What is an embedded computer?

The software in embedded computers is designed to only execute certain tasks. (Getty Images)

Embedded computers are everywhere. They are in phones, microwaves, airplanes, automobiles, calculators… The list goes on and on. An embedded computer, which is an integral component of most embedded systems, is a combination of hardware and software that is designated to perform a highly specific function. For example, the type of embedded computer in a washing machine will not be the same as the embedded computer in a Nikon camera. Because the software in embedded computers is designed to only execute certain tasks, the computer’s software in one device can be totally distinct from that of another. The hardware of an embedded computer is also specially designed to withstand stresses in its intended environment. For instance, an embedded computer installed under the hood of a car is designed to withstand high temperatures.

Laptops and general-purpose CPU’s are not considered to be embedded computers for several reasons. First, the word “embedded” implies that the computer must be contained in a larger mechanical or electronic system. The word “computer” is typically thought of as a computer that stands on its own. Second, while an embedded computer is designed to perform a specific task, a laptop is capable of running and downloading various programs, software, and computations simultaneously.

An embedded computer may incorporate a feedback control system.
An embedded computer may incorporate a feedback control system.
Source: TeachICT 


So how do embedded computers work? First, the computer receives electronic data. This can be input via a sensor or user interface. The information is then computed by the microprocessor. Finally, depending on the physical system that contains the embedded computer, the computer interacts with the mechanical components of the system. In an electric oven, the embedded computer is prompted by the user interface (in this case, the buttons on the stovetop), and the embedded computer increases and regulates the temperature accordingly. In an anti-lock braking system (ABS), the speed sensor alerts the embedded computer of sudden changes in acceleration (caused by slamming on the brakes), and the computer regulates the speed of deceleration using the Hydraulic Control Unit (HCU).

The centrality of embedded computers in modern technology will only expand as demand continues to increase. Next time you open your fridge or use a microwave, remember that most of its functions could not be possible without the embedded computer.