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Why Use Fixed-Point Hardware?

Digital hardware is becoming the primary means by which control systems and signal processing filters are implemented. Digital hardware can be classified as either off-the-shelf hardware (for example, microcontrollers, microprocessors, general-purpose processors, and digital signal processors) or custom hardware. Within these two types of hardware, there are many architecture designs. These designs range from systems with a single instruction, single data stream processing unit to systems with multiple instruction, multiple data stream processing units.

Within digital hardware, numbers are represented as either fixed-point or floating-point data types. For both of these data types, word sizes are fixed at a set number of bits. However, the dynamic range of fixed-point values is much less than floating-point values with equivalent word sizes. Therefore, in order to avoid overflow or unreasonable quantization errors, fixed-point values must be scaled. Since floating-point processors can greatly simplify the real-time implementation of a control law or digital filter, and floating-point numbers can effectively approximate real-world numbers, then why use a microcontroller or processor with fixed-point hardware support?

  • Size and Power Consumption — The logic circuits of fixed-point hardware are much less complicated than those of floating-point hardware. This means that the fixed-point chip size is smaller with less power consumption when compared with floating-point hardware. For example, consider a portable telephone where one of the product design goals is to make it as portable (small and light) as possible. If one of today's high-end, floating-point, general-purpose processors is used, a large heat sink and battery would also be needed, resulting in a costly, large, and heavy portable phone.

  • Memory Usage and Speed — In general fixed-point calculations require less memory and less processor time to perform.

  • Cost — Fixed-point hardware is more cost effective where price/cost is an important consideration. When digital hardware is used in a product, especially mass-produced products, fixed-point hardware costs much less than floating-point hardware and can result in significant savings.

After making the decision to use fixed-point hardware, the next step is to choose a method for implementing the dynamic system (for example, control system or digital filter). Floating-point software emulation libraries are generally ruled out because of timing or memory size constraints. Therefore, you are left with fixed-point math where binary integer values are scaled.