The STM32 MCU tends to be more popular than the PIC32 for 32-bit MCUs, but is it really better, and more importantly: when should you pick one over the other?
The PIC (Programmable Intelligent Computers) and STM (by STMicroelectronics) microcontroller product lines have ranked among the top MCUs on the market for more than a decade. Both manufacturers offer high-quality, highly diverse microcontrollers that can support an enormous number of embedded applications, from IOT to Industrial to high quantity consumer applications.
This post will compare the PIC32 and STM32 product lines across various points of consideration and give you the key factors to think about when selecting the right MCU for your design.
A Brief History
In the case of STM32, STMicroelectronics didn’t develop the processor. Instead, since 2006 it licenses the core IP through ARM Holdings. That doesn’t mean the products aren’t quality. ARM has one of the leading core technologies on the market. The strategic partnership makes the STM32 a quality product line that continues to perform year after year.
ST has a long history of licensing ARM’s IP for MCUs. Its STR9 and STR7 product families are based on ARM’s ARM9E and ARM7TDMI cores, respectively. ST adds its own peripherals to the ARM core to creates its leading chips.
It is also worth noting that ARM Holdings was founded in 1990 as a spin-off from the Acorn Computer Group and Apple. Acorn created the very first commercial RISC processor in 1985, which became available for low-cost PCs in 1987. Today, ARM Holdings remains a leader in electronic technologies, including supplying the semiconductors that power iPhones and iPads.
The PIC line also has an impressive history. Long before most people were thinking about the CPU, Microchip Technology was working on the PIC1650 in 1975. The original Peripheral Interface Controller (for which PIC was initially named) was designed to improve the I/O performance of General Instrument’s CP1600, a 16-bit CPU.
The original design shared similarities to Acorn’s RISC designs, which came later. The PIC family was focused on supporting ROM- and EPROM-based programmable channel controllers early on. By 2002, however, Flash-programmable devices became commercially available and became the Programmable Intelligent Computers we’ve come to love.
The PIC-32 family includes boards a wide variety of on-board peripherals, including UARTs, serial communication capabilities, programmable memory, motor controls and more. Third-party and open-source tools are also supported.
It is worth noting PIC is a world-leader for MCUs in its own right, particularly when it comes to 8-bit devices.
Comparing the STM32 vs. PIC32
There are a lot of 32-bit MCUs on the market. For small-to-medium businesses who want to make reliable, market-ready products, however, STM32 and PIC32 are the strongest options for quality and customization. The best device for you depends on your application. Let’s cross-compare the two across various metrics to help you find the ideal solution
Both STM32 and PIC32 support a variety of Surface Mounted Device/Technology (SMD/SMT) packaging, allowing the direct mounting of all components to the PCB. The PIC32, however, is the only one of the two MCUs to support older Dual In-Line Packaging (DIP), allowing you to connect the MCU using through lines or a separate socket.
Which is Best? If you need DIP packaging, the PIC32 is the obvious choice.
Both manufacturers offer coding support tools that are meant to help with the configuration and abstraction. Harmony supports PIC32, and CubeMX supports STM32. However, just because both manufacturers offer coding tools does not mean the tools are created equal.
CubeMX wins hands-down for quality and robustness. It’s a high-quality tool that offers a HAL (Hardware Abstraction Layer) and libraries.
The tool also allows for easy exploration of MCUs and the initialization of peripherals. With this, the quality is consistent, and bugs are rare, particularly for the newest release.
Unfortunately we can’t say the same for Harmony, which is so littered with bugs the PIC32 might as well not come with a coding tool at all. It also has a history of being unable to compile, particularly immediately following a new release.
Unless absolutely needed, you’re better off coding yourself.
Which is Best? STM32’s CubeMX.
Both STM32 and PIC32 families offer development boards and accompanying tools. Here again the power of ST’s Nucleo board blows Microchip’s ICD boards out of the water.
The Nucleo boards are low-cost, and the paired ST-LINK toolkit is only $22, compared to Microchip’s $200+ ensemble.
That doesn’t mean the PIC32 isn’t a strong choice for tinkers, however. It just means it is probably more affordable to build your own dev board (you just might get faster processing speeds, too).
Which is Best? SM32-supported Nucelo dev board.
Both Microchip (PIC) and ST’s 32-bit lines are supported by professional toolchain software. PIC32 is supported by MPLAB X IDE, and STM32 is supported by SW2STM32, IAR, and Keil (the industry-leading software). Both components also rely on GCC for compilation, and both support C and C++, though Microchip offers more broad support for C++.
That said, ST purchased Atollic and now offers its professional toolchain software, TrueSTUDIO, for free. It’s pretty hard not to like ST on this point.
Which is Best? PIC32 for C++, but STM32 offers professional software for free.
This is where PIC32 shines. Microchip continues to support the lone tinkerer, in continuing to support things like the DIP package, and in hosting live webinars where you can ask questions to the company’s engineering team directly. Microchip keeps a pulse on the community, and it supports its users with free samples, active involvement in ongoing conversations, and friendly customer service agents which genuinely want to help.
STM may win in broader applications, but it’s nice to know Microchip still acts like a small business, even though it sells billions of units each year.
Which is Best? Microchip (PIC32).
You might want to read CHINA ODM FACTORY ELECTRONIC DESIGN: 7 PITFALLS TO AVOID
Both the STM32 and PIC32 families offer low-cost and higher-end solutions, based on the functionality needed. Generally speaking, the PIC32 family is less expensive when you buy just a few, which is one of the reasons PICs are what many engineers learn to program on in university.
That said, as soon as you are ordering more than a thousand (or, work with a supplier that will add your smaller order to a larger one so you can get bulk pricing), the STM32 tends to be cheaper. This is especially true if you purchase from a company based in China, due to wide product availability and popularity (particularly for 32bit, 100MHz, 64 to 100-pin devices).
Which is Best? The PIC32 for low-quantity purchases. The STM32 for larger orders
Both STM32 and PIC32 are quality 32-bit microcontrollers, and at Titoma we have used them both with much success.
While the choice can come out differently for different application, Design For China Manufacturing is always foremost on our mind, and for that we strongly prefer STM32 because of its lower unit cost and better availability (shorter lead-times) especially in China. In addition, STM offers better development tools in terms of IDE support, HAL and libraries.
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Unlike most ODM manufacturers we offer our clients complete ownership of the IP, so nobody is locked in.
We engineer our products in Taiwan and are very well tapped into the China/Taiwan Component Eco-system, so key to remain competitive. We involve a few trusted factories, right from the start of the design. This way we make sure everybody is aligned, and by avoiding surprises we avoid delays, assuring the fastest possible Time To Market (hence our name Titoma).
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