Tag Archives: low power

maXTouch U family opens up a world of possibilities for next-gen devices


This new controller family will make touchscreen devices less frustrating and more enjoyable to use.


It’s safe to say that touchscreens have surely come a long way since Dr. Samuel C.Hurst at the University of Kentucky debuted the first electronic touch interface back in 1971. Despite their ubiquity today in just about every device, the technology doesn’t seem to always work as well as it should given recent advancements. As VentureBeat’s Dean Takahashi points out, displays remain frustratingly unresponsive to finger taps, consume a lot of power, and quite frankly, are still pretty bulky — until now.

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That’s because Atmel has launched a next generation of sensor chips that will pave the way to much better (and more delightful) tactile experiences for gadgets ranging from 1.2” smartwatch screens to 10.1” tablet displays. Following in the footsteps of its older siblings, the new maXTouch U family will enable optimal performance, power consumption leveraging picoPower technology, and of course, thinner screens.

More apparent than ever before, the use of touch-enabled machinery has exploded over the past five years. As a result, there has been an ever-growing need to develop touchscreens with extremely high touch performance, ultra-low power and more sophisticated industrial designs with thinner screens. Not to mention, the anticipated surge in wearables has also created a demand for extremely small touchscreen controllers with ultra-low power consumption in tiny packaging. Luckily, this is now all possible thanks to the maXTouch U family which crams pure awesomeness in a 2.5-millimeter by 2.6-millimeter space (WLCSP).

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Designers can now build extremely innovative thin and flexible touchscreen designs using single layer, on-cell and hybrid in-cell touchscreens with intelligent wake-up gestures and buttons. What this means is that, the technology can support entry-level smartphones, slick wearable gizmos, super tablets and everything in between on a full range of stack-ups.

Among the most notable features of the U include low power modes down to 10µW in deep sleep for wearables such as smartwatches, active stylus support, 1.0-millimeter passive stylus support (so users can write with things like pencils on a touchscreen), as well as up to a 20-millimeter hover distance (so that a user can answer their phone call with a wet hand). What’s more, the touch controllers can sense water and reject it as a touch action, and works with multiple fingers — even if someone is wearing gloves.

Binay Bajaj, Atmel Senior Director of Touch Marketing, explains that the recently-revelaed series provides all the necessary building blocks for futuristic mobile gadgetry. The chips are available in samples today, while production versions will be ready in the third and fourth quarters.

“Our expertise in ultra-low power MCUs and innovative touch engineering have allowed us to bring a superior series of devices to market that is truly an innovative collection to drive next-generation touchscreens. We are a leading provider of touchscreen devices to a variety of markets adopting capacitive touchscreens,” Bajaj adds.

Let’s take a closer look at the six new maXTouch U devices:

  • mXT735U is the perfect device for the entry level tablet delivering robust moisture support and excellent noise immunity for touchscreens up to 10.1″.
  • mXT640U supports touchscreens up to 6 inches. This device supports 1mm passive stylus support and thin stack support including 0.4mm cover lens for GFF stack, up to 25mm hover detection and moisture resistance.
  • mXT416U delivers extremely high touch performance including 2.5mm passive stylus, excellent moisture support, noise immunity and up to 30mm large finger touch detection.
  • mXT336U is targeted for mid-range smartphone applications, delivering a perfect balance between performance and form factor.
  • mXT308U is geared towards low-end smartphone applications emphasizing simplicity and robustness.
  • mXT144U is designed specifically for wearable applications. The mXT144U features picoPower with 10uW in deep sleep mode and is the smallest hybrid sensing touchscreen controller packaged in a 2.5mm x 2.6mm WLCSP. This device is the ideal solution for today and tomorrow’s wearable devices.

4 reasons why Atmel is ready to ride the IoT wave


The IoT recipe comprises of three key technology components: Sensing, computing and communications.


In 2014, a Goldman Sachs’ report took many people by surprise when it picked Atmel Corporation as the company best positioned to take advantage of the rising Internet of Things (IoT) tsunami. At the same time, the report omitted tech industry giants like Apple and Google from the list of companies that could make a significant impact on the rapidly expanding IoT business. So what makes Atmel so special in the IoT arena?

The San Jose, California–based chipmaker has been proactively building its ‘SMART’ brand of 32-bit ARM-based microcontrollers that boasts an end-to-end design platform for connected devices in the IoT realm. The company with two decades of experience in the MCU business was among the first to license ARM’s low-power processors for IoT chips that target smart home, industrial automation, wearable electronics and more.

Atmel and IoT (Internet of Things)

Goldman Sachs named Atmel a leader in the Internet of Things (IoT) market.

Goldman Sachs named Atmel a leader in the Internet of Things (IoT) market

A closer look at the IoT ingredients and Atmel’s product portfolio shows why Goldman Sachs called Atmel a leader in the IoT space. For starters, Atmel is among the handful of chipmakers that cover all the bases in IoT hardware value chain: MCUs, sensors and wireless connectivity.

1. A Complete IoT Recipe

The IoT recipe comprises of three key technology components: Sensing, computing and communications. Atmel offers sensor products and is a market leader in MCU-centric sensor fusion solutions than encompass context awareness, embedded vision, biometric recognition, etc.

For computation—handling tasks related to signal processing, bit manipulation, encryption, etc.—the chipmaker from Silicon Valley has been offering a diverse array of ARM-based microcontrollers for connected devices in the IoT space.

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Atmel has reaffirmed its IoT commitment through a number of acquisitions.

Finally, for wireless connectivity, Atmel has cobbled a broad portfolio made up of low-power Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and Zigbee radio technologies. Atmel’s $140 million acquisition of Newport Media in 2014 was a bid to accelerate the development of low-power Wi-Fi and Bluetooth chips for IoT applications. Moreover, Atmel could use Newport’s product expertise in Wi-Fi communications for TV tuners to make TV an integral part of the smart home solutions.

Furthermore, communications across the Internet depends on the TCP/IP stack, which is a 32-bit protocol for transmitting packets on the Internet. Atmel’s microcontrollers are based on 32-bit ARM cores and are well suited for TCP/IP-centric Internet communications fabric.

2. Low Power Leadership

In February 2014, Atmel announced the entry-level ARM Cortex M0+-based microcontrollers for the IoT market. The SAM D series of low-power MCUs—comprising of D21, D10 and D11 versions—featured Atmel’s signature high-end features like peripheral touch controller, USB interface and SERCOM module. The connected peripherals work flawlessly with Cortex M0+ CPU through the Event System that allows system developers to chain events in software and use an event to trigger a peripheral without CPU involvement.

According to Andreas Eieland, Director of Product Marketing for Atmel’s MCU Business Unit, the IoT design is largely about three things: Battery life, cost and ease-of-use. The SAM D microcontrollers aim to bring the ease-of-use and price-to-performance ratio to the IoT products like smartwatches where energy efficiency is crucial. Atmel’s SAM D family of microcontrollers was steadily building a case for IoT market when the company’s SAM L21 microcontroller rocked the semiconductor industry in March 2015 by claiming the leadership in low-power Cortex-M IoT design.

Atmel’s SAM L21 became the lowest power ARM Cortex-M microcontroller when it topped the EEMBC benchmark measurements. It’s plausible that another MCU maker takes over the EEMBC benchmarks in the coming months. However, according to Atmel’s Eieland, what’s important is the range of power-saving options that an MCU can bring to product developers.

“There are many avenues to go down on the low path, but they are getting complex,” Eieland added. He quoted features like multiple clock domains, event management system and sleepwalking that provide additional levels of configurability for IoT product developers. Such a set of low-power technologies that evolves in successive MCU families can provide product developers with a common platform and a control on their initiatives to lower power consumption.

3. Coping with Digital Insecurity

In the IoT environment, multiple device types communicate with each other over a multitude of wireless interfaces like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth Low Energy. And IoT product developers are largely on their own when it comes to securing the system. The IoT security is a new domain with few standards and IoT product developers heavily rely on the security expertise of chip suppliers.

Atmel offers embedded security solutions for IoT designs.

Atmel, with many years of experience in crypto hardware and Trusted Platform Modules, is among the first to offer specialized security hardware for the IoT market. It has recently shipped a crypto authentication device that has integrated the Elliptic Curve Diffie-Hellman (ECDH) security protocol. Atmel’s ATECC508A chip provides confidentiality, data integrity and authentication in systems with MCUs or MPUs running encryption/decryption algorithms like AES in software.

4. Power of the Platform

The popularity of 8-bit AVR microcontrollers is a testament to the power of the platform; once you learn to work on one MCU, you can work on any of the AVR family microcontrollers. And same goes for Atmel’s Smart family of microcontrollers aimed for the IoT market. While ARM shows a similarity among its processors, Atmel exhibits the same trait in the use of its peripherals.

Low-power SAM L21 builds on features of SAM D MCUs.

A design engineer can conveniently work on Cortex-M3 and Cortex -M0+ processor after having learned the instruction set for Cortex-M4. Likewise, Atmel’s set of peripherals for low-power IoT applications complements the ARM core benefits. Atmel’s standard features like sleep modes, sleepwalking and event system are optimized for ultra-low-power use, and they can extend IoT battery lifetime from years to decades.

Atmel, a semiconductor outfit once focused on memory and standard products, began its transformation toward becoming an MCU company about eight years ago. That’s when it also started to build a broad portfolio of wireless connectivity solutions. In retrospect, those were all the right moves. Fast forward to 2015, Atmel seems ready to ride on the market wave created by the IoT technology juggernaut.

Interested? You may also want to read:

Atmel’s L21 MCU for IoT Tops Low Power Benchmark

Atmel’s New Car MCU Tips Imminent SoC Journey

Atmel’s Sensor Hub Ready to Wear


Majeed Ahmad is author of books Smartphone: Mobile Revolution at the Crossroads of Communications, Computing and Consumer Electronics and The Next Web of 50 Billion Devices: Mobile Internet’s Past, Present and Future.

Ars Technica, Daily Mail and other media talk SAM L21


The new Atmel | SMART L21 is expanding battery life from years to decades. 


This week, Atmel revealed the big news that the recently-unveiled Atmel | SMART SAM L family consumes just one-third the power of existing solutions already on the market. Having achieved a 185 EEMBC ULPBench score, the SAM L21 is now the world’s lowest power ARM Cortex-M based device.

Impressively, the series boasts power consumption down to 35µA/MHz in active mode and 200nA in sleep mode. The SAM L not only broadens the company’s current 32-bit ARM-based MCU lineup, but extends battery life from years to decades, reducing the number of times batteries need to be changed in devices such as fire alarms, wearables, medical gadgets and equipment placed in rural, agriculture, offshore and other remote areas. The SAM L21 combines ultra-low power with Flash and SRAM that are large enough to run both the application and wireless stacks — three features that are cornerstones of most Internet of Things (IoT) applications. Sampling now, the SAM L21 comes complete with a development platform including an Xplained Pro kit, code libraries and Atmel Studio support.

The SAM L21 MCUs will enable designers to solve their power challenges for battery-powered IoT devices — something that has caught the attention of mainstream media outlets including Ars Technica, Gizmodo, The Register, Network World and Daily Mail, as well as industry journals like Silicon Republic, New Electronics and EE Times.

 Sean Gallagher, Ars Technica 

“The number of things getting plugged into the Internet of Things has already reached the point of satire. But there’s a new, extremely low power technology that’s being prepared for market that could put computing power and network access into a whole new class of sensors, wearables, and practically disposable devices. That’s because it can run off a battery charge for over over 10 years.”

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“The processor may not be enough to, say, run an Ubuntu desktop, but it’s certainly enough computing power and memory to run a real-time operating system with multiple programs, handle physical interfaces, stream media from a USB device or other external storage, and tweet you when your dishes are clean. It also can handle a lot of tasks that can reduce the power usage of other components in a device.”

Victoria Woollaston, Daily Mail 

“Battery life is consistently listed as a major flaw of smartphones, smartwatches and other wearables.  But this problem could soon be solved thanks to technology that promises to extend battery life for ‘decades.’ Atmel has released its latest microcontrollers (MCUs) for a variety of gadgets that are so low power they can even harvest energy from a person’s body.”

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“They use a third of the power of rival chips and tests have shown they are the lowest power microprocessor ever made. The microcontrollers run on the firm’s picoPower technology and Atmel’s Event System that makes different parts of the device work together to carry out tasks. By effectively ‘sharing’ energy, the whole device uses less power and, subsequently, less battery.”

Jamie Condliffe, Gizmodo

“As everything around us, from phones and fridges to bicycles and trash cans, begins to connect to the Internet, there’s an increasing desire for low-power chips. Like this one, which can last for over ten years on a single battery charge. It has some other clever tricks up its sleeve. Usually in a chip like this, sleep mode sees everything but the clock function shut down, meaning it has to wake every time connected devices need to communicate; this new Atmel chip has different sleep states, allowing connected devices to communicate with each other while the chip continues to use very little power.”

“Of course, the chips don’t pack huge amounts of grunt. In fact, at best you’re looking at a 42 MHz Cortex M0+ CPU core, 256 kilobytes of Flash memory, 32 kilobytes of static RAM, and 8 kb of separate low-power static RAM. Not enough to run a desktop OS, then, but plenty to run small programs, power hardware interfaces, read and record data from sensors, tweet and the like.”

JC Torres, SlashGear

“Batteries, already the Achilles heel of mobile devices, present an even bigger challenge for even smaller devices, like wearables and the budding Internet of Things industry. These latter devices are not things that you would, or should, associate with the frequent charging and battery replacement we are used to on smartphones. How do you balance performance and battery life? Atmel, a micro-controller manufacturer based in San Jose, may have the answer. Its new ultra-low power SAM L21 32-bit ARM-based MCU (micro controller unit) is advertised to last more than a decade before needing a recharge or replacement.”

atmel-sam-l21-2

“That kind of battery life will be critical for a certain class of devices that include sensors, wearable, and smart home appliances. The SAM L21 advertises a power draw of only 35 microamps per MHz when awake and an even smaller 200 nanoamps when asleep. In comparison, current low-power MCUs already eat up to 120 to 160 microamps per MHz. The difference it definitely substantial.”

Patrick Nelson, Network World

“The Internet of Things is about to reverse a lot of what we’ve wanted in a chip. Soon, we won’t need vast amounts of calculations per second — just how many instructions does it take for your fridge to send an order to your supermarket? Not that many when you compare it to something complicated that chip design has been working towards, like a Computer Aided Design drawing in 3D, for example.”

“Size is important. However, the real big issue, when it comes to a ubiquitous IoT where everything is connected, will be battery life. The reason is that we are not going to want to change the batteries within the base of a dozen bottles of water that we may have sitting around just to discover whether we’ve drank their contents or not. Even if your fridge orders fresh stock, it wouldn’t be worth it.”

“That battery has to last the life of the connected object in the IoT. And that could be 10 years away, possibly longer. Atmel reckons it has a solution. It says its new 32-bit ARM-based chips will last decades. Note the plural. Atmel says its new chips combine battery-saving low power with flash and SRAM that is big enough to run both the application and the IoT-needed wireless stacks.”

Shaun Nichols, The Register

“Being a Cortex-M0+-powered chip, the SAM L21 is not particularly powerful: it tops out at 48MHz, and runs ARM Thumb (and some Thumb-2) code. But the family does pack a few features like USB interfacing, op-amps and comparators, DMA with peripherals, a random number generator, and AES cryptography in hardware, plus other bits and pieces. The idea is for each chip to sleep, wake up when something happens, make a decision on whether or not it needs to alert the wider world, and then go back to sleep.

atmelsaml21

“Constantly being in contact with its base over wired or wireless networking will drain its batteries; activating external electronics for power-hungry IP communications should only be done if its sensors detect something significant. Like an explosion or a fire.”

Gordon Hunt, Silicon Republic

“Sensors and batteries – the two keys to unlocking the future of IoT. Can we make small enough sensors to garner and exchange the right data? Can we make small enough, powerful enough, batteries that don’t need recharging every few hours?These are the two questions posed for today’s inventors, and they are being answered every day. Now, Atmel’s latest creation may have brought significant IoT engagement closer to reality, with its new low-powered 32-bit SAM L controller able extend the battery life of small, low-powered intelligent devices by decades.”

“The result is a far more efficient, small controller that, if advanced upon in the right way, will open up a whole new swathe of devices for IoT innovation. It’s just a sample, prototype release so far, but once the right people get their hands on this it’s only a matter of time before it creeps into suites of low-powered devices.”

Rich Quinnell, EE Times

“This week TI surpassed its own earlier result by announcing the MSP-432 family based on the Cortex M4F. It achieved a ULPBench score of 167.4. While TI was briefing the media on this product, however, Atmel quietly published a ULPBench score of 185.8 for its SAM L21 MCU based on the Cortex M0+, a product announced last year that was scheduled to be released at about this time. It’s reasonable to expect that a formal announcement of the product’s score and availability will be made soon.”

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Clive Maxfield, Embedded

“When it comes to applications including the Internet of Things (IoT), consumer, industrial, medical, and other battery-powered devices — e.g., fire alarms, healthcare, medical, wearable, and devices placed in rural, agriculture, offshore, and other remote areas — ultra-low-power consumption is the name of the game. MCU manufacturers are constantly competing with each other to offer the lowest power consumption possible. The latest ultra-low-power offering comes from the folks at Atmel, who have just announced their SMART SAM L21 — an ARM Cortex-M0+ based family of MCUs that boast power consumption down to 35µA/MHz in active mode and 200nA in sleep mode — which is said to ‘extend battery life from years to decades.’”

“The L21 goes much further than simply gating the clocks — it also gates the power, completely disconnecting the power rails from functions that are not currently in use. In the case of the smart peripherals, even when they are powered down, a small part of each peripheral keeps a ‘watchful eye’ on what’s happening in the outside world. If it sees something interesting, it can request clock and data services and — if the peripheral decides the situation justifies such an action — it can wake the main CPU… Also of interest is the CCL (custom configurable logic) block, which boasts four 3-input lookup tables (LUTs) that can implement a mix of combinatorial logic functions (AND, NAND, OR, NOR, XOR, XNOR, NOT) and sequential logic functions (gates D-type flip-flop, JK-type flip-flop, gated D-type latch, RS latch). These can be connected to the event system (including the peripherals), the interrupt system, and general-purpose input/outputs; also, they can be cascaded together. This makes it possible to implement sophisticated customized “wake-up” conditions for the various functional blocks.”

Interested learning more? You can head over to our initial blog post on the topic, download its accompanying white paper, as well as delve deeper into the MCU lineup here.

SAM L family now the world’s lowest power ARM Cortex-M based solution


Consuming one-third the power of existing solutions, Atmel | SMART SAM L achieves 185 EEMBC ULPBench score.


System design used to be an exercise in optimizing speed. That has since changed. Nowadays, embedded systems pack plenty of performance to handle a number of task, leading the challenge for designers to shift to completing those tasks using as little energy as possible — but not necessarily making it as fast as possible. As you can imagine, this has created quite the competitive environment on the processor battlefield amongst vendors, each seeking to attain the lowest power solution on the market.

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“The surge in popularity of battery-powered electronics has made battery life a primary system-design consideration. In extreme cases, the desire is not to run off of a battery at all, but to harvest energy from local sources to run a system — which requires the utmost power frugality,” writes Andreas Eieland, Atmel Director of Product Marketing. “In addition, there’s a growing family of devices like smoke detectors, door locks, and industrial sensors (4-20 mA and 10-50 mA) that can draw power through their inputs, and that power is limited.”

These sort of trends point to the significance of reducing the power requirements of electronic systems. However, the varying technologies that provide the necessary performance make power reduction harder. Fortunately, Atmel has been focusing on low power consumption for more than 10 years across its portfolio of AVR and Atmel ǀ SMART ARM-based processors. Many integrated peripherals and design techniques are used to minimize power consumption in real-world applications, such as integrated hardware DMA and event system to offload the CPU in active and standby modes, switching off or reducing clock or supply on device portions not in use, intelligent SleepWalking peripherals enabling CPU to remain in deep sleep longer, fast wake-up from low power modes, low voltage operation with full functionality, as well as careful balancing of high performance and low leakage transistors in the MCU design.

picoPower_chip

With picoPower technology found in AVR and Atmel ǀ SMART MCUs, Atmel has taken it a step further. Indeed, all picoPower devices are designed from the ground up for lowest possible power consumption from transistor design and process geometry, sleep modes, flexible clocking options, to intelligent peripherals. Atmel picoPower devices can operate down to 1.62V while still maintaining all functionality, including analog functions. They have short wake-up times, with multiple wake-up sources from even the deepest sleep modes. Some elements of picoPower technology cannot be directly manipulated by the user, but they form a solid base that enables ultra-low power application development without compromising functionality. Meanwhile, flexible and powerful features and peripherals lets users apply an assortment of techniques to reduce a system’s total power consumption even further.

Then, there’s the Atmel | SMART SAM L21 microcontroller, which has broken all ultra-low power performance barriers to date. These Cortex-M0+-based MCUs can maintain system functionality, all while consuming just one-third the power of comparable products on the market today. This device delivers ultra-low power running down to 35µA/MHz in active mode, consuming less than 900nA with full 32kB RAM retention. With rapid wake-up times, Event System, Sleepwalking and the innovative picoPower peripherals, the SAM L21 is ideal for handheld and battery-operated devices for a variety of Internet of Things (IoT) applications.

The ultra-low power SAM L family not only broadens the Atmel | SMART portfolio, but extends battery life from years to decades, reducing the number of times batteries need to be changed in devices such as fire alarms, healthcare, medical, wearable, and equipment placed in rural, agriculture, offshore and other remote areas. The SAM L21 combines ultra-low power with Flash and SRAM that are large enough to run both the application and wireless stacks — three features that are cornerstones of most IoT applications. Sampling now, the SAM L21 comes complete with a development platform including an Xplained Pro kit, code libraries and Atmel Studio support.

So how does the SAM L21 stack up against the others? Ahead of the pack, of course! As an alternative to so-called “bench marketing” of low power products, nearly ever large semiconductor company — and several smaller ones that focus on low power — have collaborated in a working group formed by the Embedded Microprocessor Benchmark Consortium (EEMBC). The EEMBC ULPBench uses standardized test measurement hardware to strictly define a benchmark code for use by vendors, considering energy efficiency and running on 8-, 16- and 32-bit architectures. At the moment, the Atmel | SMART SAM L21 product boasts the highest ULPBench score of any microcontroller, regardless of CPU.

“In Atmel’s announcement last year for the company’s SAM L21 family, I had pointed out the amazingly low current consumption ratings for both the active and sleep mode operation of this product family – now I can confirm this opinion with concrete data derived from the EEMBC ULPBench,” explained Markus Levy, EEMBC President and Founder. “Atmel achieved the lowest power of any Cortex-M based processor and MCU in the world because of its patented ultra-low power picoPower technology. These ULPBench results are remarkable, demonstrating the company’s low-power expertise utilizing DC-DC conversion for voltage monitoring, as well as other innovative techniques.”

While running the EEMBC ULPBench, the SAM L21 achieves a staggering score of 185, the highest publicly-recorded score for any Cortex-M based processor or MCU in the world — and significantly higher than the 167 and 123 scores announced by other vendors. The SAM L21 family consumes less than 940nA with full 40kB SRAM retention, real-time clock and calendar and 200nA in the deepest sleep mode.

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In fact, a recent EE Times writeup delving deeper into competition even revealed, “TI surpassed its own earlier result by announcing the MSP-432 family based on the Cortex M4F. It achieved a ULPBench score of 167.4. While TI was briefing the media on this product, however, Atmel quietly published a ULPBench score of 185.8 for its SAM L21 MCU based on the Cortex M0+.”

Beyond the recently-unveiled ARM-based chip, it’s also important to note the 0.7V tinyAVR. A typical microcontroller requires at least 1.8V to operate, while the voltage of a single battery-cell typically ranges from 1.2V to 1.5V when fully charged, and then drops gradually below 1V during use, still holding a reasonable amount of charge. This means a regular MCU needs at least two battery cells. Whereas, Atmel has solved this problem by integrating a boost converter inside the ATtiny43U, converting a DC voltage to a higher level, and bridging the gap between minimum supply voltage of the MCU and the typical output voltages of a standard single cell battery. The boost converter provides the chip with a fixed supply voltage of 3.0V from a single battery cell even when the battery voltage drops down to 0.7V. This allows non-rechargeable batteries to be drained to the minimum, thereby extending the battery life. Programmable shut-off levels above the critical minimum voltage level avoid damaging the battery cell of rechargeable batteries.

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Interested in learning more? You can explore Atmel’s low power technology here, as well as download the new white paper entitled “Turn Power-Reducing Features into Low-Power Systems” here.

Atmel | SMART SAM L21 is winning the low-power battle


EE Times highlights the ongoing game of leapfrog between MCU vendors for the lowest-power solution. Can you guess who’s winning?


Writing for EE TimesRich Quinnell notes that MCU vendors have become engaged in a new game of leapfrog, announcing a slew of products with ever-improving benchmark results and leadership in ultra-low power processing.

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“While this may seem like a marketing game, developers will ultimately be the winners as vendors refine their techniques for saving power. In the past, a low powered MCU also meant low performance, but vendors have been challenging this correlation by offering increasingly powerful MCUs for low-power applications,” he writes. “Developers, however, faced a problem in evaluating these offerings. Traditional specifications such as operating current in mW/MHz and sleep-mode leakage currents became increasingly difficult to evaluate in the face of the multiple power states that devices offered, and in the face of inconsistency in the industry in the descriptions and specifications used to characterize low-power operation.”

The Embedded Microprocessor Benchmark Consortium (more commonly referred to as EEMBC) develops benchmarks to help system designers select the optimal processors and understand the performance and energy characteristics of their systems. EEMBC has benchmark suites spanning across countless application areas, targeting just about everything from the cloud and big data, to mobile devices (Android phones and tablets) and digital media, to the Internet of Things and ultra-low power microcontrollers. In particular, the EEMBC ULPBench power benchmark, which was introduced last year, standardizes datasheet parameters and provides a methodology to reliably and equitably measure MCU energy efficiency.

“This is one of the strictest benchmarks we’ve ever done in terms of setup and such. The benchmark has the MCU perform 20k clock cycles of active work once a second, and sleep the remainder of the second. This way each processor performs the same workload, which levels the playing field with regard to executing the benchmark,” EEMBC President Marcus Levy told EE Times in a recent interview.

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In order to calculate the final ULPMark-CP score, 1,000 is divided by the median value for average energy used per second during each of 10 benchmark cycles. A larger value therefore represents less energy consumed.

Using this benchmark, MCU vendors have begun publishing their results and surpassing one another to temporarily claim their stake at the top of the low-power leaderboard. Still, the leapfrog game is likely to continue for some time. Andreas Eieland, Atmel Director of Product Marketing explained to EE Times, “Low power is an area where everyone is pouring a lot of R&D into, and it has taken on a much faster pace than before. We know we’re the lowest power now, but you never know where your competition is in its efforts. So, we’re already looking at the next step.”

Eieland points out that at first low-power development efforts mainly concentrated on architectural improvements to the CPU, however optimizing the CPU wasn’t enough. This meant companies needed to begin going through every peripheral and optimizing it, looking at every transistor in the product. He adds, “We [Atmel] started developing clock-on-demand features, logic that allows peripherals to operate stand-alone, using the minimum circuitry needed to complete their task, gating away the clock and even establishing a variety of power domains so we could shut down circuits not in use and eliminate even their leakage current.”

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“TI surpassed its own earlier result by announcing the MSP-432 family based on the Cortex M4F. It achieved a ULPBench score of 167.4. While TI was briefing the media on this product, however, Atmel quietly published a ULPBench score of 185.8 for its SAM L21 MCU based on the Cortex M0+, a product announced last year that was scheduled to be released at about this time,” Quinnell reveals.

The Atmel | SMART SAM L21 family delivers ultra-low power running down to 35µA/MHz in active mode, consuming less than 900nA with full 32kB RAM retention, and 200nA in the deepest sleep mode. With rapid wake-up times, Event System, Sleepwalking and the innovative picoPower peripherals, the SAM L21 is ideal for handheld and battery-operated devices in a variety of markets.

As time goes on, we can surely expect to see benchmark scores continue to improve and the competition to pick up. However, despite their differences, everyone can agree that these scores are only a mere starting point for developers seeking the lowest-power device for their design.

“The ULP benchmark isn’t 100% fair; no benchmark can ever be,” Eieland concluded. “But it does take a lot of the marketing out of low power, and it gives you a relative comparison you can use.”

Want to read more? Head over to the entire EE Times write-up here.

Video: Vegard Wollan talks AVR and ARM low-power operation

In this segment of the series, the co-inventor of the AVR microcontroller chip talks about the famously low power that the chips consume.

I had heard that one of the clever things Atmel does to save memory power is that we turn on the memory, fetch four instruction op-codes then turn the memory off again. Now, if there is a branch in these four op-codes that change the program flow, well, we have to turn on the memory and grab another four instructions. But, you can imagine just how often that the chips are executing all for instructions, so that we get those four op codes for the power cost of one fetch.

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Vegard Wollan jokes will fellow Norwegian Andreas Eieland [off camera] about divulging the secrets to Atmel’s ultra-low power.

Vegard confirmed that Atmel does this on both the latest AVR and on our Atmel | SMART ARM-based chips. I love this clip since this is where we break the 4th wall as Vegard jokes to the crew that I am giving away too many secrets. I also confirmed that some of our ARM chips have a switching regulator controller built in. For instance, the SAM4L has one switching and one linear regulator built in. Now we don’t put any giant inductors inside the chip, you supply the external inductor, but all the control circuitry is available so you can really minimize the BOM (bill-of-materials).

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To allow single-supply operation the ARM-based SAM4L microcontroller has a switching regulator on board, you only need to supply an external inductor.

This is yet another thing that differentiates our ARM-core parts from the competition. Most engineers know how cool and revolutionary the AVR was, but we have applied all the “cool” and more to our ARM-based chips. As Vegard noted, we have many tricks and innovations to sip the lowest amount of power, and that includes having our own processes at our Colorado Springs fabrication facility.

SMART MCUs for low power, smarter designs in Internet of Things, wearables, and the Industrial Internet

According to analysts at ABI Research, over the next five years businesses will integrate into their wellness plans more than 13 million wearable devices with embedded wireless connectivity. Wearable tech also ties into the rapidly evolving Internet of Things (IoT), which refers to a future world where all types of electronic devices link to each other via the Internet. Today, it’s estimated there are nearly 10 billion devices in the world connected to the Internet, a figure expected to triple to nearly 30 billion devices by 2020. The inherent versatility of Atmel | SMART microcontrollers and Atmel radio chips have made our silicon a favorite of Makers and engineers.

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Along with this setting stage, the design aspects for low power are becoming more and more important in the next embedded design products. Atmel is right in the middle of the industrial and wearable tech revolution, with a comprehensive portfolio of versatile microcontrollers (MCUs) that power a wide range of platforms and devices.

Blood glucose meters, sport watches, game controllers and accessories, guess what they are all in common? In fact, many of these today are going to shift and evolve into new form factors and application use case as connectivity and clever interacting interfaces become designed. Yes, like a lot of other industrial and consumer devices, they are all battery powered and demanding a long or extended battery life. Translating it into an engineer’s challenge designing an embedded computing system, you will need a central heart, in this case a microcontroller, consuming as low power as possible in both active and static modes without sacrificing the performance. And, Atmel SMART | ARM Cortex-M4 based SAM4L series is designed with this in mind.

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The SAM4L microcontrollers redefine the low power, delivering the lowest power in the same class in active mode (90uZ/MHz) as well as static mode with full RAM retention running and with the shortest wake-up time (1.5us). And they are the most efficient microcontrollers available today, achieving up to 28 CoreMark/mA. In this video, you’ll get an overview of Atmel | SMART SAM4L low-power microcontrollers (MCU), based on the ARM Cortex-M4 core. SAM4L MCUs operate at 90uA/MHz and achieve an efficiency rating of 28 CoreMark/mA. The devices feature an array of power-saving technologies, including Atmel’s proprietary picoPower technology. You’ll see a demo using the SAM4L-EK evaluation kit.

The SAM4L series integrates Atmel’s proprietary picoPower technology, which ensures the devices are developed from the ground up, from transistor design to clocking options, to consume as little power as possible. In addition, Atmel’s SleepWalking technology allows the peripherals to make intelligent decisions and wake up the system upon qualifying events at the peripheral level.

In this video, you will see how SAM4L microcontrollers support multiple power configurations to allow the engineer to optimize its power consumption in different use cases. You will also see another good feature of the SAM4L series, power scaling, which is a technique to adjust the internal regulator output voltage to further reduce power consumption provided by the integrated backup power manager module. Additionally, the SAM4L series comes with 2 regulators options to supply system power based on the application requirement. While the buck/switching regulator delivers much higher efficiency and is operational from 2 to 3.6V, the linear regulator has higher noise immunity and operates from 1.68 to 3.6V.

It’s all about system intelligence and conserving energy. Simply put, the SAM4L microcontroller (See SAM4L Starter Kit) is your choice if you are designing a product with long battery life but without sacrificing the performance — as demonstrated in this walkthrough of the Xplained Pro SAM4L Starter Kit.

The SAM4LC Cortex-M4 processor-based Flash microcontrollers offer the industry’s lowest power consumption and fastest wake-up. On top of what’s mentioned, this sub family of Atmel | SMART microcontrollers [labeled as ATASAM4L] devices are ideal for a wide range of industrial, healthcare and consumer applications.

Get a jump-start on your design with dedicated evaluation kits and software packages.  You can also easily catch up on some of the recent and past articles we posted related to Atmel | SMART SAM4L Microcontrollers.

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