Image showing a closeup of a microcontroller circuit

Byte-Sized Introduction to Arduino Part 1: What are "Microcontrollers"? What is "Arduino"?

Author's Note:

Hello! What lies below is the first post in our "Byte-Sized Introduction to Arduino" series -- what we hope becomes the de-facto introduction to Arduino and the Arduino ecosystem, for those taking their first steps.

Interested in skipping around? You can see the available articles below:

What is this series?

You did it! You're ready to take on DIY hacking/tinkering, but you feel you need some foundational knowledge.  Or, perhaps you want to fill some knowledge gaps?  Either way, we've got you covered with the "Byte-Sized Introduction to Arduino" series; a series where we attempt to make your dive into Arduino as accessible as possible.

You know being a beginner once ourselves, we can absolutely sympathize with certain attitudes you may be feeling:

  • "Microcontrollers and electronics?! Yikes! That seems like pretty fancy and tough stuff right there!"
  • "Is a microcontroller a super small game controller?"
  • Finally, our personal favorite: "Aren't electronics and microcontrollers kinda nerdy, or boring?"


      We at Byte-Sized Bits are setting out to help demystify STEM; to push your creativity and problem-solving capabilities; and to help you understand and play with the reality that you live in!

      That’s why we’ve decided to start building genuine “Byte-Sized Bits STEM Project Kits”. Don’t miss out on when we drop a new one — sign up with your email address below to stay in touch.

      Now, let’s learn some Arduino & Microcontrollers!

      What is a microcontroller?

      By definition... Okay, we’re just kidding! That’s not how we’ll be tackling this series.

      Let’s zoom away from the technical definition of a microcontroller — that which you could easily find by clicking here.

      Instead, how about we look at it in the form of the electronics you interact with on a daily basis? Here we’ll split the list of electronics you interact with into two varying groups: "Microcontroller Devices" & "Discrete Chip Devices" (not to be confused with "Discrete Components"!).


      Microcontroller Devices

      • In-Window A/C Unit
      • Microwave & Refrigerator
      • Car Entertainment Systems
      • 99% of all IoT (Internet of Things)

      Discrete Chip Devices

      • Personal Computers
      • Laptops
      • Smart Phones
      • Triple-A (AAA) Game Consoles


      When looking at these two lists, one of the first things that may stand out to you is that Microcontroller controlled devices are far less powerful and capable - this is by design.  Where microcontrollers lack in power however, they gain in form factor and price (generally).

      Byte-Sized Thought:

      Take a moment and find something to jot some notes onto — a pencil/paper, computer, or even a phone can all work.

      Now, create a list of devices that you think can be microcontroller controlled devices.  Do you feel confident in your list?  Post yours in the comment section below to get community feedback!

      And remember, always look for inspiration from everything around you.

      In conclusion, a microcontroller controlled device is generally a device that is smaller in its overall function. The microcontroller can usually be thought of as a physically small, cheap, low-powered computer that you can easily embed into, and control, your projects ranging from Smart Watches, Smart RC Cars, to anything else your mind can imagine.

      What is "Arduino"?

      One thing we didn’t cover in the microcontroller section was the inherent difficulty in building with them.

      In a world not too long ago, prototyping a project with a microcontroller was an expensive, error-prone, and time-consuming process.  One of the greatest difficulties of the time was not only programming these microcontrollers—with exceptionally low-level languages like assembly, and ANSI-C—but microcontrollers at the time were also rather expensive, in comparison. This price and difficulty created a high barrier of entry, that which Arduino would soon set out to diminish.

      Then—if we skip all of the “Wiring” history circa ~2003-2007—we arrive at the birth of Arduino. Arduino set out to recreate the microcontroller electronics based landscape by offering an ecosystem of open boards, sensors, kits, software, and much, much more!

      One of the most commendable parts of this heroic feat that Arduino undertook was the “openness” of the platform.  The Arduino company and ecosystem were truly built to embrace the community, and for the company and ecosystem to thrive together.

      Author's Note:

      The openness of the platform is something that shouldn't be taken lightly.  It not only plays a hand directly in strengthening the community, through open knowledge sharing, but it also a key to continued innovation and competition in the space.

      I'd love to hear your thoughts on this! What do you think the community would look like if it were to be more closed?

      Closing Thoughts

      We touched briefly on what a microcontroller is, and what Arduino the company and ecosystem are in this post.  In our next "Byte-Sized Introduction to Arduino" series post, we'll discuss Arduino vs Arduino-like boards, sensors, modules, and discuss what the various boards offer in terms of capabilities.

      Be sure to follow us on all of our social channels to know when we release more content and products!

      Author's Note: *PSSST* There is a hidden free $10 gift card on this page. If this note is still here, it's still active.  Be the first to claim and use it today!

      Hint: Viewing the source/contents of something can really be eye-opening.

      Leave a comment