Monthly Archives: September 2013

Low power firmware concepts, part 2

This week I will continue from last weeks post with some concepts for low power firmware design.

Structured code

Highly structured source code is nice to work with but unfortunately can run considerably slower and consume considerably more power than less structured code. You don’t have to forget everything you learned about structured code but violating some principals of structured code can help save power:

  • Global and fixed address variables – Global variables can save a considerable amount of power by not passing parameters to functions (particularly for older 8-bit micros or when using external RAM).  Fixed address variables can help reduce the power used when calculating addresses for structure members. If you have the good fortune of having extra RAM, using fixed address variables in functions can be much more power efficient than working with temporary variables that are addressed relative to the stack pointer.
  • Put small functions in-line – If you have small functions that are called frequently you will save power by placing the code for those functions in-line. Particularly with older 8-bit micros, the overhead for calling and returning from a function can take dozens of clock cycles. Some compilers support using function calls in your source code to help keep the source code cleaner but will place the code for the function in-line instead of doing actual function calls.
  • Peripheral “drivers” – If you use a micro with multiple instances of a peripheral type, say 4 UARTs for example, you can save power by having a set of code for each UART instead of generic code that is passed a parameter to specify which UART to use. This avoids the parameter passing and allows you to hardwire the peripheral register addresses in the source code instead of calculating addresses at run time. Particularly with 8-bit micros this can yield a considerable savings for frequently used peripherals. These types of functions are typically fairly small so you won’t necessarily use a lot of program space by doing this.


Value added and non-value added code

Lean manufacturing has a concept of value added steps and non-value added steps. Value added steps directly contribute to producing the end product. Non-value added steps are essentially overhead steps that may be necessary but don’t directly contribute to producing the end product. An example of a non-value added step would be moving sub-assemblies from one section of the manufacturing floor to an assembly line. It is natural to focus on the value-added code for power optimizations because that is where the primary tasks for your product are. For the ultimate power savings, you should analyze your code to identify the non-value added sections of code that don’t get much consideration. You need to determine if the non-value added sections of code are absolutely necessary, “nice to have” or not really necessary. For the non-value added sections of code that can’t be eliminated, can they be streamlined, executed less frequently or grouped with other non-value added functions in order to save power (particularly if the micro is being taken out of a low-power state to execute the non-value added code)?


The power of loops

Firmware loops can be very effective in reducing code size and making the source code cleaner and more readable. They can also be huge wasters of power simply because of the overhead instructions required to implement the loop. Managing the loop counter, checking for the loop termination and the jump back to the start of the loop can all be considered non-value added code. Unless you are severely constrained on code space, unrolling frequently executed loops into a repetitive series of instructions can save a considerable amount of power. This is most easily done for loops with a small, fixed number of iterations. Even loops with a variable number of iterations can be made more power efficient this way. The test for “loop” termination would need to be done between each series of instructions but the jump would only be taken once instead of each time through the actual loop. This can be a considerable power savings particularly for micros performing instruction pre-fetches that are discarded at the end of each pass through the loop.


Know your variables

This may seem like a no-brainer but particularly with C compilers what you see in the code isn’t always what you get in execution. Pay special attention to this with variables used in loops since that one line in your source code can be executed hundreds or thousands of times.

  • Variable size – Particularly with 8-bit micros, make sure your variable sizes aren’t larger than they need to be. As shown in the code segment below, simply incrementing a 32-bit value can turn into 3 tests for overflow, 3 add instructions and as many as 8 memory accesses. In most cases this is just a waste of code space but if the variable is a free running counter it will be wasting power every 256th time it is incremented. A 32-bit add or compare is even worse since all four bytes of the variable must be operated on every time. Most compilers will size an “int” to be the word size of the micro but to be sure you should explicitly declare variables as int8, int16, etc. (or whatever syntax your compiler uses).


  • Signed vs unsigned variables – Arithmetic operations on signed and unsigned values aren’t handled the same way by compilers. To avoid extra processing (and weird results from the math operations) be careful about the declarations and similar to the size, explicitly declare variables signed or unsigned and don’t assume an “int” is one or the other. Also be very careful about mixing signed and unsigned values in math operations.
  • Variable alignment – Some 32-bit micros require 16-bit values to be on 2-byte boundaries and 32-bit values to be on 4-byte boundaries and will generate exceptions or bus faults for unaligned accesses. More sophisticated micros can handle mis-alignments and will happily turn an unaligned 32-bit access into two, three or four memory accesses without you knowing it. C compilers typically have options to allow misalignments or force certain alignments. Not so much related to power usage, compiler forced alignments can be very wasteful of RAM space by placing every variable on a 4-byte or even 8-byte address boundary. This can be particularly wasteful with large structures with various sized elements and arrays of 8 or 16-bit elements. The “pragma pack” directive can help you in this regard with structures but should be used with care since it puts you in charge of determining alignment.
  •  ASCII vs Unicode – If your product interfaces with text strings to a Windows application you may need to support 16-bit Unicode values, otherwise 8-bit ASCII should be adequate. If you are stuck with Unicode and your product requires a proprietary driver or uses a Windows app, you should be able to save power by using ASCII in the firmware and translating to Unicode in the PC based code.


Next week I’ll get into the details on what you can do to make your firmware more power efficient.

Low power firmware concepts, part 1

So far I’ve discussed mostly hardware aspects of low power design. This is the first of several posts on low power firmware design. Some high level concepts will be presented first but they shouldn’t be glossed over, they can make a profound difference on power consumption. As was mentioned in the introductory post, a product’s hardware design will establish the minimum level of power consumption for the product. For many types of products, the firmware will determine the highest level of power consumption. More importantly, the firmware will also determine how much time is spent at the minimum level of power consumption.

Some power saving concepts will be presented that can be applied whether your firmware is in assembly language or C. There are also a number of techniques that can be applied when using C to force more power efficient code than a compiler would normally generate. Some of these techniques will go against the basic principles of structured code. Highly structured code unfortunately is very inefficient power-wise due to all the instructions the micro has to execute because of the code structure that don’t directly contribute to completing the task at hand.

Power saving in firmware is all about (1) eliminating unnecessary clock cycles the micro uses while performing a task and (2) putting the micro in a low-power state as often and for as long as possible for the given application. To a large extent, eliminating unnecessary clock cycles naturally leads to spending more time in a low-power state but the time spent in a low-power state is more heavily influenced by the code structure. Keep in mind that everything your code does that it doesn’t need to do or doesn’t need to do as frequently as it does is just wasting power. This is a good place to remind you about equation for current used during a specific event:

Ievent = (Timeoperating x Ioperating) + (Timesleep x Isleep)

Since the operating current of modern micros can be several orders of magnitude higher than their standby or sleep currents, your goal is to reduce time spent performing the task and maximize the time spent in a low power state.


Choice of programming languages

For the ultimate power savings you must be in control of the instructions your micro executes as much as possible. Carefully written assembly language can provide lower power consumption than the best compiled code but is slower to develop and harder to maintain. If you choose to use a compiled language, C is probably the best choice since you can achieve a decent level of control over the compiled code and there won’t be as much run-time code generated by the compiler that you aren’t aware of as there can be with C++. A considerable amount has been written about the suitability of C++ for embedded programming. Whatever your stance on this, it is hard to debate that well written C code is more efficient than equally well written C++ code.

Main function vs the rest of the time

Very few products actively perform their main function 100% of the time yet that is where many engineers spend their time trying to reduce power consumption. Particularly in embedded applications, most firmware spends most of its time waiting for something to do. This may be waiting for input from a user, waiting for some event or just waiting for time to perform some repetitive task. What the firmware does while inactive often has a bigger impact on power consumption than what it does while active. Maximizing the time the micro spends in the highest power saving mode suitable for the application is key to reducing long term power consumption.

 Frequency of events

Make sure your product only performs its main function as often as is really necessary. Except for low level control systems, it is fairly rare that monitoring physical conditions needs to be done multiple times per second or even per minute.  For example, if monitoring temperature is a primary activity you may need to do you may be able to get by only checking the temperature once every few minutes. The same can be said for monitoring battery voltage. Even when response time is critical, for monitoring most physical conditions a longer interval can be used when the condition being monitored is well within normal bounds and then the interval reduced as the condition being monitored starts approaching a critical threshold.

 Polled vs interrupt driven events

Particularly with slow peripherals such as UARTs, interrupt driven firmware will use considerably less power than pollIng firmware. A micro may execute thousands of instructions during the time it takes for a UART to transmit or receive a byte of data. Even at a relatively fast 115.2K baud, an 8Mhz processor will burn almost 700 clocks in one byte time, drop that to 19.2K baud and it goes up to over 4,100 clocks per byte. On the other hand, there are situations where polling can be more power efficient. For example, with a fast peripheral such as an A/D converter or SPI/I2C controller the interrupt processing overhead for a slow 8-bit micro may use more power than a simple polling loop.

 DMA vs firmware loops

If an application requires moving large amounts of data to or from a peripheral (or even small amounts of data with slow peripherals), it is generally more power efficient to move the data with a DMA controller than in a firmware loop. Even if the DMA controller is running at the same clock speed as the micro, the circuitry in the DMA controller is much smaller than the circuitry in the micro core so it will use less power. This is an area where you must do your homework up front to ensure you select a micro that supports DMA operations with the required peripherals and that the DMA controller is operational with the micro in a sleep mode.


If DMA is not an option and your micro has transmit/receive FIFOs in its UARTs, take advantage of these FIFO so that your firmware doesn’t take an interrupt for each byte transferred. For instance, when transmitting data you can fill the FIFO and only take an interrupt when the last byte in the FIFO has started shifting out. Many newer micros with UART FIFOs allow you to set the point where the interrupt is generated so you don’t have to wait for the last byte to get an interrupt if you have over-run/under-run concerns. If you are moving a string of data between a UART and a buffer in memory and only taking an interrupt every 8th byte, not only will you save power incurred in the processing overhead for seven interrupts every eight bytes, a good compiler will use the micro’s registers for the loop control variables, buffer pointers and only load/save those variables once for every eight bytes.

Next week we’ll continue with a few more high level concepts before getting into some of the details of low power firmware design.

Battery selection, part 2

Last we I discussed several aspects of using batteries. This week I’ll discuss battery charging related issues and wrap up with a couple of physical considerations for battery usage.

  • Charging – A thorough discussion of battery charging would take a book several times the size of this one but there are a few basics you should understand about battery charging. The first thing you should be aware of is each battery technology has certain charging algorithms that are optimized for that technology. Using an algorithm designed for a different technology can have results ranging from poor charging to disastrous (back to smoke and flames again). The basic parameters of battery charging are voltage, current and time. In general, the higher the voltage and/or current the shorter the charging time and each battery technology will have limits on the maximum voltage and current. Some types of batteries respond well to charging with high current pulses while others won’t. Some will benefit from a trickle top-off charge while others won’t. Fortunately, a number of semiconductor companies have battery charger chips for specific battery chemistries so you don’t need to get bogged down in this particular detail.
  • Charge duration vs battery life – It is somewhat important to make a distinction between charge duration and battery life. Charge duration refers to the length of time from charging until the output reaches the cut-off voltage. Charge duration can be impacted by improper or incomplete charging, load, temperature and battery age. All batteries have a finite useful life (based on number of charge cycles or age) and battery life literally refers to the useful life of a battery. Battery life can be impacted by aggressive charging and over charging, exceeding the maximum current rates and using the battery below its rated cut-off voltage. Long charge duration and long battery life are not mutually exclusive but to achieve both you must treat a battery gently. Deep discharging to increase charge duration will reduce the life of a battery (as will very aggressive charging algorithms). Particularly in the case of LiPo batteries, the discharge curve is so steep when the cut-off voltage is reached there is minimal benefit and a high penalty in battery life reduction for going below the cut-off voltage. The term “battery life” is often used when referring to charge duration but when discussing ways to save power, what you do to increase charge duration will generally lead to longer battery life too.
  • Self-discharge – All battery chemistries suffer some amount of self-discharge over time. This generally isn’t a concern as far as your product design is concerned. However, electronics have reached such low current levels that the battery’s self discharge may play a significant factor in your product’s charge duration and may even be higher than your product’s discharge rate.
  • State of charge – One of the trickiest things about using batteries is determining their state of charge. Simply monitoring the battery voltage level is the simplest method to implement but often tends to provide poor results. A lead-acid battery that hasn’t been fully charged will have a fairly high voltage that drops rapidly when a load is applied, giving the impression the battery is discharging very quickly. A lightly loaded lithium polymer battery has such a flat discharge rate that there won’t be a significant voltage drop until there is only 5-10% of capacity left. A battery “gas-gauge” chip can provide a better indication of the state of charge but you still have to characterize the battery in your application to properly make use of the information the chip provides.
  • Multiple batteries – Batteries are easily put in series to increase voltage, in parallel to increase current capability or both. This can be done with little concern with non-rechargeable batteries. For rechargeable batteries, there are a number of considerations primarily around charging. The details on this are also outside the scope of this book but if you use multiple batteries in your product, you should use a battery pack instead of individual cells to ensure the cells are from the same manufacturer and roughly the same age
  • Physical considerations – There are a few physical considerations you must take into account in your product design when using certain types of batteries. For example, some types of batteries may out-gas during charging (usually a sign the battery is being abused) and require venting to the outside world to avoid explosion. The lithium based rechargeable batteries can literally swell during charging and require some amount of room to expand. Battery manufacturers usually provide information if special considerations are needed.

If you are new to designing battery powered products, it will be well worth your time to do some in research into the various battery technologies Even if you are an old hand at designing with batteries, if you are considering a battery technology you haven’t used before for you product you should do some in depth research in that technology to understand it’s intricacies. Manufacturers of batteries intended for industrial applications or OEM use generally provide considerably more details in their spec sheets than those for consumer oriented batteries. These spec sheets and app notes are a good source of valuable information.

For the most part, your application will dictate the type of battery you use. In some cases you may have a choice of battery types or may have to decide between battery types when more than one would be suitable for you application. Below is a high level overview of the pro’s and con’s of the most popular battery types.

 batt table 


Battery selection, part 1

There are a wide variety of battery technologies available today, ranging from the traditional lead-acid battery to the latest lithium polymer (LiPo) batteries. For the most part, your application will dictate the type of battery you use. In some cases you may have to decide between battery types when more than one would be suitable for you application.

Batteries seem like they should be easy to use, just hook them up and go. In fact you can usually do just that but chances are you won’t be satisfied with the resulting charge duration or battery life. Batteries can easily be abused if you don’t fully understand their specs. Some battery chemistries are more tolerant of being abused than others but any abuse tends to shorten battery life. Each battery technology has its own unique set of characteristics and many of those characteristics vary based on the environment they are in, how they are used and for rechargeable batteries, how they are charged. To a large degree and for the sake of this discussion, you can model a battery as a fixed voltage source connected to the load through a variable series resistor. There are a number of things such as temperature, load and age that act on this variable resistor to decrease the battery output.

 Below are several important things you should know that apply to nearly all battery chemistries:

  • Nominal voltage – My advice to you is forget you ever heard the nominal voltage spec for the battery you are working with. Nominal voltages generally reflect a certain point in the battery’s discharge curve under conditions your battery may never see in the real world. For example, a LiPo cell has a nominal voltage of 3.6V but its operating voltage range is from 4.2V to 3.0V. As you can see in the discharge curves below for a LiPo battery, under a light load (the blue line) the curve flattens out around 3.6V just before falling off the cliff. Other than this short period of time, it would be hard to correlate anything on these discharge curves to 3.6V. The two critical voltages you need to be concerned with are maximum voltage for charging and the rated cut-off voltage for discharging. To get the full life of your batteries, these two voltages should never be exceeded.
  •  Factors effecting output – Load and temperature are the primary factors that create the discharge curves for rechargeable batteries. In the case of load, the variable resistor in our battery model acts much like any other resistor and the output decreases as the load increases. Temperature appears to make this variable resistor act the opposite of a real resistor, as the temperature decreases the apparent resistance increases, reducing the voltage at the output. The combination of a heavy load and low temperatures can result in a considerable decrease in the output voltage. As shown in the graph below, the output of a LiPo battery can decrease by over a volt from light load at high temperature to a heavy load at low temperature. For non-rechargeable batteries, the age of the battery also impacts the voltage. As these batteries get older (whether they are in use or not), the apparent resistance increases causing the output to decrease.

LiPo temp curves


  • Discharge curves – All battery technologies have a characteristic discharge curve, typically plotting voltage against mAh capacity (or age). While useful for comparing battery chemistries, once you select a battery technology you need to look at the discharge curves for specific battery models. Variations on the chemistry and battery construction from manufacturer to manufacturer yield different discharge curves. Specifically, you need to pay attention to the curves for the load you expect to place on the battery and the temperatures you expect your product to encounter. These two factors can have a significant impact on the charge duration your batteries will have in actual use. The discharge curves in the graph below are for a LiPo battery at three different loads (rated discharge rate multiplied by 2, 1 and 0.2). You really need to look at both the voltage at temperature and load graph and the discharge curves to get a feel for how a battery will perform in your application.

LiPo discharge curves

  • Rated current – Batteries typically have both maximum continuous current and maximum pulse current specs. These values should never be exceeded. Best case you can severely decrease the life of the battery. Worst case, with lithium based batteries the result can literally be smoke and flames. If your design requires getting close to these rated currents, contact the battery manufacturer to discuss your application to make sure your product will be safe and operate properly. You may also consider using two batteries in parallel to increase the available current (this carries its own set of issues that are beyond the scope of this discussion).

Next week I’ll discuss battery charging and several other important aspects of battery selection.