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What are the Differences Between an Integrated Circuit and a Microprocessor
Jessica Hopkins

The introduction of integrated circuits (ICs) has revolutionized the way embedded systems operate today. By integrating transistor circuits onto a single chip, electronics developers could create advanced computing devices like laptop computers and mobile phones. When discussing how embedded systems operate, we often hear about integrated circuits and microprocessors. So, what exactly are these components, how do they differ, and how do they relate to embedded systems? In this article, we’ll provide some background on their relationship and how they have modernized the embedded systems industry.

What is an Integrated Circuit

In the early days, computers were made using vacuum tubes that made up logic circuitry. Due to its large size and expensive assembly, the first computer was not ideal for use by the masses. The invention of the transistor, which regulates the flow of current or voltage and acts as a switch for electronic signals, helped to compensate for those setbacks, but it still had its own limitations.

The invention of the integrated circuit (IC) helped revolutionize the use of electronic signals like transistors into a much smaller and lucrative design. The integrated circuit, sometimes referred to as a chip or microchip, is a semiconductor wafer often made of silicon that integrates a collection of electronic circuits, including resistors, transistors, capacitors, and diodes that interconnect to perform a given function. One single integrated circuit can include thousands to millions of such electronic circuits depending on its computing power.

multiple integrated circuits on motherboard Image by Michaił Nowa from Pixabay

Integrated circuits are very important in embedded systems design as they helped revolutionize and improve how electronic circuits are used. Before the IC was used, components like transistors and resistors were wired together on a circuit board. But, with the introduction of the IC, these components are now formed on a smaller, singular chip.

Today, integrated circuits are frequently used in electronics design and can be categorized as analog, digital, or a combination of the two. ICs can be used for a variety of purposes including amplifiers, video processors, computer memory, switches, and microprocessors.

What is a Microprocessor

So, is a microprocessor an integrated circuit? The answer is yes, and it is considered to be one of the most complex of its kind. A microprocessor is a computer processor that incorporates the functions of a central processing unit (CPU) on a single integrated circuit, or a single chip. It is used in a computer system to execute logical and computational tasks so other external circuits, including memory or peripheral ICs, can perform their intended functions.

Microprocessors Image by Jose Conejo Saenz from Pixabay

Before the microprocessor was conceived, a computer’s control and processing unit of a CPU was constructed using transistors and eventually small-scale integrated circuits; all of which were attached to a circuit board individually. The invention of the microprocessor allowed for such components to integrate together on a single chip, scaling down such technologies.

Generally, microprocessors are used in applications where the task is not predefined, such as computers or video games where the task is dependent on the user. In these cases, microprocessors are suitable as they support a variety of computing applications.

How Integrated Circuits and Microprocessors Advance Embedded Systems

Integrated circuits have paved the way to the advanced embedded systems we know and use today. The semiconductor chips that are used in devices like smartphones, tablets, or laptop computers are all integrated circuits that provide the system with the electronic circuitry needed to perform its intended function.

Microprocessors specifically are fundamental integrated circuits that embedded system engineers often use in embedded designs. The microprocessor is used to control the CPU functions of an embedded system, which performs tasks like retrieving and decoding instructions from the main memory, and using those instructions to carry out arithmetic and logic operations for other memory or I/O devices.

Debugging and Developing Embedded Systems with Integrated Circuits

Integrated circuits, like microprocessors, require a communication protocol in order to “talk to” and exchange data between various components or even other ICs within a system. Microprocessors often use protocols including I2C, SPI, or USB to execute data exchanges. With so many interconnected parts, including the microprocessor/microcontroller, memory devices, and I/O peripherals, developing and designing embedded systems can be a challenge. It’s important to ensure that each of these components are operating together to establish a correctly working system.

To determine that each component is working as expected, host adapters and protocol analyzers are helpful tools that allow engineers to test and debug systems to verify their performance. By using such tools, users can easily emulate master or slave devices, quickly program memory, and monitor the bus to find communication errors.

Total Phase offers a line of host adapters and protocol analyzers fit for a variety of project requirements.

Host Adapters

Total Phase’s host adapters, including the Aardvark I2C/SPI Host Adapter, Cheetah SPI Host Adapter, and Promira Serial Platform, allow users to interface with their I2C and/or SPI systems, and can be used for a variety of applications, including prototyping, system emulation, or high-speed flash programming.

The Aardvark I2C/SPI Host Adapter is a general-purpose host adapter supporting I2C and SPI protocols and can operate up to 800 kHz as an I2C master and slave, up to 8 MHz as an SPI master, and up to 4 MHz as an SPI slave.

The Cheetah SPI Host Adapter is high-speed SPI adapter that is capable of communicating over SPI at up to 40+ MHz as a master.

The Promira Serial Platform is Total Phase’s most advanced serial device. It is built on a field-upgradeable platform that is configurable based on a user’s I2C and/or SPI project requirements, including speed, GPIOs, slave selects, and more. Depending on the application and level, this device can support up to 3.4 MHz as an I2C master and slave, and up to 80 MHz as an SPI master, and up to 20 MHz as an SPI slave.

Protocol Analyzers

Total Phase’s line of protocol analyzers, including the Beagle I2C/SPI Protocol Analyzer and collection of Beagle USB Protocol Analyzers, allow users to gain visibility into the bus and monitor I2C, SPI, or USB (USB 2.0 and USB 3.0) communication in real-time. Users can easily view low-level bus events, bus errors, and more.


Both integrated circuits and microprocessors are an essential part of understanding and creating embedded systems. Integrated circuits have allowed us to scale how we utilize and incorporate transistors and other electronic circuits into electronic designs. And without integrated circuits, we wouldn’t have microprocessors. Microprocessors allow us to place CPU functionality into devices, which has made our everyday devices capable of performing advanced computations and tasks. While these components make our lives easier, creating successfully working systems can be a challenge. Having the right debugging and development tools to test and validate systems can help simplify these processes.

To learn more about how our host adapters and protocol analyzers can help debug or develop your own embedded system, please visit our website or email us at sales@totalphase.com.