8-bit chips for modern times: Fastest microcontroller arrives

Despite being based on a 1980s architecture, Digital Core Design's new 8-bit microcontroller is speedier than its rivals.

Polish company Digital Core Design has released an 8-bit microcontroller that it says is the fastest on the market.

Several niche producers are claiming to be making the fastest 8-bit microcontrollers, including Digital Core Design based in Bytom, southern Poland. While Digital Core Design's speedy chip, the DQ8051, is based on the 80C51architecture introduced by Intel in 1980, it doesn't resemble it in terms of performance. Digital Core Design claims the DQ8051 is up to 29 times faster than 80C51-powered chips, and uses far less power.

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While the DQ8051's basic principles remain true to Intel's old specifications, the engineers have kept on optimising the design for better performance. Following the release of Digital Core Design's more comprehensive 80251 chip in 2013, the DQ8051 is the company's flagship product, and development of the system is still very much ongoing.

"We know this CPU from scratch, so we can modify instructions in a way that enable our CPU run more operations, in less time, and with less power consumption," Digital Core Design's vice president Piotr Kandora said. The "comparison between the 8051 from 1981 and, for example, the DQ8051 from 2015 is worth as much as the comparison between first gasoline engine and modern hybrid engines."

It might come as a surprise to some that chip architectures from the 1980s are still in production today, but such systems, in the form of 8-bit microcontrollers, are used mostly as components for low-power hardware that only needs to process data periodically - think SIM cards, digital watches, fixed office phones, and PC peripherals.

Among industry watchers, the debate about whether 8-bit systems have a future still crops up periodically. After all, 32-bit chips are also a viable option for the hardware where 8-bit ones are found and are generally faster. However, 8-bit chips have their own advantages in that they have fewer transistors and tend to be more power efficient.

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