Interrupts in ESP32: Advantages, Disadvantages, and Implementation

What are Interrupts?

Interrupts are a fundamental concept in microcontroller programming. They are mechanisms that allow the microcontroller to respond to external events or signals in real-time, interrupting its normal program execution to handle the event. These events can be hardware-related, such as a button press, a sensor reading, or a timer reaching a specific value.

In other words, interruptions are signals that tell a microcontroller to stop what it is doing and execute a specific function, called an interrupt service routine (ISR). ISRs are typically very short pieces of code that handle a specific event, such as a button press or a timer overflow. Once the ISR has finished executing, the microcontroller returns to the main program where it left off.

Interrupts can be generated by both external and internal sources. Physical events, such as a button press or a change in the voltage on a pin typically generate external interrupts. Internal interrupts are generated by the microcontroller itself, such as when a timer overflows or when a peripheral device needs attention.

Interrupts are a very important part of microcontroller programming, as they allow microcontrollers to respond to events in real time. For example, an interrupt can be used to stop a motor when a button is pressed or to start a new data transfer when a serial port receives a character. When an interrupt occurs, the microcontroller saves the current state of the program and jumps to the ISR. The ISR executes the necessary code to handle the interrupt, and then returns to the main program.

Here are some examples of common interrupts in microcontrollers:

Timer interrupts: These interrupts are generated by the microcontroller's internal timer. They can be used to create periodic events, such as blinking an LED or reading a sensor.

External interrupts: These interrupts are generated by external signals, such as a button press or a change in the voltage on a pin. They can be used to respond to events in the real world.

Serial interrupts: These interrupts are generated by the microcontroller's serial port. They can be used to start or stop a data transfer, or to detect errors in the data.

Peripheral interrupts: These interrupts are generated by the microcontroller's peripheral devices, such as the A/D converter or the SPI bus. They can be used to notify the microcontroller when a data transfer is complete or when an error has occurred.

Advantages of Using Interrupts in ESP32:

  • Real-time Response: Interrupts enable the ESP32 to respond to critical events immediately. This is particularly important for applications that require precise timing, such as sensor data acquisition or communication protocols.

  • Efficient Resource Management: Without interrupts, the microcontroller would need to continuously poll for events, consuming valuable CPU cycles. Interrupts free up the CPU to perform other tasks when no events are pending.

  • Simplicity: Implementing interrupts can simplify code structure. Rather than repeatedly checking for event conditions, you can set up interrupts to trigger specific functions when events occur, making your code more modular and easier to maintain.

  • Multi-Tasking: Interrupts allow the ESP32 to perform multiple tasks simultaneously. For instance, it can handle user input via interrupts while executing background processes.

  • Low Power Consumption: By using interrupts to wake up the microcontroller from sleep modes, you can conserve power in battery-operated applications.

Disadvantages of Using Interrupts in ESP32

  • Complexity: Interrupt-driven programming can be more complex to design and debug compared to sequential programming. Managing shared resources and avoiding race conditions can be challenging.

  • Resource Overhead: Each interrupt handler consumes some amount of memory, and setting up too many interrupts can lead to excessive memory usage.

  • Priority Issues: In systems with multiple interrupts, managing interrupt priorities can be tricky. Some interrupts may delay the execution of others if not properly prioritized.

  • Latency: While interrupts provide real-time response, the actual response time can vary depending on the CPU load and other factors. In highly deterministic systems, this variability can be a concern.

Example code to implement the GPIO interrupts:


We define a buttonPin variable to specify which digital pin the button is connected to.

We declare a volatile bool variable named buttonPressed to indicate whether the button has been pressed. The volatile keyword is used because this variable is modified within an interrupt service routine (ISR).

In the setup function, we set the buttonPin as an input with a pull-up resistor. We also attach an interrupt to the buttonPin using the attachInterrupt function. The interrupt is triggered on the falling edge of the signal, indicating a button press. In the loop function, we check if the buttonPressed flag is true, indicating that the button has been pressed. If so, we execute the code to handle the button press and then reset the flag.

The buttonInterrupt function is the interrupt service routine (ISR) that gets executed when the button press is detected. Inside this function, we set the buttonPressed flag to true.