Driving a character LCD using PIC24 Enhanced Parallel Master Port

E strobe train

E strobe train

Traditionally, Toshiba HD44780-compatible alphanumeric LCD displays are driven by bit-banging bus signals combined with long delays between sending commands and data. In many cases this method is good enough. There are other cases as well where extra CPU cycles are not available and more economical method of driving a display is needed. I’m currently working on a design involving very fast USB exchanges combined with occasional LCD output and developed a solution which works very well for me. I’m posting it with hope that my fellow developers will find it useful.

HD44780 displays have been around for a long time. The internet provides plenty of posts about them, code samples and even a Wikipedia article. My favorite introductory text on the topic is Dincer Aydin’s LCD Info page.

PIC24 16-bit microcontrollers from Microchip have been around for some time as well. They are cheap and powerful and the Microchip C30 compiler (free version available) is quite good. They are not as popular as their 8-bit counterparts from Microchip and Atmel therefore good PIC24 resources are scarce. One nice introductory text on the topic can be found at Engscope.

Since I’m trying to minimize CPU time spent driving the LCD let’s first talk about timing in general. When developing for HD44780 we need to deal with 3 different times. First is the timing of the display part – the screen we see. LCD glass is very slow. When we attempt to update the screen faster than say twice a second the symbols become blurry and pale. The fastest display in my collection still looks OK when updated at 4Hz rate (250ms), while most others are twice as slow.

On the other hand, display data bus timing is many times faster. In order to write to the display we first need to set RS, RW and data lines, wait a little, then assert E line, wait some more and then de-assert it. If we are reading from the display we will also need to wait a little more after de-asserting E before we can read the data on the bus. Total bus cycle length is ~2.5us, which is 200 000 times less than the update rate of typical LCD glass. This time is pretty short but the MCU is still faster – a PIC24F clocked at 32MHz has an instruction cycle of 62.5ns and in 2.5us it will be able to execute 40 instructions. Therefore, no matter how simple it looks, it is preferable not to bit-bang the bus.

The third timing we need to deal with is command execution time. All but two LCD commands have stated execution time of 40us. Two slow commands – Clear and Home require 1.64ms to finish. Those are datasheet numbers, in reality the fast command on a modern display may finish in as low as 10us and slow commands on an old display can take as much as 3.5ms, depending on the age and the particular “HD44780-compatible” controller used. It is about 100 times faster than the glass.

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