What is the difference between microprocessor and microcontroller?

difference between microprocessor and microcontroller

What is the difference between microprocessor and microcontroller?

  • How are microprocessors and microcontrollers similar?
  • Architectural Differences: Microprocessors vs Microcontrollers
  • Other key differences: microprocessors vs. microcontrollers
  • Application Scenarios: Microprocessors and Microcontrollers

Both microprocessors and microcontrollers are internal components of electronic devices. A microprocessor is a CPU’s minuscule processing unit. It is a single integrated circuit on a computer chip that performs a variety of arithmetic and logic functions on digital signals. Dozens of microprocessors work together within high-performance servers to process and analyze data.

On the other hand, a microcontroller is the basic computing unit in intelligent electronic devices such as washing machines and thermostats. It is a very small computer with its own RAM, ROM and I/O system, all embedded on a single chip. It can process digital signals and respond to user input, but it has limited computing power.

How are microprocessors and microcontrollers similar?

Microprocessors and microcontrollers are centralized computer chips that provide intelligence for personal computers and electronic devices. Both are constructed from semiconductor integrated circuits and share certain internal components.

Integrated Circuits

Both microprocessors and microcontrollers are semiconductor components built on integrated circuits. An integrated circuit is a very small square or rectangular chip containing thousands or even millions of electronic components. With the help of integrated circuits, engineers can reduce the size of electronic circuits.


Microprocessors and microcontrollers have a CPU. the CPU is the core component of a computer chip that processes instructions provided by an application program or firmware. the CPU also has special arithmetic logic unit modules. the ALU calculates mathematical values and evaluates logic problems based on computer instructions. the CPU is the core component of a computer chip that processes instructions provided by an application program or firmware. the CPU also has special arithmetic logic unit modules.


Registers are memory modules for processing by the CPU, which temporarily stores instructions or binary data before, during, and after processing them. Although microcontrollers typically have more registers than microcontrollers, both microprocessors and microcontrollers are built using internal registers.

Architectural Differences: Microprocessors vs Microcontrollers

Although both microprocessors and microcontrollers take the form of computer chips, they are built using different architectures.

Microprocessors are designed using the Von Neumann architecture, where the program and data reside in the same memory module. Microcontrollers, on the other hand, use the Harvard architecture, where program memory is separate from data space.

Microprocessors have more integrated circuit components than microcontrollers. This architectural difference affects the design considerations for microprocessors and microcontrollers in computing and embedded system applications.


Microprocessors do not have internal memory modules for storing application program data. Engineers must use an external bus to connect the microprocessor to external memory storage such as ROM and RAM.

A bus is a set of parallel electrical connections that allow the microprocessor to send and receive data from other devices. There are three types of buses:

  • Data buses transmit data
  • Address buses carry information about where to store and retrieve data
  • Control buses transmit signals to coordinate with other electrical components

These three work together in a microprocessor system.

On the other hand, microcontrollers are built using internal ROM and RAM memory. Microcontrollers use internal buses to interact with the built-in memory modules.


Peripherals are functions such as timers, communications, I/O, etc. that allow a microcontroller or microprocessor to interact with external components or users.

Microprocessors do not have peripherals built into their integrated circuits. Instead, peripherals extend the microprocessor’s application scenarios beyond math and logic processing through external connections.

In contrast, microcontrollers are connected to on-chip peripherals via an internal control bus. This allows the microcontroller to control electronic devices using minimal or no additional components.

Computing power

Microprocessors are strong computer chips that can handle challenging mathematical and computational operations. For example, you can run statistical processing software because microprocessors support floating-point operations.

In contrast, microcontrollers have relatively low processing power and rarely support floating-point calculations. They focus on implementing specific logic, such as controlling the temperature of a heater based on various sensors.

Other key differences: microprocessors vs. microcontrollers

Microprocessors support a wide range of computing operations in personal computers and enterprise servers. On the other hand, microcontrollers allow embedded systems to analyze and respond to inputs in real time.

Engineers consider such differences when developing systems with microprocessors and microcontrollers.

Clock speed

Microprocessors provide high speed and powerful computing for different applications. Modern computer processors operate in the gigahertz range. This allows computer systems to perform complex mathematical calculations and return results quickly.

Although the speed of microcontrollers has increased over the decades, it is still far below the processing speed of microprocessors. Microcontrollers are clocked at speeds between kilohertz and hundreds of megahertz, depending on their purpose. Despite their lower speed range, microcontrollers can operate at optimum performance within their specialized applications.

Circuit Size

A microprocessor cannot operate on its own. It relies on external components, such as communication chips, I/O ports, RAM, and ROM, to form a complete computing system. As a result, microprocessor-based circuits consist of address and data buses that connect many peripherals and memory chips. Even with advances in printed circuit board (PCB) technology, microprocessor systems still require considerable space.

However, microcontrollers offer a space-saving design through simpler circuitry. Most of the additional components needed for a microprocessor-based system can easily be piggybacked on the same chip. Instead of using separate individual components, engineers design electronic devices using a single microcontroller. This leaves more space on the electronic circuit board and allows engineers to produce compact systems.

Power Consumption

Microprocessors typically run at higher speeds and consume more power than microcontrollers, thus requiring an external power supply. Similarly, the total power consumption of a computing system based on a microprocessor unit is higher due to the large number of additional components.

On the other hand, microcontrollers are designed to operate efficiently with minimum power. In addition, most microcontrollers have power-saving features that are missing in microprocessors.

For example, a microcontroller can activate a power saving mode and reduce power consumption when not processing data. Microcontrollers can also turn off unused internal peripherals to save power. This makes microcontrollers ideal for building specialized low-power applications that run off of storage power.

Operating Systems

In real-world applications, microprocessors require an operating system to provide the proper functionality. Without an operating system, the user must issue commands to the microprocessor using assembly or binary language.

On the other hand, a microcontroller can operate without an operating system. However, there are specific operating systems that can help mid-range and high-end microcontrollers run more efficiently.


Microprocessors deal with more diverse communication techniques than microcontrollers. For example, microprocessors can handle high-speed USB 3.0 or Gigabit Ethernet data without a co-processor.

However, most microcontrollers require special processors to enable high-speed data connections.


Microprocessor integrated circuits consist only of a CPU, arithmetic logic unit, and registers, which reduces unit manufacturing costs. The internal architecture of individual microcontrollers, on the other hand, is more complex and usually more expensive than microprocessors.

However, microprocessor-based systems are more expensive because they require additional components. In contrast, a microcontroller is sufficient on its own to meet the needs of its chosen application.

Microcontrollers require fewer additional components, so microcontroller-based systems are cheaper. For example, an air conditioner circuit board with a microcontroller costs less than a computer motherboard with a microprocessor.

Application Scenarios: Microprocessors and Microcontrollers

Microprocessors and microcontrollers are both useful electronic components when applied to appropriate application scenarios.

Use a microprocessor if you need powerful processing power for complex or unpredictable computing tasks. Microprocessors are used in all types of computing devices, such as servers, desktop computers, and mobile computing devices. Organizations use servers with many microprocessors for high-performance computing and to run artificial intelligence applications.

On the other hand, if you are building a control system with a narrow scope of action, then a microcontroller is a better choice. Microcontrollers can also be helpful in systems that need to utilize little electricity. Some microcontrollers require only a small battery to run for months. For example, smart home systems are powered by microcontrollers. Compact devices such as drones or portable audio players also contain microcontrollers.

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