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AVR Microcontroller - Whatever AVR Means, It Means Performance

Microcontrollers have so revolutionized the way we live that we hardly even notice them working anymore! They run everything from a clock radio to a coffee pot to the engine of a car. And these days, the AVR microcontroller is one of the most widely used of its kind with millions of fiercely devoted fans around the world.

But just what is an AVR microcontroller? As it turns out, not even its credited inventors, Alf-Egil Bogen and Vegard Wollan of Norway, are willing to say what the initials stand for. The website of their company, Atmel, insists that AVR isn’t an acronym for anything. Odd.

To understand what technological wonders AVR microcontrollers are, we'll have to delve into a little computer history. So, put your reading glasses on and pay attention -- it's story time!

Once upon a time, computers were so big they filled entire rooms in order to do the kinds of functions that we take for granted today. This began to change in 1974, when a research scientist named John Cocke with IBM proved that about 20 percent of the instructions in a computer did 80 percent of the work. Therefore, if one only used the 20 percent of instructions that did the bulk of the work, it should be possible to reduce computer size substantially. Cocke called his discovery RISC, meaning “reduced instruction set computer.”

The microprocessor was born from the application of Cocke’s research, which subsequently resulted in the invention of desktop computers. But the quest was on to get still smaller processors by simplifying instructions while increasing computational speed.

Enter Bogen and Wollan. The two came up with the original AVR architecture while they were students at the Norwegian Institute of Technology in Trondheim, Norway. They were attempting to build what amounted to a “better mousetrap” for the computer world: a new kind of microcontroller using the advantages of the RISC chip.

Their AVR Microcontroller was designed with what’s known as a Modified Harvard architecture using an 8-bit RISC single chip. Modified Harvard Architecture is a variation of the Harvard computer architecture – separating the signal pathways for instructions and the storage pathways for data -- that allows the contents of the instruction memory to be accessed as if it were data.

One of the key elements of Bogen and Wollan’s design was to incorporate an on-chip flash memory for program storage. Flash memory is a kind of computer memory that be electrically erased and reprogrammed, and that doesn’t need power to retain its memory contents. The result of Bogen and Wollan’s 1996 inspiration is a microcontroller that delivers such high performance at low power consumption that it has developed not merely a community of devoted users, but a genuine cadre of “AVR freaks,” as one user site calls itself. The website of its manufacturer, Atmel, describes the AVR microcontroller as a ”single cycle instruction RISC CPU” that can handle both 8- and 16-bit applications. This makes it attractive for developers of all kinds of automatically controlled products, from video game machines to personal digital assistants.

But what does AVR stand for? Well, one could speculate that it stands for Alf, Vegard and RISC, but perhaps it simply means what its makers say it means – performance. I'll buy that - how about you?