What Are Embedded Computers?

by Contributor

Jerry Gipper, editorial Director for Embedded Computing, defines an embedded computer as being "A special-purpose computer system, which is completely encapsulated by the device it controls." What most people are unaware of is that embedded computers touch our everyday lives in devices ranging from Digital Video Recorders to digital cameras.

Single Board Computers

As the name suggests, SBCs have all the necessary functions to get their assigned purpose accomplished on a single PCB or Printed Circuit Board. As the jobs these devices are tasked to do vary greatly, so do the size, shape and type of SBCs. These form factors, as is the industry term used to describe size, shape and type, have industry designations such, PC-104, PCI-104, and microTCA systems, to name only three.


In 2005 an estimated 9 billion processors were manufactured and sold. Of that total 8.8 billion were used in everything from greeting cards to traffic lights, leaving only 2 percent of the total processors sold to be used in what we traditionally think of as computers. While Intel is perhaps the most recognized manufacturer, Freescale and AMCC are also well known in the industry.


Embedded computers run a variety of software, including several versions of Linux and even a special version of Microsoft Windows. In addition, there are several less known companies that support this market as well as companies that specialize in creating custom software to control embedded platforms for specific requirements.


Embedded computers are everywhere. They can be found in lottery machines, factory automation, traffic control systems, rail based rapid transit, car PCs, banking kiosks, point of sale terminals and just about everything you can think of in the telecommunications industry, including cell phone, if you are willing to accept the broadest definition of the term.


As we move more toward a mobile society and we demand that our computing capabilities as well as our communications come with us, the requirement for more powerful embedded computers will increase. In Japan the cell phone acts as a credit card-like payment device while in the United States smartphones are used to check bank balances and even orchestrate bank to bank transfers. With the broader adoption of virtual face to face communications being added to the smartphone's capabilities, even more powerful embedded platforms will replace the ones in use today. For the foreseeable future, this race to the top will continue much like it has in the consumer grade computer market.