New microcontroller has eight 32-bit cores

The Parallax Propeller microcontroller logo
Taking the concept of multiple cores well past the high-end microprocessors available for your desktop, this microcontroller opens many doors for embedded projects.

The microcontroller area has been pretty boring lately. Each newer chip seems to have a bit more memory, a slightly faster clock, or perhaps a few more instructions aimed a some specialized task, but not matter how you slice it, these are evolutionary designs and nothing revolutionary.

Enter the new, fully custom Parallax Propeller.

The Propeller is a reasonably priced microcontroller (about $8 US) which offers eight 32-bit cores in a single PDIP, LQFP, or QFN package. Demo boards and development kits are reasonably priced at about $150 also (for those new to embedded development, trust me, $150 is cheap!)

The chip’s architecture is somewhat interesting with “hub and cog” type setup where the RAM/ROM/other support structures are made available to the eight cores in sequence, thus enabling a shared-memory type setup. The microcontroller is programmed in a high-level language called “Spin” and of course, a low-level interface is available for those who prefer to control things manually. Various objects (chunks of pre-written software) are available which allow you to control or interface to USB devices, keyboards, LCD displays, and other goodies commonly found in embedded projects.

It will be interesting to see what kind of projects a chip like this will enable, as it’s one of the largest deviations from the typical microcontroller architecture in years. I’m guessing that a chip like this will let designers reduce multi-chip designs to a single chip where the Propeller handles everything – motor control, user interface, logic, etc. I know that for some of the projects I’ve been thinking of doing (those “larger” projects on my to-do list) a chip like this would allow me to consolidate the various functions into a single main controller, although for simplicity and keeping things clean, I might still prefer a multi-chip/multi-board approach.

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