What is an Embedded Computer?

There are many different kinds of computers; Personal Computers, Desktop Computers, laptop etc. There is a kind of computer that is not as well-known as its peers but they are found almost everywhere. They are called Embedded Computers, and I mean it when I said they can be found all around us! Continue reading to find out more!

In this article, I will be sharing about what is embedded computers and more:

  • What is an Embedded Computer?
  • Embedded Computers vs Regular PCs
  • Why use Embedded Computers for Embedded Systems applications?
  • Use Cases of Embedded Computers Applications
  • Types of Embedded Computer

Without further ado, let’s get started!


What is an Embedded Computer?

By definition, embedded computers are computer platforms that are purpose-built for a single, software-controlled task. They are generally used in a system or a device to perform that one singular function that they are programmed for, never used as a standalone. You can think of them as a miniature computer built for running a single, specific function repeatedly! Single-board computers (SBC) and Microcontrollers (MCU) classify as embedded computers too!

Is it the same thing as Embedded Systems?

You might have come across the phrase embedded systems somewhere but they are not the same thing as embedded computers. An embedded system consists of embedded computers and several other components like sensors, interfaces, and software to perform a dedicated function within a larger mechanical or electronic system.

Embedded computers are the core of an embedded system for all of the components to function to perform that specific function. With that being said, not all embedded computers work in embedded systems. There are embedded computers with their own interfaces as well that can be used as a standalone, but they are still used only for a single, specific function. More examples will be shared below!


Embedded Computers vs Regular PCs

The main differences between embedded computers and a regular personal computer you can find at your office lie in their purpose and design. Embedded computers have all their components soldered in a single printed circuit board (PCB) or motherboard, with no room for expansion or upgrades. They also come in a smaller size most of the time as compared to regular PCs. They might not even be used with an interface most of the time! 

On the other hand, regular PCs comes with a traditional motherboard, with different pins and slots for you to put in your processing chip and other components without soldering! 

Embedded computers and regular pcs do share some of the same components that make both of them what they are, with the only difference being that embedded computers are more lower-powered!

What’s in an Embedded Computer

In this section, I will go through the different components found in an embedded computer, and what they all do! There are many different components, but I will share with you the most common essential ones!

Main Chip

The most important component of embedded computers is the main chip. The main chip can either be a Central Processing Unit (CPU), AKA Microprocessing Unit (MPU), or a Microcontroller Unit (MCU). A CPU/MPU is responsible for performing the computational tasks of a computer. However, a CPU requires additional storage and I/O components for it to work. There are embedded computers where the CPU and all of the other components (i.e. memory, ram, etc.) are contained in a single chip, called an MCU!

Source: Particle.io

Embedded computers with MCU tend to be less expensive due to their lower performance, but their functionality isn’t limited by their lower power capacity. Different embedded computer tend to perform better for different tasks depending on whether they have a CPU or an MCU as the main chip!

Storage

Embedded computers must be able to store data such as their configurations, programming data, encryption information and more. The type of memory that stores such information is called non-volatile memory! The non-volatile memory can be internal or external depending on preference. Some examples of them are HDDs (hard drives), SSDs (solid-state drives), EMMC chips and SD Cards. You can read up more about them at “Everything you need to know about Non-volatile Microcontroller Embedded Memory!”!

RAM

RAM (Random-access memory) is essential for the embedded computer to store data that the embedded computer requires quick access to. Unline the aforementioned memory used for storage, RAM uses volatile memory, meaning that it wipes out the data that’s inside it every time the system turned off. Generally, the more RAM there are in an embedded computer, the more responsive and faster it becomes!

I/O Ports

Most embedded computers feature rich I/O ports for them to connect to new technology, legacy technology, devices and sensors, and also the internet. 

Common I/O ports found on an embedded computer are:

  • USB Type-A Ports
  • Ethernet Ports
  • Audio In/Out Ports
  • Serial Communication Ports
  • HDMI, DVI and DP Ports
  • GPIO (General-purpose input/output) Ports

Performance Accelerators

Some embedded computers are equipped with performance accelerators to speed up workloads. They are not essential, but they can give a great boost to performance! The more common ones are GPUs (Graphics Processing Units), VPUs (Vision Processing Units), FPGAs (Field Programmable Gate Arrays) and NVMe Computational Storage Devices (CSDs).

If you are looking for a performance boost for your AI, machine learning or deep learning workloads, having one of these will be ideal!

Cooling Features

An embedded computer can be low-powered or powerful but all of them still requires a cooling feature for them to stay cool to avoid thermal throttling. Embedded computers are mostly passively cooled via heatsinks, whereby heat is dispersed through it to the outer enclosure, dissipating the heat into the environment!

Heatsinks

More powerful embedded computers may be actively cooled with a fan as well for higher heat dissipation.


Why use Embedded Computers for Embedded Systems applications?

You might be thinking, why not just use a regular PC to perform the task instead? Embedded computers are specifically designed to be embedded or part of a larger system for a specific task. With that, they come with lots of advantages for industrial, agricultural and even military embedded applications!

High Reliability and Robustness

As embedded computers are designed to operate 24/7 around the clock, they generally come in parts that were already tested to meet official standards for reliability. This means you don’t need to worry about your embedded computer having a short lifespan as they are made to last a long time!

Some embedded computers are also designed to work in demanding applications and extreme environments like outdoor rugged terrains with extreme weathers. They can withstand extreme temperatures, and are also proofed to highly-pressurised water and dust!

Small Form Factor Size

Embedded computers use smaller form factor motherboards such as Mini-ITX or even smaller! Different embedded computers come with their own individual innovative enclosure designs with built-in cooling features to allow them to be small. The small size allows them to be versatile in many applications. It also allows them to be portable for outdoor use! You can learn more about the importance of form factors at “Form Factors: Why is it important when choosing which Single-Board Computer to use?”!

Energy Efficiency

Embedded computers are designed to work around the clock for long hours, therefore they are designed to be energy efficient. Since they are designed to work on a single task, embedded computers, as mentioned, are lower-powered. They also come with lightweight dedicated software. These factors allow them to function with only a minimal amount of power. The amount of cost incurred to run embedded computers are therefore way lesser as compared to a regular PC!

Rich I/O

As mentioned previously, most embedded computers come in a variety of I/O ports. This is a huge advantage as embedded computers are frequently used by organisations to connect both new and old technologies. You needn’t worry about your embedded computer not being able to connect to a new sensor or module you purchased as there will be an I/O port available most of the time!

With that, these are the reasons why embedded computers are much preferred for embedded applications. You can say that they are built for this very purpose for good reasons!


Use Cases of Embedded Computers Applications

Believe it or not when I mentioned embedded computer can be found all around us! They are widely used for many different applications around the world. In this section, I will share with your some of the areas they are more prominently used for!

Household Appliances and Consumer Products 

Most modern household appliances are electrically powered and run on an electronic system. Most of these appliances come with an embedded computer built-in for the appliance to function. The embedded computers play a vital role as it controls the main functionality of the specific appliance. 

Source: Marketing to China

CD players, iPods, MP3 players and electronic toys to name a few are also embedded with an embedded computer for it to function. The type of embedded computer used in these applications are mostly microcontrollers, which will be further explained below!

PS. Your modern smartphones aren’t considered embedded computers! Smartphones are in their own special category of devices as they have the small form factors of an embedded computer, but they can perform tasks like a regular PC.

Industrial Automation

Embedded computers are frequently used in industrial settings for automation and control of factory systems and machinery. Embedded computers normally function in industrial settings as an IIoT (Industrial Internet-of-Things) device to enable full automation in factories. 

Employees are able to remotely monitor the collected and manually control machinery as well with the embedded computers in place. The type of embedded computer used for such application varies but are usually single-board computers, microcontrollers or IoT gateways! I will share more about each of them below!

Source: XAAS Journal

Embedded computers are also used in agricultural plantations and farms where data collected via connected sensors can allow farmers to control numerous environmental conditions such as temperature, light levels, water usage, etc. 

Digital Signage, Vending Machines and Kiosks

The different electronic systems that are seen in town also have embedded computers in them. Here’s to say embedded computers are the core for most electronic products! Digital signages, vending machines and kiosks mostly come with a screen or interface displaying graphical information. Embedded computers are the core that is controlling the actions of the attached machinery and interfaces for them to display graphics, dispense beverages, or show information to readers! 

The type of embedded computer used for them is usually “Panel PCs”! 


Types of Embedded Computer

Different types of embedded computers are better for different functions. Here are the more popular types of embedded computers that are widely available!

PS. The mentioned categories are only a rough guide on the different types available. Many embedded computer can fall into multiple categories depending on their features!

Single-board Computers – A complete computer on a single PCB!

Single Board Computers (SBCs) are compact computers that contain all of the components of a full computer on a single circuit board. It’s a low-cost, self-contained device that can be linked to other devices effortlessly. SBCs uses a System-on-Chip (SoC), which combines all or most of the components of a computer or other electronic system onto a single chip.

An example of an SBC is the Odyssey X86! SBCs are great choices for a wide range of applications. They are commonly used in industrial settings for AI and machine learning IIoT applications! 

Microcontrollers

A microcontroller, sometimes known as a microcontroller unit, is an integrated circuit (IC) device that is used to control other parts of an electronic system, through an aforementioned MCU, memory, and various peripherals. Microcontrollers come with only MCUs as their main chip. Among all types of embedded computers, microcontrollers have the smallest form factor size!

An example of a microcontroller is our Seeeduino Lotus! Microcontrollers are a great choice for real-time data collection. They have very high reliability, able to last for a long time! With TinyML, they are able to perform machine learning tasks as well!

IoT Gateways 

An IoT gateway provides a connection for IoT sensors to transmit the data collected in the field to the cloud. You can think of it as the internet gateway at home, that connected the internet with your computer through Ethernet or Wi-Fi! The data are usually transmitted wireless via cellular technologies or ethernet,

An example of an IoT gateway is the SenseCAP Gateway! IoT gateways are usually deployed in outdoor conditions. They are usually built with industrial-grade standards for them to be robust against the outdoor elements!

Panel PC

A Panel PC has a built-in display screen, keyboard, and, in some cases, an all-in-one touchscreen. This sort of embedded computer is designed to make human contact easier and better through its interfaces, particularly with robust screens.

An example of a panel PC is the reTerminal! Panel PC is prominently used to provides us with an interface to control difficult to reach machinery!

Rugged Industrial PC

A rugged industrial embedded computer is housed in a clever casing that protects it from the elements. The computer’s circuits are likewise engineered to be tough and durable.

The aforementioned SenseCAP Gateway falls under this category as well due to its IP66 rated housing! 

With that, these are the general categories of embedded computers!


Get started exploring Embedded Computers with Seeed!

Here at Seeed, we have our own line of embedded computers for you to explore the capability of embedded computer for yourself! In this section, I will recommend you the different types of embedded computers available at Seeed’s online store to give you a headstart in learning more about embedded computers!

ODYSSEY – X86J4125800 – The Most Powerful SBC

ODYSSEY – X86J4105864 is an SBC that can run Windows 10, making it an excellent choice if you need a hasty SBC! This SBC is powered by an Intel Celeron J4105 quad-core CPU rated at 1.5GHz with a 2.5GHz burst, allowing you to easily construct Edge Computing apps! It also incorporates all of the strong features of a mini PC, as well as an Arduino Co-processor!

Features:

  • Intel® Celeron® J4105, Quad-Core 1.5-2.5GHZ
  • Integrated Arduino Coprocessor ATSAMD21 ARM® Cortex®-M0+
  • Intel® UHD Graphics 600
  • Dual-Band Frequency 2.5GHz/5GHz WiFi
  • Raspberry Pi 40-Pin Compatible
  • Support Windows 10 & Linux OS

Learn more about the ODYSSEY x86J4105800 on the Seeed Online Store now!

Seeed Studio BeagleBone Green Wireless Development Board(TI AM335x WiFi+BT)

The BeagleBone® Green Wireless, a SBC, is a product of a collaboration between Seeed Studio and BeagleBone.org. It offers built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth with two antennas while supporting AP+STA communication. It also has two Grove connectors to easily connect with the many available Grove sensors and modules. If you’re looking for a board to build a cloud-connected monitoring or communication system, this will be an ideal choice!

Features:

  • CPU: AM3358 1GHz ARM® Cortex-A8
  • Coprocessor: 2x PRU 32-bit microcontrollers
  • RAM: 512MB DDR3
  • FCC, CE, and TELEC certified
  • On-board chip antenna
  • Provides 4GB 8-bit eMMC on-board flash storage

Get one for yourself at Seeed’s online store!

Grove Beginner Kit for Arduino with 10 Sensors and 12 Projects

The Grove Beginner Kit for Arduino®, a microcontroller, is made up of a single Arduino UNO compatible board (based on the Seeeduino Lotus ATmega320p) and ten Grove Arduino sensors. Learning Arduino is not easy as you’ll need to understand the hardware, programming, and connection methods. Fret not. The Grove Beginner Kit for Arduino is an all-in-one kit that requires no breadboard, soldering, or wiring!

Find out more at Seeed’s online store!

Wio Terminal

The Wio Terminal is an Arduino development platform based on the ATSAMD51, featuring Realtek RTL8720DN wireless connectivity. It has a 2.4″ LCD display, IMU, microphone, buzzer, microSD card slot, light sensor, and infrared emitter onboard as an all-in-one microcontroller!

Features:

  • Powerful MCU: Microchip ATSAMD51P19 with ARM Cortex-M4F core running at 120MHz
  • Reliable Wireless Connectivity: Equipped with Realtek RTL8720DN, dual-band 2.4GHz / 5GHz Wi-Fi (supported only by Arduino)
  • Highly Integrated Design: 2.4” LCD Screen, IMU and more practical add-ons housed in a compact enclosure with built-in magnets & mounting holes
  • Raspberry Pi 40-pin Compatible GPIO
  • Compatible with over 300 plug&play Grove modules to explore with IoT
  • USB OTG Support
  • Support Arduino, CircuitPython, Micropython, ArduPy, AT Firmware, Visual Studio Code
  • TELEC Certified

Visit its product page on the Seeed Online Store to learn more about it!

SenseCAP Gateway

The SenseCAP Gateway – LoRaWAN is an IP66 outdoor device with an extended operating temperature range, making it ideal for low-power, long-range data collecting IoT scenarios such as smart farming. As the hub of the SenseCAP LoRaWAN network, it collects data from various SenseCAP Sensors and transmits it to the cloud platform through cellular LTE or Ethernet. Find out more about SenseCAP at Seeed’s wiki page!

Features:

  • High-performance Cortex A8 1GHz processor, Linux system.
  • Ultra-wide-distance transmission: 10km in line of sight scene, 2 km in urban scene
  • Industrial grade protection: IP66 enclosure, temperature -40℃~70℃, suitable for outdoor applications
  • Support multiple ISM bands: CN470, EU868, US915
  • Support multiple methods to access the network: 4G, Ethernet

Get one for yourself at Seeed’s online store!

reTerminal – Embedded Linux with Raspberry Pi CM4 and 5-Inch Capacitive Multi-Touch Screen

The reTerminal, part of Seeed’s reThings family, is powered by a Raspberry Pi Compute Module 4 (CM4)! With the reTerminal, the possibilities are endless. It can be used as the heart of an IoT/Edge system, with a number of sensors connected to the reTerminal via various wireless protocols such as LoRa, Zigbee, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and Sub-1G. On the side of the device, reTerminal is jam-packed with rich interfaces while maintaining a minimal design. It is also Microsoft Azure Certified!

Features:

  • Integrated modular design with high stability and expandability
  • Powered by Raspberry Pi Computer Module 4 with 4GB RAM & 32GB eMMC
  • 5-Inch IPS capacitive multi-touch screen at 1280 x 720 and 293 PPI
  • Built-in modules such as accelerometer, light sensor, and RTC
  • Gigabit Ethernet Port and Dual USB 2.0 Type-A ports
  • And many more!

Find out more about the powerful capability the reTerminal possess at Seeed’s online store!


Summary

Embedded computers are a revolutionary piece of technology that has enabled us to be able to run electronic devices more efficiently than ever. They are the core of most current electronic systems, enabling them to perform the different functions as intended. There are several general types of embedded computers, but most current embedded computers fall under several categories with their jam-packed features!

I hope this article taught you more about embedded computers and how they work. Keen to learn more? Here are some other articles that may interest you:

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