A Brief Tutorial on Programming the AVR without Arduino


Just to get started on the wrong foot: "sometimes Arduino is the wrong choice." Depending on what you're doing, maybe your app's structure isn't very well suited to the Arduino framework. Maybe you need to write smaller code than what would be produced by Arduino, sometimes you just can't run Arduino at all...

I'm in that latter category. I'm not such a big fan of Java, and I'm comfortable with a text editor and driving the compiler by hand, so I'm going to do this the hard way. Arduino trowels some nice plaster over top but it's nothing you can't do by hand. Really, all you should need is avr-gcc, avr-libc, avr-binutils and avrdude. Getting these packages is beyond the scope of this document, it's quite likely there are pre-built packages for your OS.

This document was written give a basic introduction to some of the specifics of AVR programming, assuming you already have a handle on C. It approximates the order I came to understand things while learning to program the AVR. I'm doing a lot of this "the hard way", there are a number of macros in avr-libc or avrlib to do much of this but it's important to understand the underlying principles. If you understand what's going on, moving your code (from a '168 to a '644P for example) is very easy.

  1. A blinking LED - Busy Waits and IO ports
  2. Two blinking LEDs - Addressing Pins
  3. A switched LED - Digital Input and output
  4. Serial Output
  5. Serial Input
  6. Putting it together: printing button presses and controlling LEDs
  7. Analog Output
  8. avr-libc goodies
  9. Analog Input
  10. A blinking LED - Interrupts and timers
  11. Persistent Storage
  12. Input Capture
  13. Watchdog
  14. I2C/SPI peripherals

Lesson 1: A blinking LED - Busy Waits and IO ports

This section is an introduction to microcontrollers. Out of the box, your microcontroller won't do anything - you need to load a program before it's useful. Here I present the the hardware equivalent of "Hello World" - a blinking light.

To begin, let's look at the pin map. We see that Arduino pin 13 is PB5 on the ATmega168 - part of port B. To use this pin, port B must first be set to be an output pin. There are various ways to do this[2] - writing to Port B Data Direction Register[3] at address 0x24 or the lazy/better way, using the DDRB macro. Let's keep things simple and set the whole port to output with DDRB = 0xff;. Finally, we can start writing to PORTB (address 0x25).

A simple approach would would be to do something like this:

	PORTB = 0xff;
	PORTB = 0x00;
which makes use of the delay routines defined in <util/delay.h>. If you try run this, you'll find your LED blinking very rapidly. Far more rapidly than you'd like.

A brief inspection of delay.h is instructive: with respect to _delay_ms, "The maximal possible delay is 262.14 ms / F_CPU in MHz." This can easily be addressed by computing the maximum time _delay_ms will sleep, and given that, the number of times to call _delay_ms to achieve the desired delay interval. You may wish to put this computation into a separate function which you can call whenever you need to delay.

lesson1.c is one possible solution.

Lesson 2: Two blinking LEDs - Addressing Pins

This section builds on the previous section. By now you're probably bored of looking at the onboard LED blinking. That's good. Let's try hooking up some other LEDS. If you try this, you'll find they'll all blink together. Why?

Because you asked for it with PORTB = 0xff;. More astute readers may have figured out that writing all 1's to the port would set all the pins to 1. If you're new to this... well, I just said it. By the same token, writing 1 to only a single bit in the port's register will only turn that pin on.

Recall that the Arduino pin map said that pin 13 - the LED - is PB5. In other words, bit 5 of port B, or 0x20. Take a copy of your solution from lesson 1, and change it to write 0x20 to PORTB, rather than 0xff. After doing this, your program should blink just the onboard LED.

Now that you have control over a given port, extend your program to alternate or cycle the LEDs lesson2.c is one possible solution.

Lesson 3: A switched LED - Digital Input and output

We've now become comfortable with basic digital output, let's work on getting signals in.

Bear with me a moment while we look at some background on inputs. We like to think of processors as purely digital entities - ones and zeros, highs and lows. Alas, there are plenty of analog signals inside, and depending on your processor (like AVRs and PICs) you may even have specific analog inputs. A pin connected to ground is logic 0, and a pin connected to power is logic 1, but what value does an unconnected pin have? Indeterminate. The pin is said to be floating.

Typically, pins are connected to high or low through a relatively high-value resistor, called a pull-up or pull-down. This offers a weak signal to that pin, putting it into a known state. This known state is then selectively overriden by shorting the pin to low or high. Think of it as someone yelling "zero", and someone whispering "one". The very loud zero will overpower the quiet one, but in the absence of other input, you'll hear the one. As to what value of resistor to use, I've heard "it depends", "low enough to get the signal, high enough to not waste power", and "47K". My point in mentioning this is to let you know that something will need to be done to the input signal so the AVR knows it's there.

If you're lazy (or wise), you can tell the AVR to use internal pull-ups rather than having to mess with them on your own. Using Port D as an example, let's set up Digital Pin 2 (PD2) as an input with internal pull-up:

DDRD &= 0xFB; /* leave all the other bits alone, just zero bit 2 */
PORTD |= 0x04 /* leave all the other bits alone, just set bit 2 */
value = PORTD & 0x04; /* and that's what's on the pin... */

Try a program to read a switch connected between digital pin 2 and ground, and use this to control an LED. One possible solution is lesson3.c

Lesson 4: Serial Output

Serial is icky. It took several passes through chapter 19 of the ATmega168 datasheet before all the pieces started to come together. I'd advise against copying the sample code from the datasheet, at least until you understand where the magic bits come from. I'd also recommend against making the init function too configurable; just set up the com port once and be done with it. Flexible configuration makes your program significantly larger.

The first set of magic bits (Baud Rate Register) is found in table 19-1. This is very machine dependent; you must recompile if you change your device's clock rate. The datasheet also includes tables listing the magic values. The BRR value is written into a clock generator which clocks the UART. Since the baud rate register is 12 bits wide and the AVR is an 8-bit core, we need to split the write into two halves. According to the datasheet the clock generator is updated when the low byte is written. Thus the baud rate register should be written to high-byte first.

Next is framing, most things these days default to "8N1", and that's what we will do here. Section 19.10.4 (UCSR0C) describes the framing controls. To use asynchronous mode, set the top 2 bits to 00. To inhibit parity generation and checking, set the next 2 bits to 00. To use 1 stop bit, set the next bit to 0. To use 8 data bits, set the next 2 bits to 11 (decimal 3). In async mode, the bottom bit should be 0. Altogether, UCSR0C = 0x06; or UCSR0c = (3 << UCSZ00); will program the register correctly.

Once the serial port is initialized, you can write to it by writing to UDR0. You should check that the port is actually ready to transmit; the usual way to do this seems to be a busy wait that tests if the USART Data Register is Empty - (UCSR0A & (1 << UDRE0)).

Try write a program that prints a fixed string to the serial port. One way to do this is lesson4.c

Lesson 5: Serial Input

Building on lesson 4, we can now handle serial input. The companion function - receive - busy waits on USART Receive Complete, and then returns the Data Register (UCSR0A & (1 << RXC0)). The busy wait is not good for applications that shouldn't block on serial IO, but for now it's good enough.

Reusing your code from lesson 4, write a program to read a character from the serial port and echo the next one back. If you type 'A' it should echo 'B'. One way to do this is lesson5.c.

Lesson 6: Putting it together: printing button presses and controlling LEDs

I haven't written a sample solution to this yet, but at this point you should know everything you need to read a switch or the serial port and use this to control an LED (and print its status to the serial port). When I do finish this example, you can see lesson6.c

Lesson 7: Analog Output

Digital outputs have a hard time generating outputs other than logic low and high - probably +0 and +Vcc in Arduino applications. It's easy enough to set an LED on a digital pin to 0% or 100% brightness, and we know it's possible to make LEDs glow at less than full brightness, but how? The answer is PWM - Pulse Width Modulation.

PWM works by exploiting the fact that we're using rapidly changing signals to manipulate physical objects that can't react as quickly. By sending a series of fast, short pulses we can simulate their average effect. The math is simple: 100ms@100%+900ms@0% has the same average power over 1 second as 1000ms@10%. In other words, a low-pass filter. With that in mind, let's set up the the AVR to do PWM output.

Try writing a program to slowly ramp the brightness of the LED. Or maybe have it fade in and out. lesson7.c is one way to do this. Alas, this solution sucks - it's basically a big nasty busy wait that prevents you from getting any real work done while generating the PWM waveform.

As we learn about hardware PWM, application Note 130 will be your friend. Though it's written for the AT90S8535 and doesn't use gcc, the general principles are still useful. First off, you need a timer to generate pulses. This is created from a counter, a periodic increment and a compare register.

For this example, TCNT0 is the counter, the system clock is the periodic increment (CS = 1), and OCR0A as the compare register. Section 13.3.3 of the ATmega168 datasheet says that PORTD.6 is the output pin for OC0A. First, the control register TCCR0A should be set for Fast PWM mode. Then the compare mode (inverting/non-inverting) is also set in the control register. At this point, it would be good to initialize the timer and comparator values because the timer isn't ticking until the clock source is set (control register TCCR0B). It is now safe to set the output bits on the output port. One way to do hardware PWM is lesson7b.c.

Lesson 8: avr-libc goodies

Now that you've written a few programs, I imagine you're getting tired of typing in certain constructs (and your eyeballs are probably bleeding from the aggregated ugliness). It's time to introduce a few macros to make things simpler:

By handMacro
while ( (UCSR0A & (1 << UDRE0)) ){ ; } loop_until_bit_is_clear(UCSR0A, UDRE0);
while (!(PORTD & 0x4) ){ ; } loop_until_bit_is_set(PORTD, _BV(PD2));
PORTD = 0x4; PORTD = _BV(PD2);
#define BAUD 9600
UBRR0H = (((F_CPU/BAUD/16)-1) >> 8);
UBRR0L = ((F_CPU/BAUD/16)-1);
UCSR0C = (3 << UCSZ00);
UCSR0B = (1 << RXEN0) | (1 << TXEN0);
#define BAUD 9600
#include <util/setbaud.h>
UCSR0C = _BV(UCSZ01) | _BV(UCSZ00);

I'm rather fond of stdio and formatted IO. I've been spoiled by big machines with multiple multi-GHz cpus, a few GB of memory and a few TB of storage. Programming an embedded device makes me realize how wonderful printf("sensor %d value %f\n", n, values[n]) is. Avr-libc has some glue to simulate stdio. Here's an example of how to use this: lesson8.c. The manual warns that printf and scanf are quite resource-intensive. This is not even a little bit of an exaggeration. Have a look at the annotated assembly files and be afraid. Be very afraid. In my example implementation, I also use the program space macros to avoid keeping constant strings in RAM when they could simply be used straight from flash.

Lesson 9: Analog Input

In this example, I will be using a thermistor to provide analog input. Actually setting up the ADC is pretty straightforward; Because I'm using a thermistor as my analog device, I added some "fluff" to help visualize the input, but it's not strictly necessary.

There are a few little things to do for a simple, polled analog sample. Ensure that the pin you're reading has pull-ups disabled, since these interfere with the sampling. Writing 0 to the pin register (PORTC = 0) or setting it to output mode (DDRC = 0) Set the ADC clock correctly - it needs to be clocked at 50kHz-200kHz. The Arduino's 16MHz clock divided by 128 is a very comfortable 165kHz. Set the reference voltage correctly. This determines the upper limit for measurement; using Vcc is probably the best bet. USB power will probably be very stable. Finally, set the ADC enable bit and force one conversion - the first conversion takes extra time due to some internal setup that is required. Here is lesson9.c.

Lesson 10: A blinking LED - Interrupts and timers

Like the serial ports, it took a bit of studying of the datasheets to understand how to make timers work. A large part of this was due to one incorrectly set bit - it compiled and didn't do what I thought it should do. As it turns out, a simple blinky light was easier to figure out than PWM.

In this example, I'm using the TIMER0_OVERFLOW interrupt to decide what to do when the timer overflows - whether to toggle the LED or not. Interrupt handlers must be written carefully if they are run often since they can cut into more useful processing time. Setting up an interrupt handler has some noticeable overhead - 14 instructions for the prologue and epilogue - before the main body of the handler is executed. Furthermore, a since line of C might be translated into 10 instruction it is very easy to write an interrupt handler that takes a long time to run. Depending on the length of the handler and the frequency of interrupts, you may run out of stack space and crash. The example compiler invokation below includes flags to emit source-annotated-assembly language.

Using the 8-bit timer0 is fairly straightforward. There are four things to be done:

  1. select the timer's clock source
  2. allow the timer to generate interrupts
  3. reset the timer
  4. enable interrupt processing

Each of these items takes a just single line of code. First, the clock source must be configured. The timer system can accept external inputs or use the system clock - optionally divided down to a slower rate. The Clock Select (CS00-CS02) bits in the timer/counter control register B (TCCR0B) are used. Assuming a 16MHz clock, a prescale of 1024 will cause 15625 increment operations per second. Since the counter can hold 256 unique values, it will overflow at 61Hz. If a higher interrupt rate is needed, the prescaler can be set lower, or a smaller Output Compare (OCR0A) can be used. The timer/counter interrupt mask register defaults to 0 - no interrupts will be generated by the timer/counter system. To enable timer overflow interrupts, set the TOIE0 bit of TIMSK0. Timers can be set and reset by storing into them, in this case TCNT0 = 0. Finally, the sei() function enables interrupt processing.

One way to do this is lesson10.c. My version can blink either the onboard LED on PORTB.5 or a set of LEDs on PORTB.1 - PORTB.3.

Lesson 11: Persistent Storage

EEPROM provides developers with the ability to persistently store data on chip, inside the running program. It requires no peripherals, and doesn't place the program code at risk like writing the flash. Of course, EEPROM is much slower than RAM access. You should be prepared to deal with power failures while writing to EEPROM.

EEPROM use is easy. Because EEPROM is slower than memory, you first need to check that the EEPROM is ready to accept operations. There is a function - eeprom_is_ready() - to do this, and this is the core of the eeprom_busy_wait() function. Once the EEPROM is ready, it can be written with eeprom_write_{byte,word,dword,block} and read back with eeprom_read_{byte,word,dword,block}. See lesson11.c for an example.

To safely use EEPROM storage in applications where power loss is a significant risk, consider storing a version counter and a validity flag in the structure. The structure should be marked invalid before any changes are made, and should only be marked valid once all other changes are made. Keep two (or more) copies of the structure and rotate through them; The version counter can be used to determine which is the most current copy. In the event power is lost during a write, older versions remain intact. You may want to have a look at "AVR101: High Endurance EEPROM Storage".

Lesson 12: Input Capture

One of the useful features of the AVR is the input capture system. An application requiring low latency timestamping (a stopwatch or a pwm detector) could benefit from this. Input capture works by atomically copying the current value of the Timer/Counter Register into the Input Capture Register. The timer continues running and can optionally be reset to zero. Inside the input capture interrupt handler the user code can run without having to take heroic measures to minimize time spent reading the timer or resetting it - this is all done in hardware.

Lesson 13: Watchdog

From time to time, it may be useful to have an interrupt or reset delivered independently of the main program code. This may be to wake the AVR from sleep mode or to reset when the program gets stuck in a loop; that's where the watchdog timer comes in. An onboard 128kHz oscillator is used to drive the watchdog with intervals from 16ms to 8s. If the watchdog expires without being touched, the system can catch an interrupt, be reset or both. If you "kick the dog" before the time expires, no action is taken.

While it can be slightly complicated to set up the watchdog by hand, avr-libc has some convenience functions. To enable the watchdog, call watchdog_enable() with the desired duration. Refreshing the watchdog is as simple as a call to watchdog_reset(). If the WDTON fuse is set the watchdog activates automatically, rather than requiring manual activation.

A short example of using the watchdog timer to wake from a deep sleep mode is found in lesson13.c.

Lesson 14: I2C/SPI peripherals


Most of this document should be applicable to any AVR board. I wrote it using a Freeduino SB which has an ATmega168. I'm also running a Sanguino which is based on the ATmega644P. This section covers some of the differences when running on this hardware.

I recently ported an application I built on the '168 to the '644P. The only changes I needed to make were to the pins with the LEDs and the input capture pin. Most Arduino compatible boards seem to use PORTD.5 for the on-board blinkenlicht - the Sanguino I'm working with uses PORTB.0. Input capture moves from PORTB.0 to PORTD.6. After some thought I changed all of the program's references to specific ports and pins to preprocessor macros allowing me to use a different set of pins depending on the board I'm running.


Most of this document should be applicable to any AVR board. I wrote it using a Freeduino SB which has an ATmega168. I'm also running some ATtiny85 parts. This section covers some of the differences when running on this hardware.

While porting my firefly simulator to the tiny85, I found the smaller peripheral mix got to be very annoying. In particular, TIMER2 which can wake the AVR from sleep does not exist, nor does the SLEEP_MODE_PWR_SAVE. Power down mode does exist, but it may disable too many other parts of the processor. In this case, I was able to use the watchdog timer to wake from SLEEP_MODE_PWR_DOWN, but the big lesson was to carefully read the datasheets before committing to a particular part.


Most of this document should be applicable to any AVR board. I wrote it using a Freeduino SB which has an ATmega168. I'm also running a Teensy which is based on the AT90USB162. This section covers some of the differences when running on this hardware.


  • [1] pin_map.html
  • [2] http://www.atmel.com/dyn/resources/prod_documents/avr_3_04.pdf
  • [3] http://www.atmel.com/dyn/resources/prod_documents/doc2545.pdf
  • http://avrbasiccode.wikispaces.com/Atmega168
  • http://javiervalcarce.es/wiki/Program_Arduino_with_AVR-GCC
  • http://www.ladyada.net/learn/Arduino/
  • http://ccrma.stanford.edu/courses/250a/docs/avrlib/html/
  • http://www.nongnu.org/avr-libc/user-manual/
  • http://www.engbedded.com/cgi-bin/fc.cgi
  • http://piconomic.berlios.de/
  • http://www.sanguino.cc/
  • http://www.pjrc.com/teensy/
  • ... and the rest of atmel's ginormous tech library
  • Appendix A: compiling and loading your code

    avr-gcc -g -mmcu=atmega168 -c example.c -Wa,-alh,-L -o example.o > example.asm
    avr-gcc -g -mmcu=atmega168 -Wl,-Map,example.map -o example.elf example.o
    avr-objdump -h -S example.elf > example.lst
    avr-objcopy -j .text -j .data -O ihex example.elf example.hex
    avr-size example.elf
    avrdude -b19200 -P /dev/cuaU0 -c avrisp -p m168 -U flash:w:example.hex
    avr-gcc -g -mmcu=atmega644p -c blinkprint.c -Wa,-alh,-L -o blinkprint.o > blinkprint.asm
    avr-gcc -g -mmcu=atmega644p -Wl,-Map,blinkprint.map -o blinkprint.elf blinkprint.o
    avr-objdump -h -S blinkprint.elf > blinkprint.lst
    avr-objcopy -j .text -j .data -O ihex blinkprint.elf blinkprint.hex
    avr-size blinkprint.elf
    avrdude -c usbtiny -p atmega644p -U flash:w:blinkprint.hex

    NB: older versions of GCC may not support newer mcu types like -mmcu=atmega168 or -mmcu=atmega644p. For some of these examples you may be able to use -mmcu=avr5, but things like the serial port won't work correctly or at all without the correct mcu flag. Arduino-0011 uses GCC 4.0.4, that should be considered the minimum required version.

    Copyright © 2008,2009 Chris Kuethe <chris.kuethe@gmail.com>
    $CSK: index.html,v 1.27 2010/01/09 21:54:37 ckuethe Exp $