Analog to Digital Conversion
What is the ADC?
An Analog to Digital Converter (ADC) is a very useful feature that converts an analog voltage on a pin to a digital number. By converting from the analog world to the digital world, we can begin to use electronics to interface to the analog world around us.
Not every pin on a microcontroller has the ability to do analog to digital conversions. On the Arduino board, these pins have an ‘A’ in front of their label (A0 through A5) to indicate these pins can read analog voltages.
ADCs can vary greatly between microcontroller. The ADC on the Arduino is a 10-bit ADC meaning it has the ability to detect 1,024 (2^10) discrete analog levels. Some microcontrollers have 8-bit ADCs (2^8 = 256 discrete levels) and some have 16-bit ADCs (2^16 = 65,536 discrete levels).
The way an ADC works is fairly complex. There are a few different ways to achieve this feat (see Wikipedia for a list), but one of the most common technique uses the analog voltage to charge up an internal capacitor and then measure the time it takes to discharge across an internal resistor. The microcontroller monitors the number of clock cycles that pass before the capacitor is discharged. This number of cycles is the number that is returned once the ADC is complete.