Microcontroller Interfaces, Part 2

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Synchronous Microcontroller Communication Interfaces: SPI, Microwire and I2C Protocol Formats

By Volker Soffel

MicroController Pros Corporation


This article is part 2 in a series about various microcontroller communication interfaces. In part 1 of the series, I discussed some typical applications and implementations of the SPI, Microwire and I2C interfaces. I looked at their general differences, basic features, advantages and disadvantages.  In this part, I'll cover the specifics of their protocol formats. In Part 3 we will start to take a closer look at asynchronous interfaces (UART based RS232C/RS485/LIN, CAN, USB and Ethernet).

I2C Bus

I2C is a 2-wire, half-duplex, serial bus, as shown in Figure 1. The two I2C signals are serial clock (SCL) and serial data (SDA). Both lines are bidirectional and must be connected to Vcc via pull-up resistors.

I2C Interface


The SCL and SDA pins need to be implemented as an open drain or open collector type to allow for a wired AND function on the bus ( "0" wins over "1") .

The device initiating data transfers and providing the clock signal on the bus is called a "master". A device being addressed by the master is called a "slave".

The addressed I2C slave can slow down or stop the master by keeping the SCL line pulled low (clock stretching) until it is ready to continue. This way a slow slave device can still keep up with a fast master.

I2C supports multiple masters on the bus through its built in bus arbitration. In case of multiple masters trying to send data at the same time, priority is given to the master that first sends a "0" bit.

I2C Communication Protocol

Data can be transferred at rates up to 100kbps in Standard mode, up to 400kbps in Fast mode and up to 3.4Mbps in High-Speed mode (finding peripherals that are that fast though is a challenge). In Standard mode 7-bit addressing is used. In the other modes, slaves can either have 7- or 10-bit addresses. The total capacitive bus load of all devices connected to the bus can not exceed 400pF.

I2C Protocol

Figure 2 shows the I2C Communication Protocol. The data transmission format is most significant bit (MSB) first. I2C is level sensitive; therefore SDA must be stable while SCL is high. The SDA line can only change when SCL is low, with two exceptions:

  • Start Condition: The master signals the beginning of a transfer by sending a 1-to-0 transition  while SCL is high.
  • Stop Condition: A 0-to-1 transition issued by the master while SCL is high, signals the end of a transfer.

The start condition is followed by 8-bits of data with the first 7 bits being the unique slave address in standard mode. 10-bit addressing is indicated by transmitting the bit pattern 11110 followed by address bits A9 and A8. The 7-bit address field is followed by the read/not-write (R - /W) bit, which tells the slave whether to receive (0) or transmit (1) data.

This pattern of 8-data bits and 1 acknowledge bit is repeated if more bytes need to be transmitted. The device that is receiving data asserts the acknowledge signal.  In case of the master transmitting, it monitors the slave's acknowledge after the last byte to be transmitted and then issues the stop condition. In case of the slave transmitting, the master acknowledges all bytes but the last one received, to indicate to the slave that transmission is to be stopped. The master then issues the stop condition.           

SPI and Microwire

Both SPI and Microwire are full-duplex, (3+n)-wire serial busses. (n= # of slaves). In single master, multiple slave configurations, as shown in Figure 3, each slave device requires a dedicated Slave Select (SS) signal, which is created by the master using standard I/O pins.

SPI Interface, Single Master - Multiple Slaves

A Microwire multiple slave configuration looks similar, with the difference that the master's SO pin is connected to the slaves' SI pins and  the slaves' SO pins are connected to the master's SI pin.

SPI Signals

Microwire Signals

SCLK- Serial Shift Clock

SK Serial Shift Clock

MOSI - Master Out Slave In

SO Serial Out (both master & slave)

MISO Master In Slave Out

SI Serial In (both master & slave)

/SS Slave Select

/CS Chip Select

Most SPI interfaces have two configuration bits, called clock polarity (CPOL) and clock phase (CPHA). CPOL determines whether the shift clock's idle state is low (CPOL=0) or high (CPOL=1). CPHA determines on which clock edges data is shifted in and out (CPHA=0 MOSI data is shifted out on falling edge, MISO data is shifted in on rising edge). As each bit has two states, this allows for four different combinations, all of which are incompatible with each other. For two SPI devices to talk to each other, they need to be set to use the same clock polarity and phase settings.

Why would you want 4 different settings? Two of the four settings allow the SPI interface to talk to different flavors of Microwire devices and vice versa.

Figure 4 shows the original Microwire protocol (which is older than SPI) that has fixed clock polarity and clock phase: SI is latched (data shifted in) on the rising edge of the SK clock and SO changes (data shifted out) on the falling edge. SK is always low if no data is transmitted.

Microwire Protocol

Many early SPI devices implemented only SPI mode 0 that does the opposite of Microwire, namely shift data out on the rising edge and in on the falling. Therefore Microwire/Plus was created that allows selecting an alternate shift clock via the SKSEL (shift clock select) bit. Nowadays Microwire/Plus with alternate shift clock is compatible to SPI mode 0 and Microwire with standard shift clock is compatible with SPI mode 1.

Both Microwire and SPI do not explicitly define any maximum data rates. Different peripherals on the market each have their own maximum speed limit - most of them in the several Mbit range. There is no means of slaves to slow the master down and also no acknowledgement on received data, like with I2C. To accommodate a wide range of SPI/Microwire speeds, microcontrollers usually feature a programmable shift clock divider.


SPI's and Microwire's full duplex capability and fast data rates make those interfaces very efficient and simple for single master - single slave applications. In practical applications, the requirement for dedicated slave select signals severely limits the number of slave devices that can be connected to a microcontroller. Multi-master systems significantly increase complexity and are very rarely used with those two interfaces. 

I2C's lower speed and more complex protocol put it at a disadvantage in single master-single slave applications. Its weakness turns into strength if a larger number of slave devices needs to be connected or a multi-master system is needed.

All three interfaces have the advantage of being tolerant to large oscillator variations, as all data transfers are synchronized to the master's shift clock. As synchronous interfaces they are, however, limited to bridging short distances on a single PCB or between PCBs within a smaller system. When it comes to bridging larger distances or connecting external devices, asynchronous interfaces play a dominant role and we will start looking at some of them in part 3 of this series.

About the Author

Volker Soffel is the General Manager of MicroController Pros Corporation (uCPros). uCPros offers services in: Electronic system design with a focus on embedded systems; marketing and management consulting; employee training; technical writing and translations. uCPros also publishes a free monthly Embedded News Digest email newsletter, covering the latest events in the microcontroller industry.

<< Part 1: SPI, Microwire versus I2C  

Part 3:  UART and LIN >>


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Last modified: 12/16/08