Freescale introduces amazingly small ARM MCU

Feb 26, 2014 by Bob Yirka report
Freescale introduces amazingly small ARM MCU

Freescale Semiconductor is introducing one of the smallest ARM based Microcontroller Units (MCUs) ever, a chip that is roughly the size of a dimple on a golf ball—the Kinetis KL03. Because of its extremely small size, the company is positioning the MCU as an important step towards the development of the concept known as "The Internet of Things."

ARM processors are a group of reduced instruction set processors based on the RISC architecture. As they have evolved, they have come to be used primarily as processors for embedded applications—they do one kind of thing really well, rather than a lot of things reasonably well. One such sub-group of ARM processors are known as Microcontroller Units—very small processors that are intended for a single type of application, such as monitoring an electrical signal, blood pressure or the amount of light in a room. They advantage of having a group type is that it allows for compatibility between similar devices and peripherals, and portability of code. As MCUs have grown smaller, they have become an integral part of the The Internet of Things.

The Internet of Things, is an idea that doesn't yet have a formal designation—like the Internet, people define it differently depending on their own perspective. In general, it's a way of describing a world where everyday life is connected to the Internet—where physical objects are seamlessly connected to human activity and the information network. In such a world people and tiny devices will coexist to such an extent they become intertwined—everyone will be connected to everyone and everything else—all the time.

The new MCU developed by Freescale is 15 percent smaller than anything the company has made before, yet is just as powerful. Its 32 bit architecture chip measures a mere 1.6 x 2 millimeters—small enough to be embedded in wearable devices (or swallowed as part of a biometric sensor). Onboard it has 32KB flash memory, 8K ROM and 2K RAM. It also has a boot loader and analog comparator and power management software for reducing battery needs. In short, it has everything a device maker might need to create devices that are so small, in many cases, people won't be aware of their presence.

Whether such a processor proves to be a harbinger of The Internet of Things remains to be seen. What is likely certain, however, is that MCUs such as the KL03 will very soon be embedded in a whole new world of tiny devices, offering unprecedented capabilities.

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User comments : 12

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axemaster
5 / 5 (3) Feb 26, 2014
As a microcontroller user, I feel that the main problem for these devices isn't their size, but their power consumption. The battery is typically many times larger than the MCU itself, so that's the real limiting factor. That also makes me wonder what this device is for - why did they design it as a 32 bit device? I mostly use 8 and 16 bit MCUs, and I can tell you, they have very impressive capabilities. Making a 32 bit device with only 20 pins seems fairly pointless to me.
atomsk
3.7 / 5 (6) Feb 26, 2014
Making a 32 bit device with only 20 pins seems fairly pointless to me.

How about high precision signal processing using 32 bit fixed point arithmetic (like doing an FFT on some sampled data from the ADC)? I know an 8 bit MCU can do that, but needs many more steps/instructions for the same calculations. Less steps means also less energy consumption.
Whydening Gyre
3 / 5 (2) Feb 26, 2014
good points on the 32 bit/20pin comment, Axe. But, they are looking to the future.

atom - 32 bit FLOATING point math will be amazing.
dan42day
3.7 / 5 (3) Feb 27, 2014
The Internet of Things...In such a world people and tiny devices will coexist to such an extent they become intertwined—everyone will be connected to everyone and everything else—all the time.


This IS the BORG. Holy crap, I sure am glad I'm pushing 60 and won't be around in another 40 years!
Eikka
5 / 5 (1) Feb 27, 2014
32 bit FLOATING point math will be amazing.


That depends on whether this thing has an FPU, which they usually don't because it consumes more power.

The whole point of ARM is that you strip it down to bare minimum functionality necassary for the task at hand, because the less transistors you have the less power you need to run them.

That's also the problem of ARM, because every processor is different so they're not actually directly compatible software-wise. That's not much of an issue with MCUs where all software is custom made for the chip, but in other embedded and mobile devices it means you have to waste clock cycles to virtualization and emulation.
k_m
not rated yet Feb 27, 2014
I agree 32bit with 20 pins seems strange, but still a lot can be done with it. Toss in HC595 shift registers or SPI port expanders and increase GIO.

These are M0+ so no floating point hardware support. Don't think Freescale has any M3 with FPU, but they do have M4.

@eikka- ARM M4 can run M3 binaries; M3 can run M0/M0+/M1 binaries.
verkle
5 / 5 (1) Feb 27, 2014
32bit CPU with 20 pins is not strange. Probably one of the interfaces is USB 2.0, which has a 480MHz serial data I/O. Probably all of the I/O are serial, with SERDES inside. When you want to process a lot of data fast, 32-bit is not strange.

However, given that this CPU is supposed to be tiny, extremely low power, and probably used in devices that need limited IP connectivity like fridges, then 32 bit may be overkill. Personally, I don't think so. Many other companies are coming out with very similar devices.

Eikka
not rated yet Feb 27, 2014
@eikka- ARM M4 can run M3 binaries; M3 can run M0/M0+/M1 binaries.


Unless you have a custom design based on the standard core, like in many smartphones and tablets. The Snapdragon A7 core for example is not directly binary compatible with the Apple A7.
alfie_null
not rated yet Feb 27, 2014
32bit CPU with 20 pins is not strange. Probably one of the interfaces is USB 2.0, which has a 480MHz serial data I/O. Probably all of the I/O are serial, with SERDES inside. When you want to process a lot of data fast, 32-bit is not strange.

From the specs, no USB. Understandable as that would eat up a bunch of silicon. Also, no external memory. You'll need to fit your code into what's on the chip. For talking to the outside, it's got a UART, SPI, and I²C.
Rick150
not rated yet Mar 02, 2014
Power consumption is the biggest hurdle. Even if the chip was very low power the problem then every connected device needs to have a fraction of the power consumption. Difficult to have your cake and eat it. Any end use that interfaces to a human uses lots of power, are we holding back progress?
meBigGuy
not rated yet Mar 03, 2014
Actually power consumption is not obvious with regard to 8/16/32 bit processors. The number of memory bits required to represent the program are an important factor.

Memory accesses generally account for half the power consumption of a processor core. If a 32 bit processor uses less than 1/4 the instructions of the 8 bit processor, you are ahead of the game.
8 bit processors need multiple instructions to do simple operations due to lack of large general purpose register sets (limited by instruction size) and the difficulty of doing 16 and 32 bit math.

Also most 8 bit processors have 16 bit program counters (tms430 aside) which limit program size. (although this one only has 32KBytes of flash.)

If a 32 bit processor is more program efficient, it can actually save power with respect to it's 8 bit counterparts. You have to look on a case by case basis.

Obviously one wouldn't choose this processor if it wasn't needed to solve the problem at hand.
meBigGuy
not rated yet Mar 03, 2014
Also, given modern IC design techniques, reduction of wasted power is a high art. Things don't toggle unless they need to. Processors can sleep with very little power consumption, and every wasted logic transition is scrutinized. Again, what counts is program efficiency. Less instructions (less total bits) means less active clock cycles equal less power consumed.