Upgrading 8- and 16-bit MCU designs: 32-bit MCU architectures

Modern embedded designs require a wide range of capabilities, including low power support, high performance/throughput, function-rich peripherals, different connectivity options, large internal memory, scalable CPU core, high code density, and easy access to a development tools and hardware. As these options are available in 32-bit MCU devices, this will be the common choice for designer.

ARM is a popular 32-bit core that is licensed across multiple vendors. This gives a unique flexibility for designers to move from one supplier to another without worrying whether the application development environment will change. Choosing a 32-bit device means not only finding the special peripherals needed to meet your system’s requirements today but to also secure the ability to upgrade the device in the future. This is more easily achieved with 32-bit devices since most embedded system R&D effort is focused on 32-bit cores.

However, you have to be careful and aware of how to leverage the features of the 32-bit CPU to the advantage of your application. This article discusses the need for moving to 32-bit systems from 8/16 bit MCUs and explores issues that you need to consider while migrating to shorten your time to market.

Throughput and CPU Performance:
Throughput is the number of instructions that can be processed by a CPU in a given unit of time. The higher the throughput, the more work the system can complete. There are two factors that define a CPU’s capacity for doing work in a given unit of time. The first one is the speed at which the CPU executes instructions. The Dhrystone benchmark is a popular synthetic benchmark for embedded systems to produce a measure of CPU performance in DMIPS/MHz. For example, Table 1 shows the performance measures for different 8-bit and 32-bit cores. Not surprisingly, 32-bit cores show a significant performance advantage.

Table 1: CPU performance comparison

Architecture Processor Example Performance (Speed, MIPS) Device details
8-bit M8C core PSoC 1 Up to 24 MHz, 4 MIPS  CY8C29XXX
8-bit PIC Core PIC18F Up to 40 MHz, 10 MIPS  PIC18FXX2
Enhanced 8-bit 8051 core AT89LP Up to 20 MHz, 20 MIPS  AT89LP828
Enhanced 8-bit 8051 core PSoC 3 Up to 67 MHz, 33 MIPS  CY8C38XXX
32-bit ARM Cortex-M0+ PSoC 4 Up to 48 MHz, 0.9 DMIPS/MHz, 43 DMIPS  CY8C4Axx
32-bit ARM Cortex-M3 PSoC 5 up to 80 MHz, 1.25 DMIPS/MHz, 100 DMIPS  CY8C58LP

The second factor is the amount of data a CPU can process at a given speed. An 8-bit CPU has 8 digital lines (data-buses) in parallel. This allows an 8-bit MCU to work with values only from 0 to 28 (255) each clock cycle. In contrast, a 32-bit CPU has 32 parallel digital lines, allowing it to handle values from 0 to 232 (4,294,967,295) each clock cycle. This shows the significance of 32-bit architectures over 8-bit in terms ofprocessing power.

This plays a role in the efficiency of executing mathematical operations. 32-bit MCUs are more efficient in processing math operations on numbers that are longer than 8-bits. To implement mathematical operations of 32-bit numbers with an 8-bit MCU requires more CPU cycles as compared to a 32-bit CPU. Depending on how processing intensive your application is and how many calculations it makes, this can affect the performance of the circuit.

With its larger data-bus, a 32-bit MCU can also access larger memory spaces. A 32-bit data path also enables faster copying of large chunks of data as compared to an 8-bit MCU as a 32-bit MCU is capable of handling four times the data at a time. For an application wherein the primarily function is to stream data from one place to another (for example, implementing an UART to USB bridge), a 32-bit MCU will be more suitable than an 8-bit MCU.

Table 2: Data/Memory Access capabilities 8-Bit vs 32-Bit

8-bit 32-bit
Data / Memory access capability 28 = 255 232 = 4,294,967,295

Power Consumption:
For embedded systems that are battery powered, power consumption is a key factor that you need to consider early in your design. While a CPU’s datasheet may provide some insights on active current and certain low power modes current consumption numbers, it is average power that determines how efficient a given application is in the end. With the latest process technologies in place, 32-bit MCUs are no longer power hungry in comparison to 8-bit MCUs. In addition, 32-bit MCUs are capable of doing more work than 8-bit MCUs in a given time since they can more data bits per clock as well as achieve superior code density. As a result, a 32-bit processor can finish a given task in less time and drop back into a low power mode faster to improve the overall power consumption compared to an 8-bit processor.

A 32-bit MCU can process instructions quickly, enabling CPUs to wake up from a low power sleep mode, crunch and transmit data, and go back to sleep as soon as possible. One such example is shown in Figures 1 and 2 where the average power consumption is better for 32-bit MCU as compared to an 8-bit MCU.

Figure 1: 32-Bit MCU example for Average Power Consumption

Figure 2: 8-Bit MCU example for Average Power Consumption

Driving bus lines requires the bus capacitance to be charged and discharged. Thus, the more bus activity that is required, the more power that will be consumed. Driving 32 lines will consume more power than 8, so clearly an 8-bit CPU has a power advantage. However, if constants larger than 8 bits are required, then multiple accesses are required. Not only do the data lines need to be charged multiple times, so do the address lines. Figure 3 shows an example of an 8-bit MCU where the address bus has to be changed 4 times to perform a 32-bit data transfer:

Figure 3: 32-bit data transfer using 8-bit CPU

In this case, the 32-bit processor will require only one access to memory (which can also be switched into low power mode more quickly) and therefore consume less power globally.

Figure 4: 32-bit data transfer using 32-bit CPU

Advancements in 32-bit MCU architectures have lead to the introduction of advanced low power modes. For example, depending upon the core, a 32-bit MCU can operate all the way down to 20 nA. These low power modes help drive a better average power consumption in 32-bit cores as compared to 8-bit cores. Tables 3 and 4 show examples of various low power modes for an 8-bit and a 32-bit MCU.

Table 3: 8-bit MCU Low power modes example

Power Mode Current Range (Typical) Condition
Active 6.6 mA @24MHz, 25 C, Vdd 2.7 to 5.5V
Low Power Mode (Sleep) 2.2 uA CPU & peripherals OFF, except I2C Wake & POR
Hibernate 200 nA Vdd = 2.7 to 3.6V @ Room T

Table 4: 32-bit MCU Low power modes example

Power Mode Current Range (Typical) Condition
Active 6.7 mA @24MHz, 25 C, Vdd 1.71 to 5.5V
Low Power Mode (Deep Sleep) 1.3 uA CPU & peripherals OFF, except I2C Wake & POR
Hibernate 150 nA Vdd = 1.8 to 3.6V @ Room T
Stop 20 nA CPU & peripherals OFF, except GPIO Wake

As can be seen in these tables, 32-bit architectures provide many power modes to optimize power consumption at the application level.

Advance Analog and Digital Peripherals:
As the industry moves from 8- to 32-bit, OEMs are not only expecting a CPU that offers higher performance and power, but also looking for advanced analog and digital peripherals with no increase in system cost or size. These requirements have driven the industry to integrate the main controller and standalone peripheral controller into a single chip. Though requirements vary depending the specific market segment for which you design your product, the fundamental need of advanced peripherals integrated with the main controller remains the same.

Consider an example application like a modern washing machine. OEMs need to implement differentiating features like a graphical display, liquid level detection, drum vibration analysis, control of multiple motors, door locks with inductive sensors, water pump control, and advance safety features (such as voltage / current hardware monitoring) preferably all on a single chip. The demand for advanced features in high-volume applications gives chip manufacturers the incentives to integrate these features with a full range of analog, digital, and connectivity peripherals into their CPUs.

Figure 5: Home Appliances (Washing Machine) Single chip example

Figure 6 shows an example of an ARM-based MCU device suitable for controlling some of the features implemented in a washing machine.

Figure 6: An ARM based MCU example for washing machine applications

Another important industry moving from 8- to 32-bits is wearable products. Wearables typically need a CPU that can work as a main processor, is capable of interfacing with a rich set of sensors (e.g. heart rate sensors, GPS, motion sensors, and environmental sensors), has external memory, and includes a capacitive touch pad interface, audio interface, and display drivers along with support for wireless (BLE or Wi-Fi) connectivity. Figure 7a shows an example of a wearable fitness monitor and how a single chip 32-bit MCU integrates the main MCU, analog front end (AFE), digital logic, and BLE radio. These features enable a device to connect to a sensor hub via BLE, interface with multiple analog and digital sensors, and drive a PWM-based vibration motor. 

Figure 7a: Wearable fitness tracker single chip example

Figure 7b: Wearable fitness tracker chip block diagram

The device internal block diagram (Figure 7b) shows the components in a Cortex-M0 device that enable it to support various wearable products such as sports and fitness monitors, game controllers, medical devices, and other sensor-based, low-power systems for IoT. The key features of devices are the core MCU to boost performance, programmable AFEs inclusive of op-amps, PGAs, comparators, filters, ADCs, programmable digital logic for custom digital peripherals, timers, counter, PWMs, and multiple interfaces (SPI, I2C and UART). This level of integration simplifies overall design, lowers cost, and increases functionality, making 32-bit architectures ideal for many of today’s applications.

In this article, we have discussed several benefits of having a 32-bit system in terms of performance, power and advanced analog, digital peripherals.

In the second article of this two-part series, we will cover how modern software tools, hardware development ecosystems, and readymade firmware stacks with code examples ease system design and development of 32-bit systems.


  1. AN86233 – PSoC® 4 Low-Power Modes and Power Reduction Techniques

  2. AN90114 – PSoC® 4000 Family Low-Power System Design Techniques

  3. AN88619 – PSoC® 4 Hardware Design Considerations

  4. AN203277 – FM 32-bit Microcontroller Family Hardware Design Considerations

  5. AN99231 – Using Interrupts in FM0+ Family S6E1C3 Series

  6. AN90799 – PSoC® 4 Interrupts

  7. AN202487 – Differences Among FM0+, FM3, and FM4 32-Bit Microcontrollers

  8. AN99218 – Multifunction Serial Interface of FM MCU

  9. AN79953 – Getting Started with PSoC® 4

  10. AN210985 – Getting Started with FM0+ Development

  11. CY8CKIT-042 PSoC® 4 Pioneer Kit

  12. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_ARM_microarchitectures

Anbarasu Samiappan is a Senior Applications Manager at Cypress Semiconductor. He is managing PSoC Embedded Systems Group including Customer Technical Support and System validation functions. He is a PMI certified Project Management Professional, Gold medalist Electronics Engineering Graduate from Anna University and earned General Management credential from IIM, Bangalore. He has 19+ years industry experience. Anba can be reached at .

Jaya Kathuria works as an Applications Manager at Cypress Semiconductor Corporation where she is managing the Embedded Applications Group and Solutions Development using the PSoC platform. She has 11+ years of experience in Semiconductor Industry. She earned executive management credential from IIM, Bangalore and holds BS in Electronics Engineering from the Kurukshetra University. Jaya can be reached at


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