Typically typical

Does a “typical” parameter in a datasheet have any meaning?

I was pouring over a datasheet recently and the sleep current needed by the part was listed as:

  • Typical (+25C): 0.01 µA
  • Typical (+60C): 0.04 µA
  • Maximum (+85C): 2 µA
  • Maximum (+125C): 10 µA

What does that mean? The range covers three orders of magnitude.

Decades ago one of my mentors taught me to never use a “typical” spec; always design for worst case. That has been good advice that I've only violated in circumstances where some other data was available or a wide distribution of values was acceptable.

TI agrees. Their datasheet for the LPV521 op amp states: “Typical values represent the most likely parametric norm at the time of characterization. Actual typical values may vary over time and will also depend on the application and configuration. The typical values are not tested and are not guaranteed on shipped production material.”

So how does one interpret the current-consumption data listed earlier? My first reaction is to use the max (+85C) number as that is, presumably, guaranteed. But that's 200X the room-temperature “typical” value, and room temp is, for this application, the expected operating environment. Alas, the 2 µA at 85C value takes this part out of the running.

While there's really not enough data to use for curve fits, an exponential trend line fits pretty darn well, which is hardly surprising given that much of the current is consumed by reverse-biased P-N junctions. But that's mixing typ and max values, a proverbial conflation of apples and oranges.

I have always assumed “typical” represents an average or the most-likely value in some probability distribution function. But does it?

I contacted tech support of several semiconductor vendors and asked what “typical” means. The responses were hardly enlightening.

Energy Micro was the first to reply, a mere 12 hours after submitting the question. They said: “A typical for Energy Micro's specs is the mean value of the devices measured. So [it's] not really dependent on the standard deviation. Most CMOS characteristics have a normal distribution, so mean and median are pretty much the same thing.”

That mirrors my expectation, but since bigger standard distributions means one can expect a wider range of values the mean doesn't tell us much about what to expect when a product is made in volume.

TI weighed in soon after. “'Typical' values in datasheets are not taken from probability functions. These are taken from multi-lot characterization testing with the mode being considered the 'typical' for a give[n] set of characterization parameters (temperature, Vcc, etc).”

That's interesting but not terribly helpful. The mode alone tells us nothing about what kind of values one can expect. And TI, like most vendors, only lists the typ value (no min or max) for some parameters on at least some of their MCUs so we don't get even a sense of the distribution that can be expected.

Microchip responded: “'Typical' is the average of our characterization data.” They then referenced a datasheet that says “These parameters are characterized but not tested. Data in 'Typ' column is at 3.0V, 255C unless otherwise stated. These parameters are for design guidance only and are not tested.”Freescale replied with a link to a Kinetis data sheet . Section 3.8 reads:

A typical value is a specified value for a technical characteristic that:

  • Lies within the range of values specified by the operating behavior
  • Given the typical manufacturing process, is representative of that characteristic during operation when you meet the typical-value conditions or other specified conditions

Given that typical is “representative of that characteristic” onemight assume this means one can expect the part to behave much like thespecified typ data. But the example shown on that datasheet just a fewlines later rates a current with a min of 10, typ of 70, and max of 130µA. The standard deviation is enormous. The typ value teaches nothingabout the range of values to expect (though, in that example, the minand max tell us everything we need to know; wise engineers will create adesign that works properly over that entire range).

Three weeks after I asked NXP replied: “We have not seen a universaldefinition of ‘typical', though it has been one of the most commonlyused terms in the industry and product. One interpretation would be that‘typical' represents 'material that comes from our production processunder standard SPC (statistical process control.'”

Again, this is interesting and useless, at least for practicing design engineers.

Atmel never responded.

The bottom line is that the meaning of a “typical” spec is devoid ofengineering value. If a spec isn't guaranteed, it's not a spec — it'san aspiration.

What's your take? How do you use typical specifications? And what doyou do when a spec has only a typ, and not min and/or max, value?

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded developmentissues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companieswith their embedded challenges, and works as an expert witness onembedded issues. Contact him at . His website is.

8 thoughts on “Typically typical

  1. “Energy Micro was the first to reply, a mere 12 hours after submitting the question. TI weighed in soon after. Three weeks after I asked NXP replied. Atmel never responded.”

    Why do I get the feeling that this article is really about the “typical” response

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  2. A subliminal commentary about the typical response time of MCU manufacturers is certainly an additional takeaway from this article. I'm wondering if we now live in a time where new designs on the bleeding edge of technology require more from our suppliers

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  3. I wonder if there is a market for the electronic equivalent of “Consumer Reports”; an unbiased third party that scientifically tests selected products and reports their findings.

    I have often wished for a really good search tool for identifying MCUs that

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  4. Hi Jack.
    For Atmel (at least the Flash MCUs) the “Typ” data is average of characterized devices including corner lots. Min/Max numbers (where they are provided) are tested on both wafer and in final test.

    (and please let me know who didn't answer your re

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  5. If I'm faced with a “typical” value, I'll first look for other information on the datasheet. Sometimes the manufacturer will include a graph showing min/max values versus temperature (or some other parameter of interest). Oftentimes, a “typical” value is

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  6. I'm with DaveSchabel. I'm old enough to to have grown up in a mostly analog world – in fact I still remember the input specs of the µA709 and 741, (though I don't remember what I had for breakfast).

    I must design to worst case specs, and will only use the

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  7. As many ones already pointed out, I firstly consider Min/Max specs for fundamental parameters, then the Typ ones just for values that need a “reference” in calculation, but that aren't so strict for functions.
    Again: if a manufacturer doesn't give the desi

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  8. Hello,

    I'm afraid my take would be rather conservative and based on two rules:

    a) Design using worst-case specs.

    That's what many people do, I assume, at least for industrial/avionics/etc. If anything, it will give you margin, and margins are always wel

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