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What is an Embedded system?

by | Last updated Mar 17, 2021 | Basics of Embedded System

An Embedded system is similar to a general-purpose computer. A general-purpose computer performs different applications like printing, scanning, playing games, reading and writing documents, hearing songs and videos, etc. But an embedded system is used to perform only specific applications.

There are various definitions for an embedded system, defined by different personalities in the field of embedded system. Let us look at some of those.

An embedded system is a computer system made up of hardware and software, designed to perform certain dedicated applications.

An embedded system is an electronic or electro-mechanical system, which is a combination of hardware and software designed to perform a specific function. An Embedded system is nothing but a computer system mounted inside any product.

Wayne Wolf, a Professor of Electrical Engineering and Associated Faculty in the Department of Computer Science at Princeton University defined embedded system as

“Any device that includes a programmable computer but is not itself intended to be a general-purpose computer” and “a fax machine or a clock built from a microprocessor is an embedded computing system”.

How it differs from computer system?

The computer system is a general purpose computing system which is designed to perform general purpose applications like playing games, watching movies, document works, printing and scanning, saving the content in the memory, etc.

In contrast, embedded system is a specific purpose computing system designed to perform a dedicated task. For example, a digital camera is an embedded system, which will be used to capture digital images. Similarly, microwave oven in also an embedded system, which is used to heat the food inside the oven.

The computer system consists of general-purpose operating systems like Windows, Linux, etc., but an embedded system consists of an operating system called Real-Time Operating System (RTOS) like Vxworks, RTLinux, LynxOS, Keil TRX, etc.,

The applications installed in the computer system can be altered by the end user. Depending on the user requirement, any type of general applications can be installed and can be deleted by the user.

But in an embedded system, it is not possible to modify the system program or application program. Any modifications or debugging in embedded systems can be performed only by the programmer of that particular product.

The computer system must not be deterministic in its operation. It is not mandatory for any computer system to keep up the timings strictly. An embedded system must be time-specific. That is, the task assigned to the system must be completed within a specific time. If not, it may end in a malfunction of the system.

Difference between a computer system and an embedded system

Here are some of the differences between a computer system and an embedded system.

Computer SystemEmbedded System
General purpose computing system.Specific purpose computing system.
Needs human interaction to perform a task.Does not need any human interaction to perform a task.
Requires more user interface to work with.It requires only less user interface to with an embedded system.
Computers can be reprogrammed by the end user.Embedded systems cannot be reprogrammed by the user.
It is not a time critical system.It is a time bounded system. The task must be completed within a specified time.
The size of the computers is large in size when compared with embedded system.Most modern embedded systems are small in size.
Computers require more memory to store lots of data.It requires less memory to store the system program.


In our day-to-day life, embedded systems play a vital role starting from our home to large industries. We live in a world surrounded by an embedded system. Here is a list of some applications of embedded system, but are not limited to the given list of applications.

Applications of embedded system
  • Automotive Industry – Cruise control system, Airbag control system, in-vehicle Entertainment system, navigation systems, climate control, anti-lock braking system (ABS), parking system, etc.
  • Telecommunications – telephone switches, mobile phones, broadband networks, robotics in the transmission line, etc.
  • In Peripherals & Computer Networking – Displays and Monitors, Networking Systems, Image Processing, Network cards, routers and printers.
  • Household applications – Television, Washing machine, refrigerators, Microwave Owen, induction stove, etc.
  • Measurement & instrumentation – Digital multimeters, Digital CROs, Logic analyzers, Control units, etc.
  • Consumer Electronics – Digital Cameras, Set-top Boxes, mobile phones, GPS receivers, game consoles, High Definition TVs, DVDs, etc.
  • Military applications – surveillance systems, cybersecurity systems, Defense and aerospace, Communication, etc.
  • Home Automation and Security Systems – Air conditioners, Sprinklers, Detection alarms, Fire alarms, CCTVs, Television cameras, etc.
  • Health care – Different scanners, EEG, ECG machines, CT scans, MRI scans, glucose monitors, pacemakers, etc.
  • Banking Industry – Automatic Teller Machines (ATM), currency counters, Cash Dispersing Machine (CDM), passbook printing machine, card swipe machine, etc.



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