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The types of devices such as microprocessor, microcontroller, processor, digital signal processor (DSP), amongst others, in a certain manner, are related to the same device – the ASIC (Application Specific Integrated Circuit). Each processing device executes instructions, following a determined program applied to the inputs and shares architectural characteristics developed from the first microprocessors created in 1971. In the three decades after the development of the first microprocessor, huge developments and innovations have been made in this engineering field. Any of the terms used at the beginning of this section are correct to define a microprocessor, although each one has different characteristics and applications.

The definition of a microcontroller is somewhat difficult due to the constantly changing nature of the silicon industry. What we today consider a microcontroller with medium capabilities is several orders of magnitude more powerful, than the computer used on the first space missions. Nevertheless, some generalizations can be made as to what characterizes a microcontroller. Typically, microcontrollers are selected for embedded systems projects, i.e., control systems with a limited number of inputs and outputs where the controller is embedded into the system.

The programmable SoC (system-on-chip) concept started in 1972 with the 4-bit TMS1000 microcomputer developed by Texas Instruments (TI), and in those days it was ideal for applications such as calculators and ovens. This term was changed to Microcontroller Unit (MCU), which was more descriptive of a typical application. Nowadays, MCUs are at the heart of many physical systems, with higher levels of integration and processing power at lower power consumption.

The following list presents several qualities that define a microcontroller:

- Cost: Usually, the microcontrollers are high-volume, low cost devices;

- Clock frequency: Compared with other devices (microprocessors and DSPs), microcontrollers use a low clock frequency. Microcontrollers today can run up to 100 MHz/ 100 Million Instructions Per Second (MIPS)

- Power consumption: orders of magnitude lower than their DSP and MPU cousins;

- Bits: 4 bits (older devices) to 32 bits devices;

- Memory: Limited available memory, usually less than 1 MByte;

- Input/Output (I/O): Low to high (8-150) pin-out count.

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Source:  OpenStax, Teaching and classroom laboratories based on the “ez430” and "experimenter's board" msp430 microcontroller platforms and code composer essentials. OpenStax CNX. May 19, 2009 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col10706/1.3
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