Microprocessor Design/Program Counter

< Microprocessor Design

The Program Counter (PC) is a register structure that contains the address pointer value of the current instruction. Each cycle, the value at the pointer is read into the instruction decoder and the program counter is updated to point to the next instruction. For RISC computers updating the PC register is as simple as adding the machine word length (in bytes) to the PC. In a CISC machine, however, the length of the current instruction needs to be calculated, and that length value needs to be added to the PC.

Updating the PCEdit

The PC can be updated by making the enable signal high. After each instruction cycle the PC needs to be updated to point to the next instruction in memory. It is important to know how the memory is arranged before constructing your PC update circuit.

Harvard-based systems tend to store one machine word per memory location. This means that every cycle the PC needs to be incremented by 1. Computers that share data and instruction memory together typically are byte addressable, which is to say that each byte has its own address, as opposed to each machine word having its own address. In these situations, the PC needs to be incremented by the number of bytes in the machine word.

In this image, the letter M is being used as the amount by which to update the PC each cycle. This might be a variable in the case of a CISC machine.

Example: MIPS

The MIPS architecture uses a byte-addressable instruction memory unit. MIPS is a RISC computer, and that means that all the instructions are the same length: 32-bits. Every cycle, therefore, the PC needs to be incremented by 4 (32 bits = 4 bytes).

Example: Intel IA32

The Intel IA32 (better known by some as "x86") is a CISC architecture, which means that each instruction can be a different length. The Intel memory is byte-addressable. Each cycle the instruction decoder needs to determine the length of the instruction, in bytes, and it needs to output that value to the PC. The PC unit increments itself by the value received from the instruction decoder.


Branching occurs at one of a set of special instructions known collectively as "branch" or "jump" instructions. In a branch or a jump, control is moved to a different instruction at a different location in instruction memory.

During a branch, a new address for the PC is loaded, typically from the instruction or from a register. This new value is loaded into the PC, and future instructions are loaded from that location.

Non-Offset BranchingEdit

A non-offset branch, frequently referred to as a "jump" is a branch where the previous PC value is discarded and a new PC value is loaded from an external source.

In this image, the PC value is either loaded with an updated version of itself, or else it is loaded with a new Branch Address. For simplification we do not show the control signals to the MUX.

Offset BranchingEdit

An offset branch is a branch where a value is added (or subtracted) to the current PC value to produce the new value. This is typically used in systems where the PC value is larger then a register value or an immediate value, and it is not possible to load a complete value into the PC. It is also commonly used to support relocatable binaries which may be loaded at an arbitrary base address.

In this image there is a second ALU unit. Notice that we could simplify this circuit and remove the second ALU unit if we use the configuration below:

These are just two possible configurations for this circuit.

Offset and Non-Offset BranchingEdit

Many systems have capabilities to use both offset and non-offset branching. Some systems may differentiate between the two as "near jump" and "far jump" respectively, although this terminology is archaic.