PIC18F Software Project Survival Guide 4

This is the fourth installment of a series of posts regarding software programming on PIC18F cpu family. Previous installments: firstsecond and third.
The IDE, named MPLAB, is not brilliant, but it could be worse. I saw on the Microchip website that they are going to have a new edition – namely MPLAB X – (now in Beta) that is based on Netbeans. That means that what I am writing here may become quite obsolescent in the next months.
At the time of writing MPLAB X lacks of a number of feature (extended mode just to name one) that prevent its use in a professional environment. If you do not need extended mode, then maybe the worse part is that compilation is overly sluggish.
Anyway I commend the choice of Netbeans, which I prefer over the most widespread Eclipse.
Back to the current MPLAB IDE. You can configure the IDE to get it less uncomfortable. For example you can right click on top left corner of the windows and make them dock-able. When you are satisfied with the layout remember to save it because it is not granted that MPLAB restores it at the next run (it is about two years I am using MPLAB, but I haven’t found yet the reason for which often windows and panels layout is lost from a run to another).
You can redefine keyboard shortcut, but there isn’t a keyboard equivalent for each GUI control. E.g. the pretty useful “compile this file” is missing.
There is a “Goto Locator” contextual option that (possibly) brings you to the definition/declaration of the symbol under the cursor. You have to explicitly enable this option and it works only after a successful compilation. You can also enable auto-completion, but it seldom works. Goto Locator option is hidden nearly as the legendary pin in the haystack. Just open any text file, right click in the edit area and select “Properties”. “Editor Properties” dialog box pops up. Click on “General” tab and select “Enable Tag Locators”. Now that you are there you can switch to the “C File Types” tab and add line numbers, set the tab size and have the tab key to insert spaces . You can also have a look at the “Tooltips” tab where you could enable the auto-complete (which is mostly wrong), and at the tab “Other” where you can enable the ruler marker for the 80th column.
One of the most annoying limitation we experienced is the limitation to 32 characters for the find/find in files commands.

About debugging
Debugging is not a nightmare provided you have the ICD3 hardware debugger AND you keep enabling the software breakpoints (not that MPLAB 8.66 doesn’t let you use software breakpoints because of a bug, so don’t install that version).
(Well actually it is not a nightmare until you get short on Program Memory and you need to enable space saving optimization, but that it is another story).
Hardware breakpoints have weird limitations – first and foremost they are just three, and, at least one, is used for single stepping. Next they “skid”, when the debugger stops on a hardware breakpoint it never halts exactly at the line where the breakpoint is set, but a few lines after. If the line after the breakpoint contain a function call, then the execution may stop in that function call, i.e. somewhere else with respect to where you placed the breakpoint.
In the same way single stepping is much like ice skating, especially if you are trying to step over function calls.
Software breakpoints are immune the plagues that pester hardware cousins. Therefore I cannot see any reason, beyond self punishment, to stay with hardware breakpoints.
The only point of attention with software breakpoints is to routinely check that they are enabled since MPLAB seems to forget this option.
In the same way MPLAB is likely to forget the event breakpoints. These are special conditions that can be programmed to halt the debugger. One of such conditions is the processing of a Sleep instruction and the other is the stack overflow/underflow condition.
When running the debug version of a program, I usually #define assert to halt the debugger, so that failed assertion directly bumps up on the PC screen and I am able to examine the whole machine state. So Sleep break event is very handy (when MPLAB remembers about it, otherwise is… surprising).
Halting on stack overflow is welcome since there is no other way to detect call stack overflow. According to the configuration bit you may chose whether to reset or to continue
If you stumble into a stack overflow you are left at address 0, apparently without any chance to run the application again.
This is because the code has to clear the stack overflow/underflow condition, but this is prevented by the debugger that is halted because of such condition. At the same time this is a very clear sign that the stack messed-up. The confirmation for stack over/underflow may be obtained by a look at the STKPTR register (search for it in the View/Special Register File window). If STKPTR has bit 7 or 6 set then the stack exploded.
To run the program, unless you want to re-program the chip, you simply change the STKPTR register value to 0x01.

If you are looking for ram or data memory bear in mind that it is called “File Registers”. While “Program Memory” is the flash memory. Unfortunately program memory can be displayed only word by word (2 bytes) (and, confusingly enough, in little endian format). Conversely ram can be display only byte by byte.
The other serious limitation is that program memory located variables are not displayed neither in the watch window nor in the local variable window. Your only chance is to note down the address of the variable and look its memory content up in the memory dump window.
The feature I miss most is the stack view with the run-to-return debugging option. You cannot peek neither at the hardware stack (return stack) nor at the software stack.
You will find plenty of options that are not disabled when they should be, for example you can always select the stack analysis report, but it works only when the extended mode is selected (and when you don’t employ function pointers which is quite a constraint). Hardware stack is always displayed as filled by zero, and I haven’t found (yet) the conditions under which it reports something meaningful.
MPLAB is so clumsy when compared to any modern IDE (Eclipse, Netbeans, Visual Studio) that you may find yourself more comfortable to develop and maintain the code with one of those IDE and then to resort to MPLAB only for building the firmware and debugging it.

Next time I’ll write about memory.

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