Oscillator

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The vast majority of electronic systems operate at some fixed frequency.

Usually the component that fixes that frequency is a crystal made of silicon, sealed in a metal can. (Some very-low-cost devices might use a "resonator" or a resistor and a capacitor to fix the frequency).

The entire circuit that generates the frequency is called an "oscillator". (An oscillator that uses a resistor and a capacitor to fix the frequency is called a "RC oscillator". An oscillator that uses a crystal to fix the frequency is called a "crystal oscillator".)

The oscillator includes, in addition to the frequency-fixing component just mentioned, an amplifier and capacitors.

One can buy an "oscillator" in a metal can. Typically an oscillator can has 4 pins. Inside the can is all the components of the oscillator. One applies DC power on 2 of the pins, and the oscillating signal (the "CLK OUT") appears on another pin. (The remaining pin is unused).

Other times one buys just the crystal in a (2-pin) metal can and attaches the other components to build an oscillator.

In either case, the frequency is printed on the top of the metal can.

Many microcontrollers have 2 pins (typically labeled "XTAL1" and "XTAL2", or "OSC1" and "OSC2", or something similar) that are designed to be directly connected to the 2 pins of a crystal. (Capacitors from those pins to VCC and GND are also part of the recommended circuit). An inverter inside the microcontroller acts as the amplifier, and the crystal and capacitors make up the rest of the oscillator.

In systems with multiple CPUs, it is often simpler, cheaper, and more reliable (avoiding metastability problems) to use a single crystal (rather than a dedicated crystal for each CPU). CPUs (and many other components) often have a single "CLK" pin designed to be connected to the wire used to send that "clock signal" (a fixed frequency) everywhere.

Unfortunately, many people confuse the "clock signal" generated by an oscillator (a simple metronome beat, tone, at constant frequency) with far more complicated "clock system"s that keep track of seconds, minutes, hours, and sometimes days, weeks, months, and years.

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