What are embedded systems?

The complete guide to understanding embedded systems and their benefits
March 28, 2023

As software is being implemented everywhere, we’ve started to hear about embedded systems. These are the combination of hardware and software, it comprises the intelligent computing elements around us. These may be medical equipment, smartwatches, smartphones, and more.

They communicate with each other through the internet and run without any human intervention, mostly remotely. With emerging technologies such as the IoT and an estimated 50 billion devices connected to the internet, embedded systems are as important as ever. 

This article will explain what they are, why you should be interested, and how to get started in the domain.


As the name suggests, embedded systems are software or hardware-implemented to perform a particular function. Using microcontrollers to perform a task, they often serve as stand-alone devices with or without an operating system. This may be a washing machine, an ATM, etc.

Most of today’s devices however need an OS (Operating System), so what's the need for one ? Well in a few cases like these : 

  • The device needs to be doing multiple jobs at once, its functions are more complex
  • Multiple applications require a lot of memory
  • The application needs software updates
  • You need to implement wireless applications, Bluetooth, NFC, GSM protocols, or voice integration

For example, an embedded system could be an air conditioner or a smartphone.


Trying to explore the embedded systems space is a smart move, these are nowadays present everywhere, they allow for more complex features and allow for updates, meaning you can improve a device after selling it, through a software update.

For starters, your home probably has a few embedded systems. They provide comfort and an excellent experience. These could be home security systems, a digital camera, your TV, an air cooler, a refrigerator, and much more.

Your office probably has routers, printers, gateways that all use embedded devices. The automotive industry also features Anti-Lock Systems or ABS, Ignition control systems, and Airbags. Healthcare provides yet again several examples, from blood pressure monitors to pacemakers, scanners, and ventilators.

Every complex system in the world can be developed through two domains, hardware, and software. The software allows for more complex, efficient, and smaller devices by replacing part of the hardware.

The field of embedded systems doesn’t lack implementation examples and is a very promising field.

These systems also provide other interesting elements such as real-time responses, which make for very reactive devices.

As the components are small, the power consumption is also very low. These are often cheap and compact which makes them perfect for implementation...

These components are also intended to work independently, without human intervention.

To summarize, these embedded systems have a few things going for them : 

  • Cheap
  • Small
  • Low power consumption
  • Work without human intervention
  • Real-time and reactive
  • Wide-scale implementation


The core of any embedded target is the electronic hardware it resides on a printed circuit board and covers 5 modules, a processor, memory, an input device, an output device, and a bus control.

This hardware heavily depends on the use case and several electronic components exist for specific applications. 

The most famous ones are:

  • Microcontroller (CPU)

These are intelligent devices that compute the task execution time and allocate the memory resources most efficiently. They have limited ram and are preferred to build small applications with precise calculations.

  • System on Chip (SoC)

This system groups together a CPU, a communication interface, other devices such as counters and timers as well as a power management circuit. This provides better performance and supports more processor cores. 

  • ASIC Processor

ASIC stands for Application-Specific Integrated Circuit, these are highly optimized for a specific use. These often consume little power and provide high performance. For example, bitcoin mining is done on specialized ASIC Processors which provide lots of calculations per second and consume relatively low power. As they are highly specific, using them for something which they aren’t initially designed will cost you more than it should.

  • DSP Processor

Digital Signal Processors are used to remove the noise and improve signal quality for your music player and gaming consoles.

Let’s look at how an embedded system works :

  1. An initial analog or digital input comes from the user, this can be a button, a keypad, a touch screen, or any kind of sensor.
  2. That input is processed through calculations or conversions. This could be the conversion of an analog sensor to a digital output through an analog to digital converter.
  3. That output is then sent to the output device which could show the result on an LCD, a motor, or a touchscreen.

The embedded software development life cycle is pretty well determined and goes as follows :

  1. Understand the requirements

First of all, you need to know and understand what your use cases are. What kind of information are you going to handle and what do you need to optimize ? Costs ? Quality ? Efficiency ?

  1. Examine

Analyze the components that you would need to make your product. What software and features do you need ? How about hardware ?

  1. Design

This is the most critical aspect of your development cycle. On one side the developers need to create the software and on the other, you have to design the hardware. Then integrate both. As these two aspects are developed independently, it can be quite a hassle to integrate both.

  1. Develop

Now develop a prototype using the hardware and software you’ve previously worked on to match the customer specifications.

  1. Test

Run software tests and hardware tests such as stress tests to prove the potential of your prototype. Once you have tested that your device matches the specifications, you can move on.

  1. Deploy

After having a functioning device, you can check your results in a real environment, this will constitute your proof of concept and validate your idea.

  1. Support and Upgrade

Once your device is out in the open, it's important to answer your customer’s requests and respond to any ongoing problems. As you receive feedback, you might want to start working on a secondary iteration of your product.

    As embedded systems grow more and more present in our everyday lives, it’s a wise idea to dive into space and create your own systems. These however aren’t perfect and improvements still have to be made, especially in the power consumption department if things like the IoT are to see the dawn of day.

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