Timers and Counters

Timers and Counters.

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A timer is a specialized type of clock which is used to measure time intervals. A timer that counts from zero upwards for measuring time elapsed is often called a stopwatch. It is a device that counts down from a specified time interval and used to generate a time delay, for example, an hourglass is a timer.

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A counter is a device that stores (and sometimes displays) the number of times a particular event or process occurred, with respect to a clock signal. It is used to count the events happening outside the microcontroller. In electronics, counters can be implemented quite easily using register-type circuits such as a flip-flop.

As the name implies, timers can tell the time and count. Counting and timing allows for some really cool things, like controlling the brightness of LEDs, controlling the angle of servo shafts, receiving sensor data that transmit in PWM, making a timer (like on the stove), or just simply adding a time variable to your microcontroller project.

But first, it's important to know that there is a clock inside (or outside) the AVR microcontrollers. In fact, all microcontrollers have clocks in them (or use one that resides outside of a microcontroller). Microcontrollers need clocks so the our programs can be executed in rythm with the clock. This is the basic function of microcontrollers. A basic instruction is processed when a tick from the clock passes. Just like these programs we are writing, as clock ticks pass, instructions are processed in time with the ticks of the clock.

The timer and counter functions in the microcontroller simply count in sync with the microcontroller clock. However, the counter can only count up to either 256 (8-bit counter), or 65535 (16-bit counter). That's far from the 1,000,000 ticks per second that the standard AVR microcontroller provides. The microcontroller provides a very useful feature called prescaling. Prescaling is simply a way for the counter to skip a certain number of microcontroller clock ticks. The AVR microcontrollers allow prescaling (skipping) numbers of: 8, 64, 256 and 1024. That is, if 64 is set as the prescaler, then the counter will only count every time the clock ticks 64 times. That means, in one second (where the microcontroller ticks one million times) the counter would only count up to 15,625. you could see that if the counter counts up to that number, then you would be able to blink an LED every second.


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