A Small Case Study: 8-bit, 16-bit, and 32-bit Microcontroller Architectures
The table abobe offers a simple comparison between several microcontroller architectures (8-bit, 16-bit, and 32-bit) of the same package (QFP100) and roughly the same price. The comparison is simplified in order to give a rough idea of the relative value of each microcontroller.
Note. Prices updated 2013-12-28 using Digikey.
As far as flash memory goes, each microcontroller above has a comparable amount. The LPC1765 (ARM Cortex-CM3) offers the best value especially when compared to the other 32-bit microcontroller samples. However, because code densities can vary greatly across 8-bit/16-bit/32-bit architectures, it is difficult to determine which has the best value overall. RAM requirements are more easily compared.
Since RAM is not typically associated with code densities, we can assume the RAM requirements for an application are roughly the same for different MCUs. With this assumption, the LPC1765 offers the best value for RAM at 64KB. The 8-bit and 16-bit systems simply do not have comparable RAM sizes to the 32-bit microcontroller samples.
For clock speeds, the 32-bit microcontroller systems offer significantly better performance. They can run at higher clock speeds and do more per cycle with a 32-bit instruction set and data bus. The ARM Cortex-CM3 (LPC1765), again, has a great value with a maximum clock speed of 100MHz. The drawback is that a higher clock speed means more power is consumed.
To save power, the microcontroller can run at a lower clock speed. The mA/MHz ratio in the table is the current consumption at max speed divided by the max speed. This gives a general idea of how efficient the microcontroller is. The MSP430, which is specifically designed for ultra-low power consumption, has the best Current/MHz ratio followed closely by the ARM Cortex CM3 designs (STM32 and LPC1765).
Though brief, this case study illustrates that 32-bit microcontroller architectures can, from a practical standpoint, replace 8-bit systems without a cost increase and with a boost in RAM size and performance.