Microcontrollers vs Single Board Computers: What’s the Difference?

In the DIY arena, single board computers and microcontrollers are two of the hottest topics. And if you’re new to this space, the differences between them can be confusing.

So what makes a single board computer and a microcontroller different? We’ll take a look.

What is a Single Board Computer?

Raspberry Pi sitting below the logo.

A single board computer (SBC), as its name suggests, is a computer that consists of a single board. An SBC is a full-fledged computer with RAM, storage, I/O, and peripherals like USBs all on a single motherboard. An SBC also has an operating system and can run multiple programs at the same time.

In other words, an SBC only needs power to start working. Common examples of SBCs include smartphones, laptops, and Raspberry Pi computers. Not all of these need additional PCBs to function.

What is a microcontroller?

Arduino Nano seen from above

A microcontroller has a lot in common with an SBC. Both have processor, storage, and input/output devices. But that’s where the similarities end.

Microcontrollers have far fewer resources than SBCs. For example, a microcontroller might have KB of storage instead of MB or GB of SBC. Likewise, their processing capabilities are also quite limited.

In most cases, a microcontroller also needs breakout boards to facilitate their programming. An Arduino Uno is a good example of a microcontroller with a breakout board. It lets you connect the microcontroller, in this case an Atmel ATmega328P, along with input/output devices, power, and peripherals.


Related: How do various Arduino sensors work?

Microcontrollers also cannot run more than one program at a time, as they are meant to loop through a routine.

Examples of microcontrollers include controllers inside smoke detectors and infrared television remote controls.

The Differences Between Single Board Computers and Microcontrollers

The biggest difference between an SBC and a microcontroller is that the former is a standalone computer capable of running an operating system, while the latter is just a chip with far fewer resources.

Also, unlike SBCs, microcontrollers are meant to run a single program repeatedly. For example, SBCs like Raspberry Pie run Linux, while boards like Arduino Uno don’t.

You now know the difference between SBCs and microcontrollers

Since single board computers and microcontrollers have a lot in common, distinguishing between them can be confusing for newcomers to the DIY field. Remember that microcontrollers are meant to perform small, repetitive tasks like turning a button on and off based on an input. These tasks do not require a lot of resources, so microcontrollers are not as good as SBCs.

SBCs, on the other hand, are computers. They have an operating system and can be used to perform multiple tasks at once. To choose the best one for you, you just need to consider your individual needs.

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