. Jan Wagner

    Jan Wagner Guest

    AVR asm and the instruction set is certainly more 386'ish than PIC. The
    assembly in AVR is much tighter than in PIC and I'd guess AVR asm is
    easier to learn and use, when you have 386 background. You'd miss quite
    a lot of 386 niceties in PIC (e.g. in PIC you'd have to cope with only
    one available register W, which is similar to AX but forget AH/AL)

    Remainder of architecture, well, PIC and AVR are Harvard, but this alone
    does not say much except for the program and data memory bus split and
    possibly available separate instructions to access constant data from
    program memory. Harvard split memory access is done quite cleanly in
    AVR's, and a real mess in PIC's (with division into pages, banks,
    register file SRAM, ...). But then PICs are not all "PICs", there are
    several families e.g. PIC10, PIC12, ... , PIC24 that also differ in
    memory layout and more powerful instruction set.
    Unfortunately, yes, that might be a good idea :) Though not that I'd
    recommend PIC, no...

    Something like PIC16F628 with UART and ADC could be relatively speaking
    nice for the temperature controller project, if you want to build things
    from scratch, without a starter kit.

    - Jan
  17. Guest

    Ooh, look what I found...

    Thanks for all the help...

  18. Rich Grise

    Rich Grise Guest

  19. Guest

    Any time!

    Now I just have to figure out how to attach a parallel port cable to my
    breadboard... hmm...

  20. Rich Grise

    Rich Grise Guest

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