I2C SPI USB CAN eSPI Cable Testing View All Videos Quick Start Guides Software Downloads App Notes White Papers User Manuals Knowledge Base Sales Support About Us
Products Blog Sales Support Contact Search
What are the Differences Between an Embedded System vs a Microcontroller
Brendan Murphy

With the rapid evolution of electronics, it is important to stay up to date with the latest technologies. A common question that is asked is: “what are the differences between embedded systems and microcontrollers?”  In this blog post, we will discuss these two technologies and answer that question.

What is a Microcontroller?

A microcontroller unit, or MCU, is often thought of as a basic computer. It is viewed as a computer because of the fundamental components used in an MCU: CPU, system clock, memory, and peripherals, all of which computers use as well. A personal computer is capable of performing multiple functions simultaneously. A microcontroller is different than a computer in the sense that it typically has only one task to accomplish at a time. Simultaneous operations with a microcontroller is not common. If more operations are needed, more microcontrollers are required. A microcontroller is often used for one very specific function in a system.

blue arduino board with microcontroller Image by Tiki Shabudin from Pixabay

Where are Microcontrollers Used?

Microcontrollers are used in a plethora of different environments. A simple application where a microcontroller could be used is to control the operation of an LED light. Every time a button is pressed, the LED light will turn on. But instead of just turning on when the button is pressed, the light should turn on and off five times in a row. A microcontroller can be programmed to perform this sequence of events. The MCU could also be programmed to track the time when the button is pressed or how many times it is pressed.  A microcontroller adds intelligence into an otherwise simple application making the application capable of performing more complex tasks.

What is an Embedded System?

An embedded system on the other hand is a bit different. An embedded system is a series of electrical components that comprise a larger system. These systems have specific functions. Embedded systems are like Legos that when put together correctly build something spectacular. A single Lego by itself doesn’t do anything special but when used in a bigger project adds value and complexity to the system or structure. Embedded systems are the same. They are small building blocks that when paired together correctly result in a functioning system or process. 

Where are Embedded Systems Used?

Embedded systems are used in almost every electronic device around. These systems are used in unison to come together and create a larger functioning system. Take for instance a personal computer or laptop. A computer is made up of sometimes hundreds of different embedded systems to make a useful tool. Computers are known to do many things at once. Keeping track of time, reading and writing new memory, connecting to WIFI, power consumption and charging, the ability to connect different I/O, all of these tasks are done by individual embedded systems. The amazing thing about a computer is that all of these systems work together in perfect unison making the tool useful. These systems are not only used in personal computers but a variety of different devices including refrigerators, lights, phones, cars, modems, televisions, watches, vacuums, and the list goes on.

How are Embedded Systems and Microcontrollers Different?

At the heart of most embedded systems there is a microcontroller or microprocessor running the application. Embedded systems are generally more basic and rudimentary than microcontrollers since they often do not have logic to run the system.

Let’s go back to the Lego analogy for a second.  The Legos, when put together, create a larger more complete system. Each Lego however has a specific task and use case. The embedded systems are typically told what to do by the CPU or Central Processing Unit of a computer. When the CPU tells an embedded system to do something the CPU generally communicates with a microcontroller that is part of the embedded system. Think of the microcontroller as the brains of the embedded system. Once the CPU tells the microcontroller to do something the microcontroller then directs the components of the embedded system to execute its specific tasks.

Microcontrollers are very commonly found in the center of most embedded systems and can be thought of as the brains or decision-maker of the embedded system. The MCU is programmed to communicate and direct other components within the embedded system. In a sense, it is the gatekeeper for the embedded system that tells the system what and when to do something.

Working with Embedded Systems and Microcontrollers

When working with embedded systems engineers often run into issues because of the breadth and complexity of modern-day applications. People want more capability in smaller devices.  The physical engineering that goes into embedded systems nowadays is generally done under a microscope because these systems are so small and complex. Engineers often run into integration issues implementing the embedded systems software. This is where Total Phase has brought value to the market.

How does Total Phase Interface with Embedded Systems and Microcontrollers?

Total Phase was founded on the idea of simplifying the programming and debugging phases of embedded systems development.  With some of the most popular debug and analysis tools on the market, Total Phase has made a name for themselves. People know Total Phase for their industry-leading protocol analyzers and host adapters.

Protocol Analyzers

Protocol analyzers are tools made to non-intrusively monitor bus data to provide beneficial insights into embedded systems. Total Phase specializes in protocol analyzers for monitoring I2C, SPI, USB, CAN, and eSPI buses.

Beagle I2C/SPI Protocol Analyzer

The Beagle I2C/SPI Protocol Analyzer provides a high-performance bus monitoring solution in a small and portable package. Engineers of all experience levels enjoy the insights provided by the Beagle I2C/SPI Protocol Analyzer as it helps them better understand and debug their I2C and SPI bus embedded systems.

Beagle I2C/SPI Protocol Analyzer Beagle I2C/SPI Protocol Analyzer


Beagle USB Protocol Analyzers

Total Phase also has a variety of different USB protocol analyzers that range in speed and capability. The Beagle USB 5000 v2 SuperSpeed Protocol Analyzer is an all-in-one analyzer that specializes in SuperSpeed USB analysis. Whereas the Beagle USB 480 Power Protocol Analyzer allows users to monitor current and voltage levels on the VBUS, along with USB data, for a more comprehensive understanding of power consumption on the USB bus.

Beagle USB Protocol Analyzers support LPM transactions at various speeds Beagle USB 5000 v2 SuperSpeed Protocol Analyzer

Host Adapters

Host adapters allow engineers to program and interact with their embedded systems. Total Phase host adapters are used to program microcontrollers or other chips on the board. Engineers can upload software and code to their systems with ease and speed with the proper host adapter.

Promira Serial Platform

The Promira Serial Platform is Total Phase’s most advanced host adapter on the market. With its ability to act as an SPI master at 80 MHz, this tool has quickly made a name for itself as one of the best embedded systems host adapters in the industry.

Promira Serial Platform Promira Serial Platform


In the extremely fast-paced technology environment we all live in it is important to continue to learn all of the latest developments and stay up to date. Although complicated in practice microcontrollers and embedded systems at their core are very simple technologies. They are small electronic systems/chips that perform very specific tasks. These systems are used in unison to come together and create a larger functioning system. Understanding how they work with each other is vital information for beginner and expert-level engineers alike.