RSGC ACES: 2020/2021 ICS3U-E Breadboard ATmega328P


It seems every year I find myself rewriting this guide. Although the internet has thousands of blogs and vlogs on the subject of assembling standalone MCUs, one of my roles as your teacher is to filter and distill the latest available information and position it in the context of your specific project requirements. What follows then is focused on your impending Mint Tin ATmega328P project.

First of all, this page is not attempting a breadboard 'Arduino' build. Those geniuses at MIT 15 years ago packed a myriad of brilliant functionality onto that little blue PCB beyond an MCU, crystal, caps, and resistors. Rather, in fairness, I think a breadboard 'ATmega328P' is the fairer representation of the direction this guide steers you in.

Examine the two images below, carefully. The one on the left details how the ATmega328P IC pins (black) are mapped to the female headers (red) on Arduino UNO. The image on the right depicts the connections a (breadboarded) ATmega328P should have, to be minimally functional.

Image Reference:

Now, of course 'minimally functional' is not what we're after. We need to demonstrate that our MCU-based prototype can, eventually, do something reasonably interesting and be reflective of our expanding skill set. I used the word 'eventually' in the previous sentence because the journey to the ultimate final device will be a gradual process, littered with numerous iterations, unsuccessful attempts, misdirections, and trials. For this reason, the ability to reprogram and debug the ATmega328P in place (without removing it from the breadboard) is essential and a fair expectation of what should follow in the guide below.


Here are the primary constraints for this build,

  1. Tools and devices are to be restricted to those on hand (numerous other components are available for purchase but working with what one has on hand is a hallmark of a true craftsman)
  2. Easy, in place reprogramming of the breadboard ATmega328P
  3. Easy, in place access to the Arduino IDE's Serial Monitor/Plotter for debugging and display from the breadboard (or embedded( MCU.

Taking these three requirements into consideration leaves us with the (general) hardware configuration and options below. The major 'supporting cast' members (of which you currently have all of) includes the 5V regulation in the bottom left corner and three device option to assist with programming your ATmega328P. Purposely absent from the diagram are the numerous connections and jumper wires, not only to avoid this becoming a paint-by-numbers exercise, but to improve the chances of a functional perma-proto version in Project 2.4.2, as a result of your investment in the knowledge and skill to achieve a working breadboard prototype. Further details and explanation follow after the graphic.

Serial Peripheral Interface (SPI) and Serial USART (Tx/Rx)

The ATmega328P MCU includes onboard hardware support for the Serial Peripheral Interface, or SPI (Chapter 19) and the Universal Synchronous and Asynchronous serial Receiver and Transmitter, or USART (Chapter 20). Each can be exploited to meet the some or all requirements of this task.

SPI Programming of a Standalone ATmega328P

In the Fritzing image above the three yellow wires (MOSI, MISO, SCK), together with the green wire (RESET) and the two supply lines not shown (5V RED, GND BLACK) form a 6-wire set of control lines that form the SPI communication protocol used to communicate with your in-place ATmega328P.

You have three hardware options in your kit for uploading code from your Arduino IDE to your breadboard MCU using SPI, each having their own pros and cons. None of them support use of the Serial Monitor/Plotter for debugging and display.

Option Pros Cons

Good practice using Arduino as ISP
UNO's ATmega328P remains in place
Can support Serial IO (Monitor/Plotter)

Tricky, multistage programming sequence
Messy, unstable wiring
Not practical for Project 2.4.2
No Support for Serial IO (Monitor/Plotter)
Nano Smaller form factor than UNO
Stable, clean wiring between two breadboard devices
Tricky, multistage programming sequence
Not practical for Project 2.4.2. Mint Tin Arduino
No Support for Serial IO (Monitor/Plotter)

Neither the UNO or Nano required
Simplest, shortest wiring
Most practical option for Project 2.4.2 Mint Tin Arduino programming

No support for Serial IO (Monitor/Plotter)

USART (Serial Rx/Tx) Programming of Standalone ATmega328P

Every program you've ever flashed onto the UNO's ATmega328P has been achieved through the support of its USART or Serial Rx/Tx pins 2 and 3 (digital pins 0 and 1). It has fallen to the onboard ATmega16u2, positioned strategically in close proximity to the USB cable input plug, to accept your computer's USB signal protocols and convert them to Serial Rx/Tx signals. In similar fashion, when your code sends serial output signals, intended for your Arduino IDE's Serial Monitor/Plotter, it must first pass through the Rx/Tx pin combination, to the ATmega16u2 for conversion to USB and, ultimately, the computer's display.

It may now seem obvious to some readers how this technique can be applied to programming a breadboard ATmega328P. If we simply remove the ATmega328P from its socket on the UNO, wire the 5 connections (Rx/Tx/Reset/5V/Gnd) as shown in the diagram to the right, uploading your sketches from the Arduino IDE will reach its breadboard target in exactly the same fashion! Return to this terrific video to see a clear presentation of how this accomplished,

Serial Monitor/Plotter: Debugging and Display (only partially confirmed)

Using only the tools you have in your kit, the only way in which your breadboard ATmega328P can make use of your Arduino IDE's Serial Monitor and Plotter for debugging and display is to relay the data through the UNO's USART's Serial Rx/Tx header pins with the UNO's ATmega328P removed.